Sri Lanka’s ‘rainbow revolution’
People of all races, religions, classes, castes and creeds united using the ballot box to make clear their determined stance against nepotism, corruption and oppression
January 9 was the beginning of a new era for Sri Lanka, domestically and internationally. After my first week as Foreign Minister, I feel encouraged by the level of warmth, openness and goodwill shown to the new Sri Lankan government by an overwhelming number of representatives of the international community.
For too long now, a culture of paranoia and a debilitating fear psychosis has gripped Sri Lanka and we have isolated ourselves within a rapidly globalising world. Now as we open up to the world, and re-establish ties equally with all nations, we also look forward to the world opening up to us. Despite many election law violations, the misuse of state resources during campaigning as well as a last-minute attempt at a coup d’état, thanks to the bravery of the Sri Lankan voters and the dedication and integrity of our armed forces, police, public servants and elections commissioner, we were able to transition peacefully from what was becoming a military state into the democratic norms of a civilised nation. In this uniquely Sri Lankan concoction of the Arab Spring, instead of bullets, pellets and stones, Sri Lankans of all races, religions, classes, castes and creeds united in a rainbow revolution by using the ballot box to make clear their determined stance against nepotism, corruption and oppression.
The challenge we face today is to rebuild our institutions while maintaining the principles upon which our campaign was developed, and to re-emerge into the global sphere as a key stakeholder in Asia and thereafter the world, as a nation committed to democracy, good governance, law and order and pluralism. Our first steps as a new government have been to open our doors without fear to all journalists and to replace the Northern Province Governor with a respected diplomat. We have also begun the process of initiating far-reaching political reforms in Parliament regarding the right to information, the 19th amendment, and the abolition of the executive presidency which President Maithripala Sirisena has promised in his manifesto and will fulfil in the coming months.
Embarking on our first diplomatic trip to India was symbolic of our intentions to restore a relationship that grew strained under the Rajapaksa regime. Our closest neighbour, India received us as if it were welcoming back after many years of absence a dear and old friend. We spent three hours discussing our bilateral relationship in detail with the Indian External Affairs Minister, and committed ourselves to the early resolution of mutually problematic issues such as fisheries, while also acknowledging the increased opportunities for regional integration, connectivity and economic development that accompany the restoration of favourable relations. As India emerges as one of the world’s foremost economic superpowers, we will extend our support and friendship to it, and after my meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I am confident not only that India will take utmost pride in our successes and feel deepest sorrow for our grievances, but will also act wholeheartedly to support us in our difficult journey ahead.
Motivated by fear of war crimes allegations, the Rajapaksas continue to spread unfounded rumours about our international allies and our fellow Sri Lankans living abroad, while attempting to fuel communal tensions locally. Our vision for Sri Lanka is one of post-war unity, and this means appealing to the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens in the North and East, without compromising on the integrity or security of the rest of the country. This means also reducing the cost of living, ensuring the freedom to practise religion, and eliminating corruption while also constructing a meritocracy with streamlined, fair and efficient internal processes so we can accelerate development. These reforms in our political culture will ultimately benefit tourism, investment and local industry, so the common Sri Lankan men or women, a majority of whom are Sinhalese and who were critical in securing this change, will be able to reap the benefits. This government will take into account the interests and the history of long-suffering minorities and address their needs as equal citizens of Sri Lanka. If the Tamil and Muslim people can trust our government to govern without discrimination and without neglecting their many grievances, then we can truly begin on the journey towards reconciliation and national unity. This will not be an easy task and calls for the demonstration of concrete actions that reflect our vision and resolve to achieve it. The ghosts of suspicion, distrust and uncertainty created by the previous government in the minds of the minorities towards state actors will not be easy to banish.
Beam of hope
I am privy to the collective sigh of relief that Sri Lankans are feeling, as the fear and intimidation dissipate, and signs of true reconciliation begin to precipitate. I hope the story of our people and their rainbow revolution is able to provide a beam of hope for the rest of the world. In the last few days, we have seen our very own ‘Burma moment,’ where in a story similar to our own, decades-long military rule and oppression were abandoned for the promise of democracy.
The effects of many years of state propaganda by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime to coerce Sri Lankans into believing in the myth of an international conspiracy will not wear away easily, without the informed and active leadership of politicians, businessmen, civil society, artists and that of the international community. Making the congratulatory voices coming from the international community audible to those who need to hear it the most will go a long way in eroding some of the politically cultivated doubts and fear among some Sri Lankans towards the international community. I sincerely hope that in the next few challenging days, the international community will rally behind Sri Lankans, who fought against unimaginable odds and oppression to vote in conditions of fear and uncertainty, and realised a miraculous victory for their country. I also hope the international community will support us to help secure and entrench the progressive constitutional reforms that are part of the vision to make Sri Lanka an advanced modern democracy.
(Mangala Samaraweera is Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka.)