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Sri Lanka election: Shock result as president Mahinda Rajapaksa is tossed out
Sydney Morning Herald - January 9, 2015
Yet in a jaw-dropping election result that has stunned political watchers across south Asia, Sri Lankan voters not only chose a new president, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, but they did so with minimum fuss. Perhaps even more surprising than the result itself, is that Mr Rajapaksa appears to have left office without the slightest trace of rancour.
It's no secret that Mr Rajapaksa has a ruthless streak. The bloody way in which he crushed Tamil separatists to end Sri Lanka's 26-year-old civil war has left scars that will take a generation to heal. And over the past six weeks there were signs that Mr Rajapaksa's supporters might not accept defeat if the election did not go their way.
Instead Mr Rajapaksa has burnished his legacy with a graceful exit that has not only strengthened Sri Lanka's fragile democracy, but has given his successor the chance to begin to the urgent task of healing the wounds with the island's Tamil minority.
A genuinely open commission of inquiry into war crimes allegations with proper participation of international observers and participants was one of Mr Sirisena's key election commitments. It paid off handsomely, winning him the loyalty of Tamil voters who believe Mr Sirisena is serious about reconciliation.
Mr Sirisena's other key commitment has been to clean up the government itself – and put an end to what he said was Mr Rajapaksa's increasingly corrupt behaviour and his wanton nepotism that saw virtually every member of his immediate family occupying important positions of power.
So what can we expect then from Mr Sirisena? A clean-living Buddhist member of Sri Lanka's majority Sinhala ethnic community, and until recently a trusted lieutenant in Mr Rajapaksa's own government, it's probably safe to assume that he will keep Sri Lanka on the same economic track. That means the same pro-business, pro-development approach that has helped to boost the economy since Mr Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 – but with some important differences.
Another of Mr Sirisena's core election promises was to cancel a casino licence granted in 2013 to Australia's James Packer, who was hoping to soon begin construction of a $400 million resort on the island. The casino had become a magnet for criticism from social conservatives – including Mr Sirisena himself – who blanched at the thought of the casino introducing an unseemly side of life.
Mr Sirisena has also indicated that he wants to loosen Sri Lanka's increasingly tight embrace with China, pledging to scrap a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd for a port city on the island.
That will ease tensions in the region – especially in Delhi where government officials were growing increasingly alarmed at the recent sight of Chinese nuclear submarines being welcomed into Sri Lankan ports – and likely in Washington as well where US policymakers also had concerns about China's growing arc of influence.
In Canberra, Tony Abbott's new Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton will be keeping a close eye on what Mr Sirisena's election means for refugees contemplating fleeing Sri Lanka by boat for Australia.
Australia's increasingly close relationship with Mr Rajapaksa was criticised after the Abbott government gifted Sri Lanka two patrol Customs vessels to help stem the flow of asylum seekers, while refusing to back an independent international investigation into the country's alleged war crimes during the civil war.
Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said the change should be an "important lesson" to the Australian government.
"For too long, the Australian government simply accepted and regurgitated the Rajapaksa line about improvements in Sri Lanka after the war," she said. "But this vote calls that into question, and provides an opportunity for reassessing issues that both governments should take advantage of."
With Mr Sirisena's commitment to reconcile with the island's Tamil community, his election probably means there is less incentive for Tamils to leave. (with Sarah Whyte)