Published on 10 Mar 2015 Sections , , ,

Is Sri Lanka changing under President Sirisena?

David Cameron praises the “open and progressive stance” taken by new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena as the pair meet in the UK – but how is Sri Lanka changing?

Writing in the UK-based Tamil Guardian on Tuesday, Mr Cameron said the Sri Lankan government had taken “encouraging steps” but added that he would call on President Sirisena to keep up the pace.

“Strengthening respect for human rights, eradicating corruption, improving political accountability and ensuring the freedom of the press,” he wrote. “These are all essential elements of a democratic, fair and functioning state.”

Watch more: MIA on President Sirisena

President Sirisena’s dramatic election victory over Mahinda Rajapaksa in January was met with both optimism and scepticism across the world.

Mr Sirisena, a former Rajapaksa ally was voted into power on a platform of ending the corruption and nepotism that some said was rife in the Rajapaksa government.

His success was also partly due to support from a Tamil community determined to see the back of the Rajapaksa family.

Tamil women in Jaffna hold up pictures of the dead and missing in November 2013.

Above: Tamil women in Jaffna hold up pictures of the dead and missing in November 2013.

However, some questioned to what extent Mr Sirisena’s presidency would benefit the Tamils – who, it is alleged, were the targets of repressive measures and human rights abuses since the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.

Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan military are accused of carrying out war crimes at the end of that conflict with the Tamil Tigers terror group, allegations that the UN is investigating and are backed up by evidence revealed by Channel 4 News. The UN estimates at least 40,000 civilians died in the closing stages of the conflict.

Allegations of enforced disappearances of Tamils, and repression at the hands of the Sri Lankan military continued after the Tamil Tigers were defeated.

President Sirisena was the acting defence minister at the end of the conflict – and has echoed his predecessor’s refusal to co-operate with the UN investigation.

What has changed?

Fred Carver of the London-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice said he had been “sceptical” when Mr Sirisena came to power but that he has been “quite pleasantly surprised”.

Mr Carver told Channel 4 News that the most obvious improvement is improving the freedom of the media.

Mr Sirisena made 25 promises to be enacted in the first 100 days of his office, and one of these was to introduce the right to information bill, which will free up access to official information, and the government has pledged to protect the freedom of the press.

Mr Carver says two recent events also increase confidence that benefits will be felt by the Tamils community.

One is the replacement of military governors in the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces with civilian governments. The Sri Lankan military has a large presence in these Tamil areas – estimates from 2013 suggested there was one soldier for every five civilians in the mainland northern area of Sri Lanka.

Allegations of sexual violence, intimidation and enforced disappearances have been common in Sri Lanka’s post-war north.

The other occurred at 3am on Tuesday when Tamil activist Jeyakumary Balendaran (pictured below) was released from detention. The campaigner had been detained for 362 days without charge.

A protester holds a placard showing Jeyakumary Balendaran prior to her release.

Above: a protester holds a placard showing Jeyakumary Balendaran prior to her release.

Mr Carver said: “Jeyakumary’s detention made it hard to accept the idea that there had been any meaningful change in Sri Lanka. Her release gives us greater cause for hope.

The real test (for Sirisena) is if he is able to reel in the army and police and is able to lift the repressive culture. Fred Carver

“But the true test will be whether her release marks the beginning of a broader reversal in a pattern of harassment by the security forces against families of the disappeared and other Tamil activists in the north and east of Sri Lanka.”

It has been suggested that the timing of her release, hours before Mr Sirisena was due to meet Mr Cameron, may be significant.

However, Mr Carver adds that the “day-to-day reality” for Tamils in the north of the country is “fairly similar to how it was before”.

“The problem is there has been a change of leadership but there hasn’t been a change of structure or general attitudes in the army, and the police and security state is very much still in force,” he said.

“The real test (for Sirisena) is if he is able to reel in the army and police and is able to lift the repressive culture.”

The Rajapaksa government consistently denied allegations of war crimes and human rights abuse levelled against it.