In November 2014, Maithripala Sirisena, who was then a cabinet minister and member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, broke ranks with his leader, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and agreed to be the common presidential candidate of the opposition, led by the United National Party , Sirisena won the election in what was then hailed as a "democratic revolution".
He undid that "revolution" on October 26 this year when he sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister and appointed Rajapaksa in his place. He did so ignoring the constitutional amendment he had helped pass after coming to power in 2015, which had done away with the president's power to remove the prime minister. Sri Lanka's first unconstitutional transfer of power – a coup.
Why did Sirisena take this extraordinary step?
Tamils, Muslims and Malayaha (up country) Tamils, Sirisena won the 2015 presidential election. He lost the Sinhala vote to Rajapaksa. Sinhala Buddhists is the country's majority community.
Second, Rajapaksa was growing up in popularity and, according to analysts, was the leader of the single biggest party in the next general elections. Sirisena wanted to strike a deal with Rajapaksa so that he could be his party's presidential candidate in January 2020 – and hence the offer of prime ministership to Rajapaksa.
Third, Sirisena did not want to go down in history as the leader who split the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which has more than 40 years of public life. Rajapaksa went on to form his own political party, the Sri Lanka Podujanga Perambalur.
Tamils, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe
There is a lot of hype around candidate Sirisena in the Tamil community in 2015 – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994 and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2001, all of which were short-lived. Sirisena's policies were only cosmetic changes.
Wickremesinghe, who heads the United National Party, which was appointed Prime Minister soon after Sirisena's election victory in January 2015. He said: "One of Wickremesinghe's early priorities is to come up with a transitional justice." programs to appease the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka's "promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights" and "calling for an independent inquiry into wartime atrocities in the closing stages of the country's 26-year-long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended in 2009. Wickremesinghe had claimed during the election that it was Rajapakasa's mismanagement of foreign policy, especially his decision to side with China, that had led to the resolutions. The government led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, therefore, took the extraordinary step of co-sponsoring a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 that was crimes. This is part of their plan to unhook Sri Lanka from the Council.
The hybrid court is yet to be set up. In 2016, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government took another two years to appoint its commissioners. This year, at Office for Reparations has been severely criticized for lacking independence. Some countries occupied by security forces during the armed conflict has been released. Some political prisoners have also been released. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which leaves some of the most draconian elements of the current legislation, is still fundamentally incompatible with global human rights standards. For more than 600 days now, the mothers of those who have disappeared in the final stages of the city have come out on the streets in the country's north and east. (Wickremesinghe had said in an interview in 2016 that the disappeared were probably dead). Tamils have been protesting in Keppapilavu, Mullikulum, Valikamam and many other parts of the north and east.
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Sirisena and Wickremesinghe did not do anything to reform the security establishment. Surveillance continues to be on the rise. Sri Lankan Army Intelligence, Criminal Investigation Department and Terrorism Investigation Department have just escalated at alarming speed.
Transitional justice was, therefore, just smart foreign policy for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo. Wickremesinghe knew he would not be the 2015 UN resolution co-sponsored by his government but that he needed it to win the West and show allegiance to the liberal international order.
No structural reforms, only cosmetic improvements
Colombo civil society and the international community have criticized, mildly, progress made under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government as "slow progress". We were advised by the diplomatic corps, colleagues in Colombo Civil Society and the Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil political party in Parliament, which is cozy with Wickremesinghe, not to "rock the boat" by asking for "too much" reform The Tamil community is expecting the structural reform of some of the changes – including the small space for protest and dissent that emerged with the change of regime in 2015 – will be reversed by a successive regime that comes to power on the strength of a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist backlash. Rajapaksa succeeds in proving his majority in Parliament and is confirmed prime minister, or if and when he wins the next general elections. Sirisena has agreed to summon parliament on Wednesday in response to demands for a floor test.
On Friday, the Tamil National Alliance with 15 MPs announced its support to Wickremesinghe. They are cracking as a vote against Rajapaksa (and not for a vote for Wickremesinghe). Their vote wants to be very important in deciding who will prime prime minister. The Tamil Civil Society Forum asked the party to use this opportunity to demand certain things in return for their support. But the party has made no demands and received none in return. Many activists in Colombo and abroad are critical of Tamils who demand that the Tamil National Alliance extend only conditional support to Wickremesinghe. They say Wickremesinghe is necessary for a better rule of law. Wickremesinghe wants to be less brutal in his tactics than Rajapaksa. The Tamils are thus condemned to choose between two security regimes. Every time we can make a difference, we are to support the actor that can guarantee, albeit marginally, our existence. The reductionist reading of the Tamil struggle for self-determination, justice and accountability is a Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy in Sri Lanka, slowly but surely.
Kumaravadivel Guruparan is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Jaffna, Spokesperson for the Tamil Civil Society Forum, and Executive Director of the Jaffna-based Adayaalam Center for Policy Research.