A Change Of Tide In Sri Lanka

Jan 19, 2015 By Deepa Gopal
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Have you heard of Ceylon tea? This rich, flavorful black tea comes from a tiny, picturesque island off the southern tip of India, in Asia.

Sri Lanka may be a small country, but it has witnessed one of the longest and most bitter civil wars in history. The conflict came to an end in 2009. The man who silenced the ethnic minority was Mahinda Rajapaksa - a ruthless President, who did not hesitate to use violence to achieve his means.

It was widely expected that Rajapaksa would win a third Presidential term. After all, he had scrapped limits on how many times one could run for President. But, it was a huge surprise when the results were announced. Rajapaksa had lost by 45,000 votes to Maithripala Sirisena, one of his Ministers who had defected his party to form the opposition party! 

A Brief History Of Civil War

To understand what led to Rajapaksa's downfall, we need to look at the politics of this island nation first.

Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British in the 16th and 17th centuries - at a time when European powers were expanding their influence in Asia.

The country is largely Buddhist, with the Sinhalese people making up 75% of the population. The northern part of the island had been occupied by Tamils, a people from South India who had migrated centuries earlier. When the British brought in more Indians to work in the tea plantations, the Sinhalese majority saw it as a threat.

After Sri Lanka became independent, the Sinhalese started asserting themselves. When the minority Tamils started pushing for self-rule in the Northern territories, civil war broke out in the 1980s. The Tamils were funded by supporters from outside the country to continue their struggle.

Intoxicated With Power

Rajapaksa was credited with bringing peace to the island. It did not matter that he had committed crimes considered punishable by international law such as killing Tamil rebels who had surrendered, or journalists who spoke against him.  

The Sinhalese considered him a reincarnation of a powerful King who had united the Sinhalese centuries earlier. Emboldened by the support, Rajapaksa became dictatorial. He gave top Government positions to family members, spent lavishly, and rejected India and Western countries, preferring to align his country with China.

The recent loss in the election shows that the country, including the Sinhalese majority, were tired of Rajapaksa's power and influence. As expected, the minority Tamils had voted in large numbers for the opposition party.

Will Maithripala Sirisena be able to rid the country of corruption and unite the various minority parties that have lent him support? The country will be holding new Parliamentary elections in three months to bring about a change of cabinet.