THE BLOG
06/03/2016 08:40 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2017

Maithripala Sirisena Could be "Sri Lanka's Mandela" ...Really?

A recently published article in a well-known political science blog ponders whether or not Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka's current president, is poised to follow in Nelson Mandela's footsteps and help heal a divided nation. The piece, authored by a pair of University of Maryland researchers is worth looking at in some detail. The South African and Sri Lankan cases are very different, but let's briefly examine a few parts of the piece.

Here's one paragraph:

This optimistic approach [suggesting that Sirisena could be Sri Lanka's Mandela] centers on two dynamics. First, Mr. Sirisena is mild-mannered and inoffensive to pretty much everyone. His rhetoric centers on "convincing" rather than enforcing to bring people in line with his policy agenda. Indeed, it is worth noting that Sirisena is talking about devolution in the first place. During the course of the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the term became so politicized that it was akin to calling for a division of the country, rather than a division of power. The fact that devolution is now re-entering the mainstream political discourse in what seems to be a more positive light - and is being suggested by the president himself - is a promising sign.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sirisena is not "inoffensive to pretty much everyone." Let's start with the Tamil community, one of the minority groups in a country that is dominated by ethnic Sinhalese.

Mr. Sirisena is still reluctant to really move on core Tamil issues pertaining to the military's occupation of civilian land, demilitarization, and the continued detention of Tamil political prisoners. I recently visited the Tamil-dominated North and East and the sense of disillusionment that had set in was all too real. Sure, there is now greater space for public dissent and the military seems to be slightly less involved in civilian affairs. Other than that, not much has changed and it's not clear that there will be tangible improvements in the coming months.

How is Mr. Sirisena doing with ethnic Sinhalese?

Mr. Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) remains deeply divided. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country's previous president was elected to parliament last August and a new pro-Rajapaksa party could be formed in the future. The parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015 were both fairly close. And during the presidential election, Mr. Rajapaksa still captured the majority of Sinhalese votes. Mr. Sirisena is a longtime member of the SLFP and was even a part of Mr. Rajapaksa's cabinet. Crucially, he unexpectedly challenged Mr. Rajapaksa for the presidency and many Sinhalese still view him as a traitor. In short, the claim that most people view Mr. Sirisena as harmless lacks merit.

Here's another paragraph:

The second dynamic highlighted by the [New York] Times article relates to the "coalition" that brought Sirisena to power. His broad based support is viewed as a tool that can help overcome the longstanding challenges of meaningfully accommodating the Tamils.

It's true that Tamils and Muslims voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Sirisena, though what's also true is that minority grievances were not part of the campaign discourse in the run-up to either election. Mr. Rajapaksa's unexpected defeat was mostly about corruption, nepotism, authoritarianism and the erosion of the rule of law on his watch. The broad support Mr. Sirisena captured in January 2015 does not mean that one should expect him to adequately address Tamil grievances.

Mr. Sirisena has governed in a less authoritarian fashion than his predecessor. This is a welcome development, although that's not saying that much. More specifically, the passage of the 19th amendment to the constitution, which trimmed presidential power and strengthened the office of the prime minister is a notable achievement. Nevertheless, the road to deeper reform has been a rocky one.

If Mr. Sirisena is unwilling to release or bring to trial all Tamil political prisoners, how confident can one be about transitional justice? Given the sustained militarization across the north and east, is implementing a comprehensive transitional justice package even possible? Besides, Mr. Sirisena was acting defense minister during the end of the war, would he really like to see a robust accountability process?

In the last sentence of the article, we are told that "whether Sirisena will become Sri Lanka's Mandela, remains to be seen." Unfortunately, in some ways, we've already seen far too much. The future direction of Sri Lankan politics remains a source of fervent debate, although Mr. Sirisena does not appear to be Sri Lanka's Mandela. Seventeen months into his reign, we don't even know if he's a real democrat.