Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Eye of the Tiger

By Matthew McGeePublished March 13, 2015

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Since winning the presidential election in late January, Maithripala Sirisena has pledged to usher in a wave of reforms. However, despite stepping down from the presidency, the ousted president Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly questioned the legitimacy of the elections and has announced his running for prime minister. With the outcome of reforms and the reactions of Rajapaksa's supporters to his ouster uncertain, the U.S. should be cautious in its devolving of aid management to the Sri Lankan government.
By Matthew McGee, 03/13/15

Since the end of civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, life in the war-torn country has finally started to return to normal. Following a heated election in January of this year, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to step down from power. Although the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has started a path towards reform and opening up what had been an increasingly authoritarian government, he runs the risk of alienating the former president's supporters as tensions between the two have already started to mount. Meanwhile, the U.S. must be wary of corruption as it continues its trend of transferring the management of aid services to the Sri Lankan government.

While Rajapaksa conceded defeat before the election results were officially announced, his conduct before and after the election still merits scrutiny. With accusations ranging from monitoring opposition supporters to corruption, it appears a peaceful resolution to the election is not certain. Despite announcing his recognition of his electoral defeat, Rakapaksa has announced that he believes the results to be a conspiracy engineered by India, one of whose intelligence operatives was expelled by the Rajapaksa administration around the time of the election for aiding the opposition. Citing this interference and playing on nationalist sentiments, he has announced his decision to run for prime minister. Ironically, Sirisena's reforms devolve more power to the parliament, a move that would undo a constitutional amendment made by Rakapaksa that had consolidated the president's power and eliminated presidential term limits. Further bolstering Rakapaksa resolve is the wide range of support he still holds among various nationalist movements who supported his defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebel group.

Adding to uncertainty about the stability of the government and its commitment to reform are its actions regarding the recent travel ban for Rajapaksa's brother and the Sirisena administration's approach to human rights abuses during the civil war. Though the travel ban against the former president's brother for illegally transporting weapons very possibly has a legitimate basis, how Rajapaksa responds in the coming days and weeks is critical. If this is used to feed into his narrative of being targeted and illegally removed from power, the allegations against his brother may be used to increase political instability. Furthermore, the new administration has yet to fully acknowledge human rights abuses from the civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives, as shown by the government's recent pressing of the UN to postpone its release of a war crimes report.

With the US increasingly transferring control of humanitarian organizations to the Sri Lankan government, it is important to ensure that Sri Lanka will remain stable and Sirisena will remain committed to reform. While Sirisena appears to be trying to root out corruption with his new 100 day program, there is still very little accountability in the Sri Lankan government. Furthermore, if Rajapaksa exacerbates tensions already present in the country and Sirisena fails to significantly change the management of the government, then there is a possibility of the peace of the past five years unraveling. Currently, USAID funds projects around the country. However, with the stability of Sri Lanka uncertain and corruption rampant in the government, until President Sirisena is able to provide evidence that he is implementing reforms and it is certain that Rajapaksa will not incite a movement against the new government, the U.S. should retain control over its aid programs.