Members from Sri Lankan military march wth national flags during Sri Lanka's 68th Independence day celebrations in Colombo, February 4, 2016.
Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena surprised the world when he defeated his old boss Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential election. His victory was followed by parliamentary elections in August, which reiterated the demand for democratic reform and improved governance. Soon after, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), the country’s two big Sinhala–Buddhist parties, agreed to form a coalition government. The nation was now set to turn its attention to a wide-ranging reform agenda to address some of the problems that plagued it during Rajapaksa’s decade in power, including corruption, nepotism, and the excessive centralization of power.

So, how has it done over the past several months? To be sure, Sri Lanka has taken some steps in the right direction, and Sirisena definitely looks keen to govern in a less authoritarian fashion than his predecessor. To take one prominent example, there has been significant progress in terms of freedom of speech. At the same time, though, the country’s recent democratic gains are more modest than they might first appear. At this point, a deepening of democracy is far from a foregone conclusion.

For starters, Sirisena is having trouble controlling the SLFP, which he leads. Many members of the party remain loyal to Rajapaksa, who currently holds a seat in parliament and remains a SLFP member. There are ongoing rumors that a new, pro-Rajapaksa party could eventually be formed; what’s less clear is whether Rajapaksa himself would actually leave the SLFP. Regardless, a deeper or more permanent split within the SLFP would weaken the party, undermine Sirisena’s reform agenda, and complicate upcoming local government elections. In February, Rajapaksa even opened a new political office, which has fueled additional speculation.

To be sure, the reform agenda would be difficult for any government to implement because it is so sprawling, with elements of constitutional reform, economic policy changes, improved governance, and transitional justice. The timing and sequence of the items on the docket is an open question, but the government appears to be prioritizing constitutional reform and economic changes. These sets of reforms are arguably less controversial than the others. Constitutional reform will focus on abolishing the executive presidency (or further reducing the powers of the office), electoral reforms, and finding a lasting political solution to the nation’s longstanding ethnic conflict. Economic changes would likely include tax reform, trimming the public sector, moving toward a more market-driven economy, focusing on job creation and trade, implementing a more predictable tax regime, and reducing the budget deficit. In February, the government asked for a loan from the International Monetary Fund; negotiations remain ongoing and a deal is expected to be reached soon.

President Maithripala Sirisena, September 30, 2015.
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Meanwhile, on the good governance front, clearly there has been noticeable movement away from authoritarianism. The passage of the 19th amendment to the constitution in April trimmed presidential powers, strengthened the prime minister’s office, and reintroduced a two-term limit to the presidency. Significantly, the climate of fear that permeated Sri Lankan society during Rajapaksa’s reign has abated, although a degree of fear is still present in the north and the east. While much remains to be done, media freedom has improved too. Yet the new government’s performance leaves plenty to be desired. For starters, the government has done a poor job of explaining its agenda (and why the reforms are important) to the people. It has also failed to reach out to the Tamil community; the confusion and prevarication surrounding the release of Tamil political prisoners is a prominent example of this. More generally, the government has yet to wholeheartedly engage with its own reform agenda. It has been asking for time and space to implement its plans; while things are undoubtedly happening behind the scenes, across all key areas of reform, we’re still in the incipient stages of progress. Besides, using the end of Rajapaksa’s tenure as a baseline to measure progress is inadequate. The new government can and should do more to distance itself from the previous administration.

Further, the country’s ongoing corruption investigations have produced no convictions and few indictments. It’s true that anti-corruption efforts can be complex and take time. However, during a recent visit to the country, my discussions with diplomats, journalists, human rights activists, and others revealed that many people are skeptical that the Sirisena administration would ever get around to addressing high-level corruption in a meaningful way. Some people cited a lack of political will and opined that corruption was too systemic and deep-rooted for the political leadership to want to deal with it. There are other concerns about the government’s capacity to handle complex corruption cases. Another issue may be that a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption could weaken the government’s ability to deliver on other aspects of its reform agenda. Nonetheless, this is a major problem for the president; corruption and peoples’ desire for improved governance was a key issue during the recent presidential and parliamentary elections.

Without question, transitional justice is the most controversial part of the reform agenda, especially as it relates to accountability for abuses that occurred during the 1983–2009 civil war. In September 2015, the new government spoke about the four big pillars of its transitional justice process: a judicial mechanism, a truth commission, offices to deal with disappearances, and remuneration. Last October, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and encouragingly, Sri Lanka co-sponsored the resolution. Nevertheless, the exact meaning of the resolution is a source of ongoing debate, particularly as it relates to the level of international involvement in the process. Last month, Sirisena again mentioned that foreign judges would not be involved in the judicial mechanism. Other senior government officials, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, have made contradictory or unhelpful statements as well. This is a worrisome development because an outside presence would help ensure that the process is truly credible.

May 20, 2009.
Buddhika Weerasinghe / Reuters

Although the military’s presence in civilian affairs has diminished under Sirisena’s watch, the country’s Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces remain heavily militarized, as demilitarization has yet to begin. The military still occupies at least several thousand acres of civilian land in the north, although unofficial calculations still suggest that that number is likely much higher. Essentially, the country’s war wounds remain unhealed and those at the highest levels of power appear to lack the will to do anything about it.

Furthermore, even modest gains in the north and the east (more freedom of speech and movement) are flimsy and insecure. Although unlikely in the near term, the government could always become more repressive, particularly since Colombo’s political elite seems disinclined to challenge the military. The UNP’s recent appointment of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to parliament is another reminder of the military’s influence. Shortly after his appointment, Fonseka was made a cabinet minister. (Fonseka is an alleged war criminal who played a key role in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.) Other problematic promotions of military personnel have occurred under the new government’s watch too.

In a way, Sri Lanka’s uneven progress under Sirisena’s watch could be viewed as a microcosm of what led to the rise of Tamil militancy and the subsequent civil war. Tamils continue to be treated as inferior citizens in what remains a predominantly Sinhala–Buddhist nation. Sadly, for people in the north and east, which is majority Tamil, the country’s recent democratic gains have not resulted in significant improvements to daily life.

Colombo has been buzzing with talk of wide-ranging reforms; diplomats, aid workers and others have been eager to visit the country since Rajapaksa was thrown out of power. Many speak of Sri Lanka’s proclaimed “democratic transition.” However, in order to truly understand the country’s current situation, it is important to first get real about the progress that has been made to date and the significant challenges ahead.

The truth is that, although some things are changing, far too much has stayed the same. Sirisena’s legacy, the lasting significance of the current coalition and the future of Sri Lankan politics now rest squarely on the new government’s willingness to turn rhetoric into reality.

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