Tissanayagam : ‘It’s too early to party’

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Journalist J.S. Tissanayagam writing for the Foreign Policy magazine says that new government’s bid to restore democracy faces immense challenges.

Sri Lanka held a relatively peaceful presidential election on Jan. 8, followed by a stunningly smooth transfer of power. While some reports allege that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa attempted to cling to power by staging a coup, the police and Army refused to back his defeated regime. That elections in Sri Lanka ushered in a democratic transition with little bloodshed is cause enough for celebration. But it’s too early to party. The real challenges for democracy — setting up inclusive, transparent institutions and dealing with issues of peace and reconciliation following Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war — are only just beginning.

The cornerstone of new President Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto is his promise to institute constitutional amendments that would restore good governance and rule of law. He has promised that within his government’s first 100 days in office, he will transform Sri Lanka from a near autocracy into a democracy, one in which the president will share power with Parliament. Second, Sirisena wants to establish independent commissions to ensure that the police, judiciary, elections committee, and the offices of the auditor and attorney general are impartial.

These reforms, however, are unlikely to assuage the minority Tamils and Muslims, who live predominantly in the country’s northern and eastern provinces. Neither presidential nor parliamentary forms of government — invariably dominated by the Sinhalese, who make up roughly 74 percent of the country’s 21 million people — is satisfactory to the Tamils and Muslims. Instead, they demand greater autonomy in the north and the east. But Sirisena’s election manifesto is completely silent on the matter.

On the campaign trail, Sirisena rejected the idea of offering more autonomy to the Tamils. And he’s boxed in politically: If he were to reverse his position, he would fall afoul of some members of his coalition, like the prominent anti-Tamil party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Shortly after the election, JHU issued a statement downplaying the role of the Tamil and Muslim communities that helped bring Sirisena to power. Whether the new president allows them to participate as equals in the political process remains to be seen.

If Sri Lanka is to enjoy rule of law and media freedom, Sirisena must repeal the draconian PTA. But doing so may humiliate the Sri Lankan military and police, which are so effective at clamping down on dissent only because the law grants them immunity from prosecution. Repealing the law would remove the impunity authorities have long enjoyed.

Read the entire article on Foreign Policy.

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