Sri Lanka Elects a New President! (By the way, we are in Sri Lanka)
This blog has been dark for a few days; we returned to the States to see family for the holidays (Mila’s in California, Dmitry’s in Buffalo), before continuing with our travels in Asia. On January 6 we arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where we met our friend and frequent travel companion Prathap and his parents. Prathap was born in the US; his parents are native Sri Lankans who have lived in northern California for the better part of three decades.
Unbeknownst to us when we were planning the trip, our arrival here has coincided with a historic moment in Sri Lanka’s history. The long-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who in the last 10 years or so has been running the country more and more like a nepotistic autocracy, called for elections 2 years ahead of schedule. Analysts figured this was his way of consolidating his power even more – he and his brothers control much of government and there was no opposing candidate. That is, until his Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, decided to defect from the president’s party and run against the incumbent. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a victory lap turned into a real contest. Rajapaksa was credited with ending the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 by finally defeating the separatist Tamil Tigers in the north of the country (and, human rights organizations say, killing tens of thousands of civilians through indiscriminate bombing in the process). Since then, however, he’s failed to make much of an effort to appease the country’s Tamil minority, acknowledge or investigate alleged war crimes against civilians, or try to prevent organized groups of violent Buddhist monks from attacking the country’s relatively small Muslim population.
We spent the day before the election exploring the capital city Colombo, where the atmosphere was a bit strange. We expected a buzz or tension in the streets here given the uncertain outcome and aftermath, but didn’t really detect any. Still, we saw heightened security at some sensitive sites, some streets blocked off with checkpoints, and everywhere, wooden ballot boxes unloaded from red government buses. The city felt a little empty – apparently many residents have traveled to their home districts around the country to cast their ballots there. A local friend told us his mom has purchased groceries and supplies for a week of hunkering down in the house. No one knows how the next few days and weeks will play out. For our part, we left the the morning of the election to head to Beruwala, a small beach resort town.
So, despite the fact that he had no opposition just a couple of days ago, and the fact that his personal astrologer gave confident assurances that the election date was most auspicious for a Rajapaksa win (gotta love Sri Lankan politics), we woke up this morning, January 9, 2015, to the news that the upstart opponent Sirisena had an insurmountable lead in ballots counted, and that the president had already conceded defeat.
We also woke up to the sound of fireworks outside our hotel, as segments of the population started to celebrate democratic change.
The mood around Beruwala is mixed. We’ve heard a few rounds of celebratory fireworks and honking, but we also spoke to a few people who are unhappy with the result. We are in Sinhalese country, near Rajapaksa’s home district, and he’s pumped a lot of (mainly Chinese) money into investment and development projects in certain parts of the country.
Many more photos and stories from Sri Lanka to come, but for now we wanted to share a slice of history in the making.