Ten years after Mahinda Rajapaksa became its president and six years after the end of a devastating civil war that killed as many as 100,000 people, Sri Lanka finally has a new leader — Maithripala Sirisena — and a new ambassador in Washington.
Prasad Kariyawasam, a career diplomat with 34 years of experience under his belt, presented his credentials to President Obama last July. And Sirisena, who was Rajapaksa’s health minister before launching a surprise bid to run against his former friend, assumed office as Sri Lanka’s head of state in early January, following an election dominated by accusations of corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism.
“On Jan. 8 of this year, the people of Sri Lanka selected a different leader over the president who defeated terrorism in our country,” said Kariyawasam. “The manifesto of the new president’s party reflects why the people voted that way: rule of law, promotion of human rights, the enhancement of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and the creation of a good governance structure where there are better checks and balances.”
More than 81 percent of eligible citizens voted, said the envoy, “including many from the north, at a time when some Tamil extremist groups were calling for a boycott.”
Thanks to his successful courting of the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, Sirisena — who like his opponent belongs to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority — won 51.3 percent of the vote, compared to 47.6 percent for Rajapaksa. The inauguration was carried out within 24 hours, explained the ambassador, because “that’s a very crucial period where a sitting president can make mischief by not leaving.”
However, no mischief took place this time around — a fact the White House did not overlook.
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the people of Sri Lanka for the successful and peaceful conclusion of Sri Lanka’s presidential election,” Obama declared the next day. “Beyond the significance of this election to Sri Lanka, it is a symbol of hope for those who support democracy all around the world.”
Added Secretary of State John Kerry: “The United States applauds the Sri Lankan Elections Commissioner, the security forces, Sri Lankan civil society and the candidates themselves for making sure this election was not marred by unrest and for ensuring a significant drop in campaign-related violence.”
Warm, fuzzy words indeed for an administration that until recently could barely hide its frustration with the government in Colombo.
One year ago, the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council voted in favor of a U.S.-sponsored resolution urging the body to investigate allegations of war crimes by both the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels it was fighting — especially atrocities committed during the final stages of the country’s 26-year ethnic conflict that ended in 2009.
The controversial vote followed the release of a U.N. report accusing the Sri Lankan government troops of various abuses, including the intentional shelling of ethnic Tamil civilians, summary executions, rape and the blocking of food and medicine from affected communities. One U.N. estimate says up to 40,000 Tamils may have been killed in the war’s final months, as government troops closed in on the LTTE’s last remaining stronghold. (The report also accuses the LTTE, one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world, of abuses that could amount to war crimes as well.)
But the 2014 resolution — which expressed “serious concerns” about continuing abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings and intimidation of journalists long after the war ended — was “categorically and reservedly” rejected by Rajapaksa, whose top envoy to the Human Right Council called it “a grave threat to the sovereignty of U.N. member states.”
In contrast, Sirisena doesn’t deny that abuses took place and has promised to thoroughly investigate all allegations, though, notably, without the help of the United Nations. The new government immediately launched a lobbying campaign to delay a long-awaited U.N. report on alleged atrocities committed in Sri Lanka during its civil war, pledging cooperation with the inquiry.
Sri Lanka’s appeals worked: In February, the U.N. Human Rights Council agreed to delay the report, which had been due in March, until September. Now, the Sri Lankan government must prove that it’s serious about pursuing justice. According to the United Nations, the previous commission set up by the government to investigate abuses failed to “satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interests of some of its members.”
Kariyawasam insists things will be different now.
“This government is very serious about finding solutions,” the ambassador told The Washington Diplomat in an hour-long interview at the Sri Lankan Embassy here. “That includes addressing accountability issues, how to handle missing persons and finding solutions for grieving Tamils. A conglomerate of opposition parties with very different ideologies, including the Tamil National Alliance, all came together to create a new government with a new policy. They have a 100-day program during which there are certain benchmarks they want to achieve. They are on course to achieving them.”
Asked to elaborate, Kariyawasam says he sees no reason why the United Nations needs to launch its own probe.
“Our government is committed to setting up credible local mechanisms for accountability to investigate allegations of human rights violations,” he replied. “It is our will that unless those avenues are totally exhausted, there is no role for the U.N. to have its own internal investigation, especially since we’re a democratic nation with a vibrant, transparent and robust judicial system.”
The envoy added: “No other democratic nation has allowed any U.N. investigation. But we are ready to work with the U.N. system to obtain technical support and information about best practices, with a view toward making our system more credible.”
Kariyawasam, 61, is from Galle, a picturesque city on Sri Lanka’s southwestern tip known for its Dutch and Portuguese colonial architecture. At Richmond College Galle — back when the island was still known as Ceylon — he became a star cricket player and majored in mathematics, but decided to enter the Foreign Service in 1981. “I found public service and diplomacy more interesting than being a mathematician,” he explained.
Kariyawasam is in the United States for the second time around, having been posted to Washington from 1995 to 1998. Later, he was chief envoy to his country’s U.N. missions in New York and Geneva. Right before coming here as ambassador, he spent four and a half years in New Delhi as Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to India, with concurrent accreditation to Afghanistan and Bhutan. Back in Colombo, he served as director of the South Asia Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the ministry’s spokesman.
Among other things, Kariyawasam served on a U.N. expert panel on the relationship between disarmament and development, and he is still an elected member of a specialized U.N. committee to protect the rights of migrant workers.
“Reconciliation is important for all Sri Lankans. We have gone through 30 years of domestic conflict that has frayed feelings among all communities,” said Kariyawasam, whose wife, Kanthi, is a biologist at Georgetown University. The couple also has a son and a daughter living in the United States. “While we now have physical peace — and anybody can visit any part of the country — we need to consolidate that and provide people with a real peace dividend. That should involve economic and social benefits, and the feeling that justice and dignity has been provided to each and every citizen.”
A history buff, the new ambassador recalled that although Sri Lanka won independence from Great Britain in 1948 and became a republic in 1972, the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1931 makes this West Virginia-size tropical island Asia’s oldest functioning democracy.
“Democracy is something natural for Sri Lanka, but there was a feeling in the international community that our democratic tradition was being vitiated,” he said. “That was reversed by the election of this new government, which has promised to introduce a set of constitutional reforms that will enhance people’s involvement in governance.”
First and foremost, that means abolishing Sri Lanka’s powerful executive system and reintroducing a Westminster-style government in which the prime minister is the chief executive and the president is the ceremonial, titular head of the country.
“Sri Lanka adopted a presidential system in 1978, but over the years, it was felt that the 1978 constitution was quasi-authoritarian and did not reflect the will of the people,” said the ambassador.
In 2010, Rajapaksa pushed through the 18th amendment, which strengthened the presidency and removed term limits, allowing him to run for a third six-year term. “That is what this government is going to reverse,” vowed Kariyawasam, though he added that it wouldn’t really matter once a new constitution is ratified and the prime minister, not the president, is in charge.
“In addition, this new government has promised to enact legislation establishing an independent judicial commission, an independent police commission, an independent public service commission and a right to information act, among other things,” he said.
By the end of April, parliament will be dissolved, with elections set in June or July — paving the way for a new parliament, under a new constitution. The ambassador said Sirisena hopes to create a “national government” after the election, with the support of both Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the president’s United National Party.
“For this reason, he can already count on the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to enact a constitution,” Kariyawasam explained.
But it remains to be seen whether Sirisena can manage an unwieldy alliance between a loosely organized opposition and the party it defeated in a stunning upset. Complicating things is the fact that Rajapaksa isn’t completely out of the political picture: A war hero to many, he’s rumored to have set his eyes on a parliamentary seat or even possibly the prime minister post.
A wily political operative himself, Sirisena enjoys a reputation for honesty that attracted many voters. He’s vowed to make a fresh start, one that’s already being felt in Washington. With the change of government, at least three diplomats at the Sri Lankan Embassy along Wyoming Avenue were sent packing — amidst questions about the ambassador’s predecessor, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, a cousin of Rajapaksa. Newspapers back in Sri Lanka allege that among other things, Wickramasuriya spent more time promoting his family tea business than carrying out his diplomatic duties.
Wickramasuriya’s replacement has also done away with the traditional Sri Lankan Independence Day festivities at the University of the District of Columbia that featured lengthy dance and artistic performances. In contrast, the most recent National Day event, Feb. 4, consisted of an elegant two-hour reception at the Organization of American States. Among the guests: D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken.
“I’m proud to represent this government, since it reflects the true ideals of the majority of Sri Lankan people,” said Kariyawasam. “This means respecting each other’s culture, valuing individual freedoms and respecting the rights of every individual.”
That may be easier said than done in a multiethnic country of 21 million that is 70 percent Buddhist, 12 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and 7 percent Christian. The Tamils, who practice Hinduism and have their own language, have long chafed under Sinhalese Buddhist rule. The resentment spawned the LTTE insurgency, which gave birth to infamous terrorist tactics such as the suicide vest.
“The LTTE fought the government on the basis of creating a separate state for Tamils in the north and east, but the majority of Sri Lanka’s Tamils do not aspire to have a separate state,” said the ambassador. “There could be extreme groups, however — a small number in Sri Lanka, with larger numbers in Europe, America and India. That influence destabilized my country.”
That may be, but many Tamils still aspire for autonomy. Since the LTTE rebellion was quashed in 2009, they complain that the government hasn’t followed through on its post-war reconciliation promises, including releasing detainees and returning seized land.
The Tamils aren’t the only ones unhappy with the Sinhalese-ruling majority — the country’s Muslims have come under fire by extremist Buddhist groups aligned with the government. The hard-line Buddhist Power Force, known by its Sinhalese initials BBS, is behind a string of anti-Muslim attacks, an irony considering the messages of peace and tolerance that the Buddha espoused. Last summer, a hateful speech by the extremist group’s founder sparked a wave of rioting across southern Sri Lanka that left four people dead, 80 injured and several mosques burned to the ground.
“Every country has extremists,” said Kariyawasam. “We have our share too, but it’s not a constant thing. Today, extremism is almost nonexistent except in the far north.”
He added: “We don’t perceive the situation as a purely ethnic issue, because, for example, the city of Colombo has more Tamils and Muslims than Sinhalese. Since 1983, there has not been any disturbance in Colombo on the basis of ethnicity.”
In a letter to the new president, New York-based Human Rights Watch — which has been monitoring the situation in Sri Lanka for more than 25 years — urged Sirisena to use the “historic opportunity” of his election victory to “address major human rights issues that have been ignored or exacerbated” by Rajapaksa and even leaders before him.
“We welcome some initiatives your government has already undertaken, such as case-by-case reviews of those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the lifting of restrictions on media reporting, the end of Internet censorship, and the appointment of non-military personnel as governors to the North and East provinces,” said the Feb. 26, 2015, letter to Sirisena from Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
“Also important were the removal of NGOs from the oversight of the Ministry of Defense, and your pledge to form commissions to return land in the former war zones to their rightful owners,” Roth added, noting that he hopes Sirisena’s administration shifts away from the “previous government’s unwillingness to tackle issues of accountability.”
In addition to clearing the air on human rights issues, Kariyawasam aims to boost Sri Lanka’s economy by increasing bilateral trade and U.S. investment.
“Our relations with the United States are reaching a high point. Although relations have always been robust, there have been aberrations in the recent past, when we had dissonance in terms of human rights and accountability issues, especially after the conflict ended in 2009,” he said.
Even so, “the United States and Sri Lanka share several values like democracy, respect for human rights and good governance. We are a maritime nation, and the U.S. is the most powerful maritime nation in the world. In the context of Sri Lanka’s geographical location, it’s also natural for the United States and Sri Lanka to work together for international peace and maritime security in the Indian Ocean.”
Since 2010, Sri Lanka’s GDP has risen by 6 percent or more every year; in 2014, the economy expanded by 7.6 percent to about $75.4 billion. Similar growth is projected for 2015. Even during the war, Sri Lanka’s economy was steadily growing.
Inflation last year was kept to a manageable 3.8 percent, while unemployment stands at only 4.3 percent. And today, the World Bank classifies Sri Lanka as a “lower-middle-income country,” with 2013 per-capita GDP of $3,170.
The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest single customer, absorbing 23 percent of total exports. About two-thirds of this $2.5 billion in annual trade consists of blue jeans, shirts and other garments, followed by rubber products, gemstones, jewelry, machinery, seafood, spices and tea.
“Sri Lanka should be thought of as a market for the region because we have free trade agreements with India and Pakistan, and a PTA [preferential trade agreement] with Bangladesh,” Kariyawasam said. “We are negotiating an FTA with China, which is already one of the biggest investors in our infrastructure, so Sri Lanka can be a manufacturing hub for U.S. businesses, especially because we have deepwater ports, allowing us to become a major transshipment hub.”
Leading international indicators support the argument that Sri Lanka is becoming a much better place to do business than it used to be. Foreign direct investment came to around $1.6 billion last year and will likely reach $2 billion in 2015, with Great Britain, China, the United States, Mauritius and Singapore comprising the top sources of FDI.
And finally, tourism is booming like never before; last year, more than 1.5 million foreigners visited Sri Lanka, a nearly 20 percent jump over 2013 figures. Tourism now contributes close to $1.7 billion a year in revenues, up from barely $1 billion in 2012.
Yet relatively few Americans visit the island to explore its beaches, mountains, Buddhist shrines, elephant orphanages and tea plantations for themselves.
Kariyawasam hopes that’ll change, now that Sri Lanka is finally at peace and seems to be leaving its troubled past behind. The New York Times ranked the country as “the best tourist destination of 2010,” while National Geographic Traveler magazine named it among the six best attractions in 2012 and Forbes ranked Sri Lanka “among the top 10 coolest countries in the world” to visit in 2015.
“After the election, there is great excitement in Washington and the United States about all the positive developments that have taken place in Sri Lanka,” Kariyawasam said with enthusiasm. “I expect this will enhance our relations to a level of irreversible excellence.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner, news editor of The Washington Diplomat, has been writing for this publication for nearly 18 years. His first article — a profile of Sri Lankan Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala — appeared in our May 1997 issue.