Saturday, 17 January 2015 03:50
By Father Raymond J. de Souza
National Post: Pope Francis came to canonise this island nation’s first saint, but talk of miracles this past week has been more focused on the otherwise iniquitous world of Sri Lankan politics.
Last week’s presidential election produced a major upset, with challenger Maithripala Sirisena defeating the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had ruled since 2005 in an increasingly authoritarian manner, centralising power in the president’s office and within his family.
Rajapaksa, Leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), ended a decades-long civil war in 2009, crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers were fighting for an independent state in the north and east for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, largely Hindu, in contrast to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, who constitute some 70% of the population.
The Tamil Tigers introduced the world to suicide bombing, took civilian hostages, employed child soldiers and frequently resorted to assassinations, the most notable of which was that of India’s Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Rajapaksa’s defeat of the Tigers, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by many countries, earned him a high standing among most Sri Lankans, who were exhausted by war and terror.
Anticipating easy victory
After the war, Rajapaksa launched an ambitious program of development and the economy prospered. Yet both international and domestic concerns grew over the regime’s increasing centralisation of presidential power, abuse of security services, widespread corruption involving the presidential family, and dubious financial deals with China for infrastructure projects.
Above all, critical voices about human rights abuses, even war crimes, in the last stages of the civil war grew louder. The international community began to pressure Rajapaksa, with Canada taking a lead, symbolised by Stephen Harper’s refusal to attend the 2013 Commonwealth summit in Colombo.
So when Rajapaksa called presidential elections in November for this January, two years early, it was assumed that his iron grip on the levers of power would see him through to an easy victory — extending his presidency for another six years, after he had served the remaining two years in his current term. Contesting a third term itself required a constitutional change, the legitimacy of which was favourably determined after Rajapaksa installed a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, illegally removing the former one.
Earthquake hits nation’s politics
With everything thus set, an earthquake hit the nation’s politics instead. Sirisena, Secretary-General of the SLFP and Health Minister in the Rajapaksa administration, resigned his posts to contest the presidency as the head of a united opposition coalition, promising to appoint the former Leader of the Opposition as Prime Minister should he win.
It would be as if Stephen Harper called early elections, only to find that Peter MacKay resigned from Cabinet to run against him, with the support of the Opposition leaders.
If Sirisena’s surprise victory was the first miracle, a second followed. Rajapaksa conceded immediately and Sirisena was sworn in within 36 hours. By Sunday the new President was praying, as Sri Lankan leaders traditionally do, at the principal Buddhist shrine in Kandy, seat of the Ceylonese kings. Sirisena pointedly said there that Sri Lanka “has no need of a king”.
A moral revolution
Sirisena’s victory, with the promise to end secret surveillance, blocking of websites, ministerial corruption and augmented presidential powers in the first 100 days, is considered by many more of a moral revolution than a mere political change. These are heady days, and some local commentators have likened Sirisena to Vaclav Havel, Corazon Aquino or Nelson Mandela. That’s a touch melodramatic for a man who was in Rajapaksa’s cabinet three months ago, but it speaks to the mood.
The arrival of Pope Francis only three days after Sirisena’s swearing-in only added to the sense of history bending in a more humane direction. The Holy Father’s speeches — likely drafted weeks in advance — stressed mercy and forgiveness, unity and cooperation, a healing of memories and a historical accounting of the truth.
Nothing shocking there, but that they coincided so nearly with the new President’s campaign invited a certain marvelling, even a providential reading of events by many here, and not only the Catholic minority.
The former President had been accused of scheduling the elections just before the Pope’s arrival, to manipulate the public preparation for the visit. The Catholic bishops insisted that he stop using the Pope’s image in his campaign posters.
Then the miracle happened. Rajapaksa was not the conquering force on the world stage, but reduced to a private citizen granted a courtesy visit. For a country that fought a 26-year civil war, one week seems to have changed everything.