On Saturday, May 2, Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, and met with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and other political leaders. During his visit, Secretary Kerry reaffirmed the legitimacy of the Sirisena government, encouraged Sri Lankans to continue strengthening their democratic system, and pledged that the U.S. would be “a partner” in seeking reconciliation following Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Kerry’s visit follows closely on the heels of a major victory for Sirisena’s government last Tuesday when the parliament passed the 19th Amendment to limit presidential powers with overwhelming support—212 out of 225 parliamentarians. Key provisions of the amendment include reinstating the two-term limit for the presidency and protecting the independence of the judiciary and the police force. These reforms are major steps to restoring democracy in Sri Lanka.
With the passage of this amendment behind him, Sirisena is likely to call for parliamentary elections, which he originally had planned to announce on April 23.
Marking his first 100 days in office, Sirisena addressed the people of Sri Lanka on April 23, highlighting his administration’s success in restoring civil liberties, improving relations with foreign countries, and reducing corruption. “I will take every step possible, especially to protect and strengthen the people’s freedom and democracy and through these means, eliminate corruption and fraud, and thereby protect the genuine rights of the people,” Sirisena said.
Sirisena defeated incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose 10-year rule was tainted by efforts to centralize power and allegations of corruption and nepotism. “By the time of the election, Mr. Rajapaksa had effectively turned the nation into a family-owned business, with seemingly little room for political opposition and scant attention to the reconciliation and accountability needed by all Sri Lankans following the violent, decades-long fight against Tamil separatists,” wrote Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, in a multi-author commentary in January.
Sirisena has been pushing constitutional amendments to limit the powers of the presidency in order to reduce the risk of another president abusing the office like Rajapaksa. “I came to remove the unlimited powers of an Executive President,” he said in response to criticism that he lacks strength as a leader and has not accomplished enough while he has been in office. Instead of continuing Rajapaksa’s legacy, Sirisena refused to use all of the powers available to him as president.
“Under President Sirisena’s leadership, Sri Lanka’s traditions of critical debate, free press, and independent civil society are returning. The armed forces have started to give back land to people in the north,” praised Secretary Kerry during his address in Colombo. Encouraging Sri Lankans following Tuesday’s historical parliamentary vote, Secretary Kerry said, “Peace has come, but true reconciliation will take time. Your institutions of governance are regaining strength, but further progress will have to be made. The United States will help when and where we can.”
Lisa Curtis notes,
Secretary Kerry’s visit, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in over a decade, demonstrates a new era is beginning in U.S.–Sri Lankan relations. The new Sri Lankan government’s efforts to reinforce the democratic process, reach out to the U.S., and rein in corruption are deeply appreciated in Washington and will help restore relations, which had deteriorated significantly under the previous government. While the political situation is still fluid in Sri Lanka, last Tuesday’s parliamentary vote shows Sri Lankans are committed to strengthening democracy and provides hope that disparate political elements will work together in the near-term to achieve that goal.
Emily Runge is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.