A New Age for Sri Lanka?

It's difficult to describe just how shocking it is that Maithripala Sirisena, not Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the seventh president of Sri Lanka.
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It's difficult to describe just how shocking it is that Maithripala Sirisena, not Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the seventh president of Sri Lanka. Over the course of a decade, Rajapaksa has ruled the island nation of Sri Lanka, creating what seemed to be a water-tight government of nepotism and autocracy. However, over the course of one day, the entire carapace has crumbled and democracy has been reaffirmed. A small and short-lived revolution has occurred in South Asia, but it is a potent victory for democracy that could signal a brighter future for the nation.

Rajapaksa rode the wave of nationalist fervor back into the Presidency in 2010, after ruthlessly winning the Civil War that had plagued the nation for decades. Shortly after entering office, he amended the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency and allow for a potential third stint. In 2009, Rajapaksa called for early elections and was able to capitalize on the political atmosphere, so early last year Rajapaksa attempted to repeat his political success a third time and called for early elections in January of 2015.

In perhaps the most important poll in Sri Lanka's history, Sirisena emerged victorious from the 2015 presidential elections with just over 51 percent of the vote. Rajapaksa conceded defeat before all the votes had been counted, vacating his presidential office on the 8th of January.

It's a result that any observer of Sri Lanka would find surprising. While journalism typically denounces unnecessary adjectives, news outlets from around the world are scrounging for descriptions that accurately convey the magnitude of this democratic transition, characterizing the poll results as "startling," "stunning," and "unthinkable."

Some may claim that the results were not as unpredictable as the pundits make them out to be, sourcing earlier opinion polls that indicated positive momentum for challenger Sirisena. However, such an opinion would ignore the disturbing political climate that has developed during Rajapaksa's reign.

Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has been dominated by a palpable sense of fear. I spent much of the summer of 2014 working for former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga as a research assistant in Colombo, the country's capital. I was advised by my Sri Lankan friends and family not to tell others that I was working with former president Kumaratunga or attempt to publish my work, as they were concerned for my safety. While it may seem ridiculous, it is the sad reality of Sri Lankan politics, which has been warped by violence, intimidation and the manipulation of the press.

The 2010 presidential elections were marked by the most violence recorded in Sri Lankan election history, ultimately resulting in five deaths and close to a thousand instances of violence.

Politicians that attempt to address the issue of war crimes during the Civil War are immediately labeled as "traitors," creating a poisonous political discourse on this vital subject. Hard-line organizations, like the Bodu Bala Sena, that have controversially promoted violence and hatred against Muslims were given long leashes by the Rajapaksa government and allowed to operate with impunity. Reading the daily news in Sri Lanka was like reading a catalog of democratic injustices, with no end in sight.

Coming into this election, there was almost no question about it: Rajapaksa would do anything to secure his victory. The fear was that 2015 could be a repeat of 2010, with mobs roaming the streets, and minorities forced from the voting booths by military roadblocks. Luckily these misgivings were unfounded, and while there were still many cases of violence throughout the elections, only one campaign-related death was recorded.

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement of these elections was the turn-out of the minority populations in Sri Lanka. In regions with predominantly Tamil population there was a gargantuan increase in voter turn-out, with districts like Jaffna increasing from 25 percent in 2010 to 66 percent. The same goes for Muslim voters, with the major Muslim parties lending support to Sirisena's coalition. Addressing Sri Lanka's minority rights is one of the most pressing cultural issues within the nation, and these results point to significant improvements. The Muslim and Tamil votes played a significant factor in Sirisena' surprise victory, and hopefully their contributions will be repaid in future dividends by this new government.

But the overall take-away from this election is that democracy has achieved a true victory in Sri Lanka. Juvenal, the Roman poet, claimed that the public would be content as long as there was "bread and circuses." With Sri Lanka's now bustling economy, it's easy to see why the Sinhalese majority would be content with the current regime. Many of Asia's thriving economies put up with undemocratic practices so long as the coffers remain full, and Sri Lanka was just on course to join this club. However, this election demonstrates that no matter the state of the economy, the people of Sri Lanka actively want to take part in democracy, with Sirisena capturing much of the Sinhalese vote. The most important issue for the voters came down to issues of good governance and corruption. The era where Mubaraks and Gaddafis could rule safely is over; we are entering a time where the people care more about the nature of their government than the economic results of it.

There are questions yet to be answered about this new presidency. Sirisena's plans are almost overly ambitious -- he plans to reform the executive, expunge corruption, equalize diplomatic ties with regional allies, and create a "moral society" where there are no drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. He has already guaranteed that Rajapaksa or the army will not be tried for war crimes stemming from the Civil War. The position of his campaign on the human rights track record of Sri Lanka is ambiguous, and there's no way to know if he will allow for broader representation of minority rights.

However, it appears that the air has cleared up over Sri Lanka. The clouds of fear that hung over the nation have been swept away like the end of the monsoon season, and the voices of dissent are slowly coming out of their shelters. A few years ago, I met with the now-newly appointed Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe. He told me that the bitter history of conflict can be overcome by reclaiming the philosophy of the Great King Ashoka. Horrified by the carnage of war in a divided India, King Ashoka forged powerful policies of reconciliation founded on Buddhist philosophy and pursued an official code of nonviolence, tolerance, and mutual respect. Let us hope that Sri Lanka can enter into a new age that rivals that of the Kingdom of King Ashoka.

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