The surprising result of the presidential election in Sri Lanka would have received more attention if the terrible events in Paris had not captured our thoughts and fears.
The war between the Tamil Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka came to a bloody conclusion on the northern beaches of that beautiful island country in the spring of 2009. Tens of thousands dead, disappeared, incarcerated. The government dominated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers was more about triumphalism than reconciliation, and it was quite prepared to weather the storms of international public opinion in the cause of consolidating power at home.
But the Rajapaksa brothers got greedy, and with their hunger for power came corruption. It was this more than anything that drove Health Minister Maithripila Sirisena to split with the President's party and agree to run for the presidency. He was immediately supported by the opposition parties, including Muslim and Tamil groups. What was supposed to be a coronation for Mr. Rajapaksa turned into a horse race.
It speaks to the courage of the opposition, many senior public servants and important parts of the military that the election itself had an accurate vote count, and that the last minute attempts by the Rajapaksa clan to hang on to power were firmly rebuffed. While a majority of the Sinhala population voted for the them, a massive show of support from the Tamil and Muslim communities won the day.
Mr. Sirisena and his deeply experienced Prime Minister Ranil Wikremasinghe have been saying all the right things – reaffirming the need for reconciliation, the importance of the rule of law, and the need to deal with the corruption and abuse of the past – and that the challenges ahead are great.
The ultra-nationalist supporters of the Rajapaksa's have not disappeared, however, and they will take to the streets at a moment's notice. As in Burma, Buddhist religious leaders have long been highly politicized, and will continue to insist on the primacy of the rights of the majority population.
Pope Francis made a short visit last week and made the important point that the truth has to be the basis for reconciliation. The previous government fought off all international attempts to get to the truth about what happened in the conduct of the war, and internally made journalism a singularly dangerous profession. All those who insisted that a factual inquiry was essential in the necessary process of binding up the wounds of war – including this writer – were labelled terrorists. Now that the Pope has joined the ranks a reasoned dialogue can begin.
For a very long time the Tamil, Muslim, and Christian communities have been seeking ways for their rights and needs to be recognized. The majority have made it clear that outsiders will not determine the nature of the Sri Lankan constitution.
But what has happened these last few weeks is indeed remarkable, and creates possibilities for pluralism and greater prosperity that just a few days ago seemed remote. Sri Lanka has given itself a chance.