Last week, in a stunning blow to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan voters opted for his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena to end a decade-long regime that has been increasingly marked by allegations of nepotism, corruption, and authoritarianism. Rajapaksa, after having defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), won an overwhelming mandate for himself and his party in the 2010 elections. The LTTE had been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for minority ethnic Tamils after decades of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. Though the civil war in Sri Lanka, which lasted for more than 25 years and claimed over 100,000 lives, ended in 2009, the country still remains bitterly divided and reconciliation efforts have faltered. When the war ended in 2009, there was an opportunity for the ethnic communities to reconcile and the government was expected to implement measures to address the problems faced by the country’s minorities, particularly by Tamils. That did not happen.
It was Rajapaksa who had called for elections in January 2015, a full 16 months ahead of schedule. His confidence stemmed from the fact that under his leadership the civil war ended in 2009, term limits for the presidency were removed in 2010, a wave of infrastructure investment poured in, and the country’s economy is experiencing a still-rising peace dividend. The Sri Lankan economy has seen robust annual growth at 6.4 percent over the course of 2003 to 2012, well above its regional peers. Following the end of the civil conflict in May 2009, growth rose initially to 8 percent, largely reflecting a “peace dividend,” and underpinned by strong private consumption and investment. While growth was mostly private sector driven, public investment contributed through large infrastructure investment, including post war reconstruction efforts in the North and Eastern provinces. Growth was around 7 percent in 2013, driven by a rebound in the service sector, which accounts for approximately 60 percent of GDP.
Economic prosperity has been broadly shared, with Sri Lanka experiencing a big decline in poverty between 2002 and 2009 – from 23 percent to 9 percent of the population. There is anticipation that Sri Lanka’s per capita income will increase sufficiently in the next two to three years that it will become defined by the World Bank as a middle income country.
And yet despite an end to the violent conflict with the LTTE in 2009, social tensions have persisted in Sri Lanka. A predominantly militarized development process imposes a top-down strategy at the expense of incorporating local voices and ideas. Though more discrete than was previously the case, the armed forces are involved in all levels of civilian administration in the North, and development projects must be military-approved. The International Crisis Group has argued that “instead of giving way to a process of inclusive, accountable development, the military is increasing its economic role, controlling land and seemingly establishing itself as a permanent, occupying presence.” Sri Lanka has also been witnessing religious tensions between the Sinhala Budhdhists and the Muslims. The anti-Muslim campaign has been triggered by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) over the abolition of Halaal certification process and banning of the niqab. Bodu Bala Sena (meaning “Buddhist Power Force”) was formed in July 2012. Since its formation, it has taken up various anti- Muslim activities — for example, asking people not to buy from Muslim shops. Not surprising, therefore, that the minority Tamils and Muslims appeared to have voted heavily against Rajapaksa.
As a new era begins in Sri Lanka, both China and India will be looking closely at how the new regime will change its priorities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi promptly reached out to Sirisena to congratulate him on his victory in the Sri Lankan polls and assured him of India’s continued solidarity and support to the country’s peace and development.