President Maithripala Sirisena is a busy man. No sooner has he finished his morning walk around Colombo’s Independence Square than a stream of officials, visitors, business people, soldiers and ambassadors file through the colonial-era gates to his white-washed residence in Sri Lanka’s principal city.
One day last week he appointed a new appeal judge and the head of a key committee, had a two-hour security meeting, met a senior executive of a major Indian telecommunications firm, and accepted the presentation of a new astrological almanac, all before lunch.
“There’s a lot to do, and not much time,” explained a harassed aide.
This is an understatement. A month after his surprise defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose controversial rule had lasted more than nine years, the new leader of Sri Lanka has launched an ambitious 100-day programme of reform and redirection.
In Colombo, no one is quite sure whether to be more surprised by the defeat of Rajapaksa, who lost by six percentage points in the run-off presidential poll on 8 January, or the smooth transition of power.
“I am optimistic. We never expected anything,” said Mano Ganesan, an independent politician from the nation’s Tamil minority.
Rajapaksa and his close associates had appeared well-entrenched. The 69-year-old came to power in 2005, led his country’s military to a bloody victory over violent Tamil separatists four years later and surfed a wave of popularity among the Sinhala majority to win again in 2010. He then had the constitution changed to allow the third term he hoped to win in January’s poll, which was called two years early.
However, allegations of corruption, violent intimidation of political opponents, attacks on journalists, growing resentment among Tamils and mounting sectarian violence led to concern at home and abroad. A strategic tilt towards China also worried the US and India, Sri Lanka’s northerly neighbour. The appointment of two brothers, a nephew and a son to key posts prompted charges of nepotism. The constitutional changes led to accusations of authoritarianism.
Sirisena’s attempt to reform and to redirect is a big task, say supporters.
“But it can and must be done,” said Rajiva Wijesinha, a minister in the new government.
Already, there is a change in atmosphere in Sri Lanka that even the usually oblivious tourists filling Colombo’s rapidly proliferating luxury hotels must notice.
“The early signs are very promising. The mood has totally changed. Before it was very scary. Now there’s a lightness,” a western diplomat in Colombo said.
For those whose professions brought suspicion, harassment and sometimes worse, the relief is palpable. Dharmasiri Lankapelli, a trade union organiser who had been forced into hiding under Rajapaksa, said that he was no longer worried.
“The people changed the situation. They want democracy,” Lankapelli told the Guardian, speaking in a rundown trade union federation office below a faded portrait of Leon Trotsky.
Hana Ibrahim, a respected journalist and former editor in Colombo, said the “fear has gone”.
Representatives of the Tamil minority, who have faced discrimination and repression in recent years, are equally upbeat.
“We voted for him because we really wanted change. It is a very tantalising situation,” said CVK Sivagnanam, a Tamil politician in the northern city of Jaffna. Ganesa, a Tamil former member of parliament, said there had been encouraging signs.
Yet no one doubts the challenges facing Sirisena and his new government, which is led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran of Sri Lanka’s convoluted and bitter politics.
One problem is the instability of the coalition. Essentially united only by a desire to oust Rajapaksa, the government faces parliamentary elections in June and needs to consolidate its hold in the national assembly to push through new laws and repeal others. Even before the polls, legislation including major constitutional amendments and a right to information act has been tabled.
Observers were encouraged by the 63-year-old career politician’s speech on Sri Lanka’s independence day last month, in which the president spoke of the losses of all communities and made a series of other conciliatory statements towards the Tamil minority. In an address to top diplomats last week, Sirisena spoke of matching “the physical defeat of terrorism” with “a deeper and genuine peace”.
“All people living in the country whatever language they speak, whatever religion they follow, should … live with feelings of strong brotherhood and with bonds of unity,” he said.
Such statements have allayed some concerns that the new head of state might be less inclusive than hoped. Sirisena was close to Rajapaksa, is a Buddhist like most of the Sinhalese majority and comes from a conservative rural background.
“He comes from the same stock but is a very different kind of person. He is on the softer side of the Sinhala nationalist spectrum. There are indications that he wants to be calm, statesman-like reformer who doesn’t have a personal agenda but keeps the whole process going forward in a positive way,” said Alan Keenan, of the International Crisis Group.
Muslim and Christian leaders also said they had been reassured by the new president’s recent statements.
The issues in the north are complex however, and much depends on Sirisena persuading Sri Lanka’s powerful Sinhala-dominated military to give up land, businesses and a view of Tamils as potential troublemakers.
There are also deep economic problems, only partially mitigated by the Rajapaksa’s investment in infrastructure, and the scars of the 26-year war are still livid. The closing phases of the conflict saw thousands of Tamil civilians killed in army bombardments and confused fighting with separatist extremists from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Many hundreds of Tamil political prisoners are still believed to be imprisoned, often without charge.
“The feeling here is broadly optimistic because there is a sense here that people contributed to Sirisena’s victory … Also there has been an economic crisis in the north and the new budget created a sense that the economy will now change,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, an analyst based in Jaffna, the provincial capital of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern province.
Human rights campaigners said surveillance and harassment of activists in the north have continued, however.
One key problem for the new government – an impending UN report into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war and particularly its last years – has been partially resolved. Launched under the Rajapaksa government, largely by the US and the UK, the report has the potential to embarrass the new administration by exposing acts by Sri Lankan government forces. This week, after Sirisena’s foreign minister trawled western capitals, the report’s publication was pushed back to September.
“The new government needs time to settle in without a politically explosive report coming out just before elections,” said Keenan.
Foreign policy is tricky too. The Rajapaksa administration swung Sri Lanka closer to Beijing, with scores of agreements signed with Chinese state firms for huge infrastructure projects and massive private investment too. The most high profile project involves building a marina, a Formula One circuit, luxury flats and businesses on a 200-plus hectare plot reclaimed from the sea off Colombo itself next to the city’s main port. The project can be seen from the windows of the president’s offices. Sri Lanka sits astride key shipping lanes down which much of the oil and gas required by east Asian nations, including China, travels. The new administration appears undecided over whether it should, or even can, cancel or revise the project, which will create and occupy some of the most strategically and commercially important real estate in south Asia.
Other high-profile investors are easier to see off. One of the first acts of Wickramesinghe, the new prime minister, was to cancel tax breaks given to a huge casino project launched by Australian gambling tycoon James Packer.
But there is still the possibility of Rajapaksa, who won 47% of the vote in January, mounting a comeback attempt. Taxi drivers, cooks and shopkeepers in working-class neighbourhoods in Colombo blame the ousted president’s entourage for the steeply rising prices of basic foodstuffs and major development projects that do not seem to have improved their lives, but say Rajapaksa is “a good man”. Many refer to his victory over Tamil separatists as a reason to vote for him again.
“He’s a good politician who has a link with the poor and rural people,” said Ibrahim. “He knows how to appeal to them, even if his pure majoritarian policies eventually backfired. Many say by himself he would have been OK.”