Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Where now for post-election Sri Lanka?

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his office in Colombo - 27 January 2010
President Rajapaksa is being urged to deal with Sri Lanka's ethnic divides

President Mahinda Rajapaksa stands triumphant in Sri Lanka.

A number of factors helped sweep him to re-election victory on Tuesday: his fiery rhetoric and sure popular touch; his emphasis on his role in last year's war victory; and ordinary people's sense that their streets are simply safer than they have been for the past 30 years because of the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

Monitoring groups have expressed strong concern about the abuse of state resources in the pre-election period and about some polling-day violations.

But the margin of his victory was wide and despite his defeated rival's challenge to it, Mahinda, as everyone calls him, is set to continue as president.

Where will he take Sri Lanka next?

The country now looks more ethnically split than ever and many want Mr Rajapaksa to move to address this

He and his government stress the economy and development.

His rallies were bedecked with pictures of grand power stations (funded by China, Iran and India among others), new ports and transport infrastructure.

Their priorities are now to "stabilise the situation and raise people's living standard", a senior official told the BBC.

'Minority aspirations'

But there is also the major question of Sri Lanka's ethnic divide.

The issue is made all the more stark because the places in which Mr Rajapaksa lost, and his challenger General Sarath Fonseka won, are - barring a few districts in Colombo and the hills - entirely in the north and east - the areas where Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims are in the majority.

The Sinhalese nationalist general was an unlikely champion for minorities but had convinced them that he was more interested in finding them a political solution.

The country now looks more ethnically split than ever and many want Mr Rajapaksa to move to address this.

As before, he has started with encouraging words, saying that although he did not win in the north he is "glad that people [there] entered the democratic process".

Political analyst S Balakrishnan says action is now needed.

Rally in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo - 27 January 2010
With the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, many Sri Lankans feel safer

State institutions are supposed to have both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, he points out, but Sri Lanka's rulers are "not at all sensitive to minority aspirations".

He says that with separatist extremism conquered, it is necessary to "change the ethnic and ideological profile" of the police and military, currently almost totally Sinhalese, and make them and the judiciary more sensitive to multi-ethnic issues.

Others say constitutional moves must be made, such as devolving powers to all the provinces, as the constitution's 13th Amendment calls for - something many Tamils see as indispensable.

On these matters Mr Rajapaksa sounds lukewarm.

Last week he was reported as saying that Tamil people did not seek a political solution to their grievances; rather, they simply needed to be resettled in their homes after the war.

He has also said he will find his own solution and has spoken of a possible upper house of parliament which would potentially give minorities more influence.

For such a change he would need a two-thirds majority in parliament, something he will try to get in parliamentary elections expected soon.


So does he want to do it?

"In Rajapaksa's heart of hearts he may not like the 13th Amendment, but it's almost impossible for him to scrap it," says Dayan Jayatilleka, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

He says it is the only real way forward, and suggests that parties like the Tamil National Alliance, which is close to the defeated Tamil Tigers, should also embrace it, recognising that "the centre will remain Sinhalese nationalist".

Defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka in Colombo - 28 January 2010
Defeated candidate Gen Sarath Fonseka had support from Tamil areas

Indeed, many Sinhalese people do not feel that ethnic grievances are really an issue at all.

One international source told the BBC there was concern that with his large mandate at the polls, the president will feel he does not need to take account of his critics' concerns.

"It remains to be seen how much progress he will make on immediate challenges such as political reconciliation, human rights and the humanitarian situation," the source said.

Journalists' rights groups say reporters are still intimidated in the country and are concerned at the disappearance of a web journalist who vanished just before the election after apparently writing pro-Fonseka articles.

But B Raman, a retired senior Indian official and security analyst, feels outside sentiment does have a role.

He writes in Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror that the president will have to deal "skilfully and diplomatically" with human rights groups' concerns that there are still unanswered questions about the methods the army used in crushing the Tamil Tigers.

Mr Rajapaksa is talking positively.

His victory statement spoke of the need to be rid of the past and its "violence and division" and to set aside the differences between his government and its domestic and foreign critics.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific