Sri Lanka begins a new chapter

Wednesday, 14 January 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Mithripala Sirisena’s success in Sri Lanka’s presidential election hopefully heralds a new era for a nation wracked by years of civil war, political, religious and racial persecution, as well as corruption and unchecked nepotism under the decade-long rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is past time for dramatic change in Sri Lanka, and Sirisena has promised as much, starting with constitutional reforms to reduce the power of the office of the President and restore to Sri Lanka’s Parliament and Judiciary the crucial responsibilities of oversight that should fall to them in a democracy. Whether the new President can deliver all that he promises – or, importantly, all that Sri Lankans want – will depend on the depth of his commitment to genuine unity and the speed with which he can take the 225-seat Parliament with him. Sirisena, who served as a Senior Minister under Rajapaksa’s two-term Government, already appears to have the backing of the majority of the Parliament. That is partly because some MPs aligned to Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan Freedom Party abandoned their former leader in November, when he called an election two years before the end of his second six-year term. Good governance, the rule of law, accountability and transparency slowly evaporated under the Rajapaksa Government, and Sirisena at least is saying most of the right things publicly. Launching his bid for the presidency in November, he railed at the creeping acquisition of power by the Rajapaksa family (three brothers had been ministers in charge of five vital portfolios). On Sunday, he spoke of creating a national consensus, and vowed to take all steps to eradicate corruption and bias from institutions, including the Police force. Those changes cannot be implemented from scratch, though. They require cultural change of a high order, and the result is likely to be years in the making. But they must be done if Sri Lanka is to flourish as a democracy and its people are to enjoy universal human rights and dignity. Sri Lanka’s future matters to Australia, and it especially matters to the Abbott Government with its policy towards asylum seekers focused, as it is, so squarely on the notion of stopping asylum-seeker boats arriving here. In the past year, defence and border protection vessels have forcibly turned back boats carrying asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and handed them back to the Sri Lankan authorities. Many of these people were subsequently arrested. A nation that demonstrates enduring respect for human rights, that hosts an independent and resilient judiciary, a transparent and fair democratic process, and which does all in its power to eliminate persecution of minorities is less likely to have its citizens seeking refuge elsewhere. That is why the Abbott Government, and the Rudd and Gillard governments before it, should have done all in their power to encourage respect for human rights in Sri Lanka and, at the same time, should have denounced Rajapaksa for hobbling democratic institutions, conducting surveillance of journalists and intimidating judges. Separately, Sirisena has proposed a court-based inquiry to examine allegations of war crimes, including targeted murders, killings of civilians and torture. His predecessor repeatedly tried to silence such allegations, arguing they would deepen racial and political tensions if exposed. Rajapaksa’s approach was wrong-headed; Sirisena’s appears regrettably limited. He has indicated former leaders would not be charged. A wide-ranging inquiry is vital if the nation is to heal the wounds of war and ease tensions that separate the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. It is crucial to helping Sri Lankans regain faith in government institutions. Above all, the perpetrators of such crimes must be brought to justice.