People do prevail against autocrats. That is exactly what happened in Sri Lanka last week when voters unexpectedly but decisively voted to replace the hard-fisted regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa with a new coalition led by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickramasinghe. It was a potent victory for democracy and good governance in a country that has had none of either for a decade, and a telling rebuff to authoritarian rulers everywhere in the developing world. Mr. Rajapaksa and his several brothers had ruled the island nation of Sri Lanka repressively and corruptly.
“The devil you know,” Mr. Rajapaksa had thundered at voters before the polls, “is better than the unknown angel.” And “I am the known devil,” he said, so “vote for me.” But by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, the electorate of Sri Lanka balloted in droves (turnout was more than 70 per cent) and chose angels over the devil that had for a decade brooked little opposition or dissent. It is not clear why the Rajapaksa regime refrained from rigging the vote, as had been widely feared.
As a self-professed “devil,” Mr. Rajapaksa rose to prominence when he and his security forces finally ended a 26-year-long civil war that had long pitted the northern-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a fierce guerrilla movement that had pioneered suicide bombings and other acts of terror, against the nation’s sometimes hapless army and navy.
But after winning the war in 2009 and eliminating the last leaders of the LTTE, Mr. Rajapaksa, with a political base in the country’s dominant Sinhalese, Buddhist-inclined, ethnic group, refused to extend the hand of peace to the defeated Tamil, Hindu-affiliated, minority. Mr. Rajapaksa hustled Tamil civilians who had played no role in the war into relocation camps and treated them harshly. In the post-war round up of Tamils, when reconciliation might have been the preferred approach, thousands of innocent civilians also lost their lives at the hands of the security forces. Mr. Rajapaksa consistently refused to investigate or account for the post-war outrages despite UN, Canadian and American requests.
Mr. Rajapaksa was always opposed by Tamil voters (15 per cent of the total) and by Muslims (another 6 per cent), whom he angered by presiding over an increasingly nasty bout of anti-Islamic prejudice. But he also undermined Sri Lanka’s sense of itself as a long-time post-colonial democracy by firing a chief justice of the supreme court who dared to rule against him, by forcibly removing two-term presidential limits and by avoiding granting the autonomy that the constitution conferred on the country’s northern Tamil-majority region.
The “devil” created an executive, centralizing presidency of the kind that Sri Lanka had never known since its independence in 1948. Moreover, he was outrageously nepotistic, moving four brothers (one in charge of security, another the treasury), a son and a nephew into official positions of power. This dynastic dictatorship contributed mightily to the Rajapaksa downfall, as did his attempt to diminish press freedoms, stanch free speech and infringe on other civil liberties.
Corruption, always a problem in South Asia, grew by leaps and bounds under the Rajapaksa regime. Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index rates the country as highly corrupt – ranking it 85th, where high numbers mean more corruption. Moreover, in each of the last five years, its scores have worsened as the “devil” and his family grew ever more greedy.
Sri Lanka is a relatively wealthy developing-world country of 21 million – with a GDP in 2013 of $2,004 per capita. But recent high rates of inflation and a shortage of jobs made Sri Lankans anxious and contributed to their turn against Mr. Rajapaksa. He also lost the support of Buddhist monks, an articulate group that finally had had enough of his disdain of minorities and ethnic and religious interest groups.
Many Sri Lankans also believed that Mr. Rajapaksa was selling the country to China, which has long sought outposts in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to secure its new bases and petroleum-delivery ports in Myanmar. Chinese official and private interests won many concessions from the Rajapaksas; in turn China has invested heavily in the country and was building a large complex of hotels and residences in Colombo before the country’s new rulers cancelled it last week.
The defeat of the Rajapaksa clan is all to the good for the people of Sri Lanka, for South Asia and for Canada and the United States, both of which had privately and publicly contended with the Rajapaksa regime over human rights and many other abuses.
But whether the Serisena government will be successful remains to be seen. Until two months ago, Mr. Sirisena, 63, was a long-time Rajapaksa loyalist who had most recently served as health minister and secretary-general of the ruling party. He speaks only Sinhala and describes himself as a farmer.
Mr. Wickramasinghe, however, is a long-time opponent who was prime minister nearly two decades ago. Their coalition, which includes Buddhists, some Marxists, centrists, Muslims and Tamils, consists of 40 political parties and may prove unstable. One local analyst predicted that Sri Lanka under the new coalition will “go back to the kind of bickering we’ve seen for … decades.”
Mr. Serisena has promised to return the country fully to constitutional democracy, to battle corruption, to restore press and speech freedoms and to reconcile with Tamils and Muslims. He promises a “moral” society without drugs or alcohol. If he can lead his new government in that general direction, and grow the country economically, the overthrow of the Rajapaksa dynasty will prove a distinctive and significant restoration of people power in the heart of South Asia.
This post was published under virtually the same title in the Globe and Mail, Jan. 12, 2015