Elections and Hope in Sri Lanka

“In my country there will be an election,” declared Oskar my taxi driver, as he drove me through the center of Colombo.

An hour earlier, my flight had landed at Bandaranaike International Airport, 35km north of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city and capital. It was Sunday, January 4, 2015, four days ahead of the awaited election.

In October 2014, then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for elections to be held in January 2015—two years before they were due. A month later, Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally to Mr. Rajapaksa, announced his candidacy under the opposition coalition. In his re-election bid, incumbent President Rajapaksa told voters to “go with the devil you know,” contrasting his longevity as a two-term president and the relatively unknown career of Mr. Sirisena.

Under Rajapaksa, the military had defeated the rebel separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, which gave him support from the nation’s Sinhala majority. His critics, however, allege human rights violations during the 26-year civil war. Both sides have been accused of violating human rights, although the government under Rajapaksa hadn’t acknowledged any abuses.

In the taxi, Oskar had begun with polite conversation at the airport—the usual where are you from, where are you going in Sri Lanka, how long will you stay—but his swift switch into politics surprised me.

“Who will you vote for?” I asked Oskar, curious, and hoping I wasn’t intruding.

“Maithri,” he said, not shy about his support for opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. “It’s time for change in this country,” he added.

Several hours later, on an empty street in front my hotel, my stomach rumbled. It was Sunday afternoon and I hadn’t eaten since I left Kuala Lumpur earlier that morning. Disappointed by the closed shops and deserted streets, I was running out of options.

“What are you looking for?” came a voice from behind me.

Startled, I turned around and faced a gray-haired woman, the top of her head rose only a little higher than my shoulders. I admitted my hunger, hoping for help. And help, she did. Instead of telling me the way to a little cafe she knew, she offered to show me. I accepted, and as she took my arm to guide the way, she asked where I was from and where I was going in Sri Lanka—similar to how Oskar began. As we walked, the woman talked about her life, trips to Australia to visit her daughter—but she too, ventured into politics and gave her sympathy to the opposition.

Both Oskar and the lady (whose name I never learned in our short encounter) offered optimistic attitudes. I wondered then what would happen—I’d read the current president was expected to win, and yet they described a mood of the people increasingly dissatisfied by corruption and cronyism within the administration.

I had come to Sri Lanka to visit a friend, not to investigate an election—but when I travel to a place, I look and listen to what’s around me. I took note that two people offered opinions and were invested in their country for the better.

A few days later on 7 January, I was in Kalmunai—a tiny dot on Sri Lanka’s east coast once devastated in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—in the company of a former Indonesian student of mine on internship assignment with the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka. Politics again surfaced, as I heard excitement about the impending election from members of the local church, all ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans.

Like his rival, Sirisena is ethnic Sinhalese; however, the Tamil minority support him because his campaign promised to bring reconciliation to the war weary country.

We didn’t go out on Election Day, cautious in case there was violence. In a surprise victory however, Maithripala Sirisena won the 8 January election with more than 51% of the vote. No violence erupted—instead, celebratory firecrackers popped throughout the day following the election in Kalmunai, and I imagine other cities as well.

Early in the morning on 11 January I arrived into Colombo Fort Rail station, tired from lack of sleep on an overnight train from the eastern coast. Hungry, I stopped in a little shop that served light snacks. An employee and another gentleman eating a pastry stood with eyes glued on a television welded to the wall showing news of the newly inaugurated President Sirisena.

“Our president,” the employee said to me, pointing to the television.

I’d entered the country under one president, and seven days later stood at the railway station television watching another man already elected and inaugurated as president. It felt a little strange, but I remembered earlier conversations, and found hope. Five years after the end of a terrible civil war, Sri Lanka had a free and fair election, transition of power without violence, and hope for the beginning of healing old wounds.

In May 2014, Al Jazeera released an in-depth and interactive report about Sri Lanka in the war’s aftermath called Beyond the Beach: Sri Lanka, 5 years on. It’s well worth the time to look over to understand the context of Sri Lanka’s past and present.

So far in 2015 President Sirisena has followed through with his pledge for reconciliation, ordering a war crimes inquiry, but will be a long and difficult road ahead. I hope the inquiry is only the beginning of reconciliation and healing for this beautiful island nation and its people.

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