COLOMBO–The initial excitement among his supporters seems to have dampened after Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena completed his first year in office on Jan. 9. He’s being called to account for delivering a large number of pre-election promises which continue to be mostly rhetoric since his electoral triumph of 12 months ago.
On Jan. 8, 2015, Sri Lanka’s went to the polls to vote for “change” by voting out the once powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa from the presidency and voting in Rajapaksa’s former ally Sirisena. But while Sirisena rose to power by promising to rid the country of corruption, nepotism and ensure good governance, he has variously fallen short in delivering on his vows. In one glaring instance, he appointed his brother, Kumarasinghe Sirisena, as chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, the national telecommunications service provider, just weeks after assuming office.
Sirisena also came under flak for allowing his immediate family including his son, daughter and son-in-law to hold positions under his administration. All this goes against his initial pledges against such conflicts of interest in the run up to the 2015 polls.
Specifically, his son Daham was allowed to attend the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2015 on Sri Lanka’s behalf, while his daughter has been chairing various meetings in Sirisena’s electoral district of Polonnaruwa, some 230 km from Colombo. Sirisena’s son-in-law, Thilina Suranjith, was appointed as a public relations officer of the Defense Ministry in February 2015.
Such incidents form part of a common refrain being directed against Sirisena from various parts of Sri Lankan society.
Tharanga Senanayake, a marketing consultant, told Asia Times that Sirisena failed to stick to his anti-nepotism pledge when he appointed his brother as chairman at one of the biggest government institutions, while the involvement of his daughter at various government forums and letting his son accompany him on official foreign tours have all gone against his policy statement in the run up to the past election.
“He has also failed to take action against corrupt politicians, fraudulent activities, and on several murder (case) charges carried out during the previous regime. These needs to be addressed on an urgent basis so people’s faith will not be deteriorated,” Senanayake said in an interview.
Senanayake emphasized that President Sirisena needs to assure people that he is still the simple man the people voted for and that he has the courage to stand against all odds. “Though one year has passed, perhaps it’s still not too late for him to meet the people’s expectations,” he added.
Terran Carrim, a multinational company executive in Colombo said “yes and no,” when asked by Asia Times if he was satisfied with Sirisena’s performance over the past one year. He noted that Sirisena has failed to bring the corrupt culprits to justice, with some corrupt politicians even being appointed to Sri Lanka’s present Cabinet of Ministers by Sirisena himself.
“Corruption is still rampant, therefore, he needs to act on corruption and bring the culprits to book,” he told Asia Times.
But it’s not only brickbats for Sirisena. Carrim is also thankful that there are no longer “white van” abductions in the country under Sirisena, as well as an end to state sponsored racist attacks against the minority communities -Muslims, Tamils and Christians. Carrim, however, expressed worry over various unclear policies of the present administration with regard to local economic and infrastructure development, which saw a boom during the Rajapaksa led regime.
Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, founder of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, a research organization based in northern Sri Lanka, said that people in the once war-torn northern Sri Lanka certainly felt “relieved” about getting rid of the previous Rajapaksa regime. The chief reason are that the heavy military presence in the Northern Province has been significantly curtailed in the past year, while the surveillance of the general public, specially of the Tamil community by military intelligence, has also been considerably reduced.
“The people feel much free in terms of expressing their political views, grievances, etc., than before Jan. 8, 2015. The symbolic release of private lands forcibly occupied by the military, limited release of political prisoners, and the symbolic gesture by President Sirisena by way of pardoning a former rebel LTTE cadre who was convicted on the charges of attempting to assassinate the current president in 2006 while he was a minister has gone down well with the northern people,” Dr. Sarvananthan told Asia Times.
Meanwhile, Verité Research, a Colombo based multidisciplinary think-tank said in a special report released on the first anniversary of Sirisena completing office that even though Sirisena came into power promising “A New Sri Lanka for Women,” that pledge now appears largely forgotten by Sirisena.
Manthri.lk, a local website that monitors parliamentarians in Sri Lanka listed out several important areas where Sirisena had failed to deliver despite his rhetoric. In an online report card, Manthri.lk noted that Sirisena had made absolutely “no progress” in introducing an ethical code of conduct. Other misses include amending the standing orders of parliament and introducing a national audit bill as pledged initially. The report card also highlighted that Sirisena had made “poor progress” in limiting Sri Lanka’s Cabinet of Ministers to 25, establishing a special commissions to investigate corruption, adopting a new electoral system and bringing in the so-called Right to Information Bill.
On the plus side, Sirisena has made good progress in getting the 19th Amendment to the country’s constitution passed which will abolish the Executive Presidency at the end of his term. He has also successfully established a constitutional council, independent commissions and has adopted a national drug policy, along with a salary increase for the state sector employees.
Munza Mushtaq is a journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is the former news editor of two leading Sri Lankan newspapers; The Nation and the Sunday Leader. She writes extensively on Sri Lankan current affairs with special focus on politics, human rights and business issues. She is currently the Colombo-based correspondent for International News Services, the Los Angeles Times and the Nikkei Asian Review.