The surprise but definitive ousting of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 8 elections held in Sri Lanka is indeed a landmark development in the history of the island country. Rajapaksa’s defeat (he received just over 47 per cent of the total votes) at the hands of Maithripala Sirisena (former health minister in the ex-president’s camp, who has garnered 51.3 per cent of the votes) has stunned and elated Sri Lankans in equal measure, who had tired of the former’s high-handed and extremely authoritarian style of functioning, and especially his clamping down on Tamils at the fag end of the liberation war. He referred to himself as the ‘known devil’, a sign of incredulity and sheer disdain for the millions of dispossessed Tamils, who are ethnic minority in the island country of 21 million, and have been forced to fight for their rights and identity for decades now.
In the last ten years, Rajapaksa had established absolute control over the entire country, and had pushed it from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency, enjoying all-pervasive powers. His family members and relatives occupied every conceivable position of power, within the government and its allied services, and this nepotism has been a major reason why the people had become so disenchanted with the now ex-president. Rajapaksa’s disregard for human rights has been a global concern, with the United Nations repeatedly tabling motions to investigate the war crimes committed during May 2009, when the former premier, in a bid to consolidate power and crush the LTTE separatist war, resorted to unthinkable brutality, often targeting Tamil civilians. Fatigued by conflict and the lack of any reconciliation for the Tamil minorities, even the majority Sinhalese community had hoped for a change, but were too afraid that the day might not come any time soon.
However, the elections have sprung a healthy surprise. Sirisena is a wild departure from the megalomaniac strongman that was Rajapaksa, whose face intimidated civilians jutting out from every billboard in Sri Lanka. Sirisena has not only steered a rudderless opposition to victory but has also managed to ensure a peaceful transition, of course with Rajapaksa’s cooperation. Despite having once been a soft target for LTTE rebels, he, over the past few months, had become a mascot for the persecuted Tamil Lankans, promising a number of changes, including ending the Rajapaksa family rule. Moreover, along with the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the new prime minister, Sirisena can whip up a formidable economic vision in tune with the investment-friendly atmosphere that Lanka needs at present. But more than anything, Sirisena’s presidency could mean that there’s hope that a UN-monitored probe into the war crimes might just take place in the near future. That will be a great victory for all.