TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s New Leader to Dissolve Parliament and Launch War Crimes Probe

Maithripala Sirisena Beats Opposition To Become Sri Lanka's New President
Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images Sri Lanka's newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena (C) prepares to take oath as he is sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo on January 9, 2015 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Maithripala Sirisena talks to TIME in a rare interview

Sri Lanka’s new leader plans to dissolve the country’s Parliament in May, setting the island nation on course for general elections in late June or early July — around the same time that he plans to announce details of a probe into allegations of human rights abuses during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, he told TIME in a rare interview.

Maithripala Sirisena had earlier indicated that he would set up the probe within a month of a visit to the U.K. in March. But, speaking to TIME in his first interview with an English-language news organization since taking office in January, he said details of the planned investigation would be announced by the end of June, just as the country heads into early general elections.

“We have informed the U.N. that we’ll have a very strong internal mechanism to look into this and we’ve asked for advice and consultancy through the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,” he says.

Sirisena replaced the autocratic Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, after defecting from the then President’s side in November to become a surprise but unifying opposition candidate. He has pledged to weaken Sri Lanka’s powerful executive presidency, telling TIME: “It’s a major problem for the country that power has been centralized. Power must be distributed.”

Separately, the country’s new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, told TIME that Sri Lanka had revived efforts to set up a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an idea first mooted under Rajapaksa. He faced international pressure for failing, in the words of a report by a former U.N. human rights chief, to ensure an “independent and credible” investigation into allegations of human rights abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil conflict with separatists from its Tamil minority in 2009.

“We’ve reopened the talks with South Africa and this time they’ve been positive,” says Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in after Sirisena’s election victory on Jan. 8. He said the government hopes to share proposals for a Sri Lankan truth commission with the U.N. Human Rights Council in September. Proposals are also in the works for a domestic judicial process to deal with the allegations.

Earlier, speaking to the BBC Sinhala service in London during a visit to the U.K. in March, Sirisena, who like Rajapaksa belongs to Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority, had indicated that the domestic probe into the allegations would be set up within a month.

Amid speculation that his ascent to the Presidency might spark a shift in the country’s foreign policy, with a move away from China as he revives ties with India and the West, Sirisena insisted that Sri Lanka had an “absolutely non-aligned [foreign] policy.”

Under Rajapaksa, China built closer ties with Sri Lanka, providing billions of dollars in loans. Last year, the Sri Lankan government under Rajapaksa allowed a Chinese submarine to dock twice in Colombo.

“We do not have any enmity toward anybody; we extend the hand of friendship to all countries,” says Sirisena.

Sirisena’s point was reiterated by the country’s new Prime Minister, who said efforts by Sri Lanka’s new leaders to cultivate friendlier ties with India and the West didn’t constitute a “tilt away from China.” “The fact is we moved away from everyone else, leaving only China. We antagonized the West, we antagonized India. You can’t carry on like this. Sri Lanka needs the West, it needs India, it needs China,” says Wickremesinghe.

See the full story in this week’s TIME International.

— With reporting by Amantha Perera/Colombo

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 6

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. A new program will recruit and train inspiring leaders to be principals at high-poverty schools. No education background required.

By Catherine Candisky in the Columbus Dispatch

2. Even with rising prosperity, seventy percent of deaths in Sri Lanka are from preventable diseases. It’s time for a new kind of care.

By Sandya Salgado at the World Bank

3. To protect ourselves from bioweapons, we may have to reinvent science itself.

By Patrick Tucker in Defense One

4. In Europe today, Russia is demonstrating its mastery of hybrid warfare. The U.S. and NATO are far behind.

By Nadia Schadlow in War on the Rocks

5. Encryption might not matter to most Americans, but it is a crucial tool for reporting the news.

By Kelly J. O’Brien in Columbia Journalism Review

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sri Lanka

This Man Survived a Tumble Off a 4,000 ft. High Cliff in Sri Lanka

Lucky isn't the word

A man miraculously survived a tumble off the 4,000 foot “World’s End” cliff in Sri Lanka on Saturday when his fall was broken by a tree.

Dutch honeymooner Mamitho Lendas, 35, said he fell over the edge when trying to take pictures of his new wife. He landed in vegetation growing out of the cliff face, after falling for about 130 ft.

“I fell down backwards two times, and then I sit in bushes for like three-and-a-half hours. The longest three-and-a-half hours of my life,” he told a group of reporters.

Soldiers used ropes to stabilize Lendas and lift him to safety. They then carried him for three miles before he could be driven to the hospital, where he was found to have no major injuries, AFP reports.

The World’s End cliff is one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions.

In 2011, an Australian tourist named Christopher Pilther died after he fell off of the cliff, also while trying to take photographs.

TIME Australia

Australia Court Rules the Month-Long Detention of Migrants at Sea Was Legal

Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney
David Gray—Reuters Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney Oct. 11, 2014

The case brought attention to Australia's controversial immigration policy

Australia’s High Court ruled Wednesday that the nearly month-long detention of 157 ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka aboard a sea vessel last year was legal under the government’s Marine Powers Act.

The narrow 4-3 decision means that the detainees, of whom 50 were children, will not receive damages for their alleged false imprisonment, according to the judgment summaries.

Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, which formed part of the Sri Lankans’ legal team, expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“Incommunicado detention on the high seas is a clear breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s decision confirms that our domestic law allows the Government to breach those obligations.”

Liberal Party MP Scott Morrison, who held the post of immigration minister when the Sri Lankans were detained, tweeted his approval of the decision.

The Sri Lankans had boarded a boat in India last June but were intercepted 16 days later in the Indian Ocean by an Australian customs ship.

After weeks of being held on the ship, the group was transferred to the Curin detention center in Western Australia because the Indian government said they would consider taking them back, according to Reuters.

When the group refused to meet with Indian officials, they were moved to another immigration center, this time on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they will remain until their status as refugees is decided.

The ethnic Tamils were heading to Australia to claim refugee status, claiming they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka following the end of the island-nation’s bloody civil war in 2009.

The case highlights Australia’s controversial immigration policy in which immigrants are often processed at offshore camps in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island and Nauru.

Canberra says the restrictions are in place for the safety of immigrants risking their lives to reach its shores by sea.

TIME Sri Lanka

Pope Francis Seeks ‘Reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka

Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 15, 2014 in Vatican City.
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 15, 2014 in Vatican City.

The first papal visit to the country since the end of a bloody civil war

Pope Francis traveled to a former conflict zone in northwest Sri Lanka on Wednesday, calling for “reconciliation, justice and peace” during a prayer at a Catholic shrine damaged during the bloody civil war that convulsed the island nation for nearly three decades.

For years, the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu—located deep in the Tamil-dominated north that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the conflict between the country’s predominately Sinhalese government and Tamil separatists—was off limits for most believers. In April 2008, about a year before the end of the war, priests briefly removed the Madhu Matha—a 2-ft. icon of the Virgin Mary that forms the centerpiece of the shrine—for safekeeping as government forces pushed up north.

“There are families here today which suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka,” Pope Francis said, as a giant crowd reported to be half-a-million strong gathered to witness his arrival at the shrine. “Many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed of those years.”

MORE 5 things to know about Pope Francis’ Sri Lanka visit

Among those listening him to were about 1,000 men and women disabled during the civil war, which claimed an estimated 70,000 lives. “This is a special occasion for them, they want to hear the Holy Father speak of the suffering here, so that the world’s eyes will open [to the] people still suffering here,” said Ramsiyah Pachchanlam, who works with a local organization that helps men and women wounded and disabled in the conflict.

The Pope’s arrival in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, days after the unexpected ouster of wartime leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in Presidential elections earlier this month, marked the first papal visit to the country since the end of the war. Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, has pledged to hold an independent domestic inquiry into wartime rights abuses, a contentious topic for many among the country’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities. Both government forces and Tamil separatists stand accused of serious human rights violations during the war.

“No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place, or the sad day when the venerable statue of Mary, dating to the arrival of the earliest Christians in Sri Lanka, was taken away from her shrine,” the Pope said at the shrine.

“May all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land,” he added.

Additional reporting by Amantha Perera / Madhu, Sri Lanka

TIME Sri Lanka

Pope Francis Urges Pursuit of Truth in Sri Lanka at Start of Second Asian Tour

Pope Francis stands on his vehicle as devotees gather on the road to see him after he arrived at the Colombo airport
Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters Pope Francis stands on his vehicle as devotees gather on the road to see him after he arrived at the Colombo airport Jan. 13, 2015

The Pontiff will travel to the Philippines later this week

Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, calling for the “pursuit of truth” as he began the first papal visit to the country since the end of a bitter and long-running civil conflict in 2009.

“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity,” he said after landing in the capital Colombo, where he was greeted by the country’s newly installed President, Maithripala Sirisena, who displaced Mahinda Rajapaksa in national elections earlier this month.

A former Rajapaksa ally, Sirisena emerged as the unexpected winner of a ballot that, until two months ago, looked set to deliver a third term for the increasingly autocratic Rajapaksa. His defection from the former leader’s camp in November, and his promise to give more power to the legislature and weaken Rajapaksa’s executive presidency, swiftly changed the dynamics of the race, as the opposition came together behind his candidacy.

During the election, Sirisena promised an independent domestic probe into allegations of rights abuses during the civil war that saw years of bloody fighting between the country’s Sinhalese majority and separatists from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.

Speaking in Colombo on Tuesday, the Pontiff, who will also travel to the Philippines later this week, stressed the need for inclusive society as the country recovers from the conflict, which lasted nearly three decades.

“The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” he said.

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Looks to Chart a New Course After Ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka Awaits Results Of 2015  Presidential Election
Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images Sri Lanka's President-elect Maithripala Sirisena waves as he leaves the Department of Election office after the election commissioner officially declared him as the new President on Jan. 9, 2015, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

President-elect Maithripala Sirisena has promised to dismantle the outgoing leader's executive presidency

Before calling presidential elections two years ahead of schedule, Mahinda Rajapaksa consulted his astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, who foresaw not just a third but also a fourth term in office for the Sri Lankan strongman.

“The President has great inborn power,” Abeygunawardena said recently, anticipating an “easy victory” for his 69-year-old client. “According to his luck, this is easier than the first and second presidential elections.”

Sri Lankan voters, who turned out in high numbers to participate in the ballot on Thursday, had other ideas.

Early returns on Friday spectacularly showed up that “inborn power,” spelling triumph for Maithripala Sirisena, a 63-year-old former Rajapaksa ally and Health Minister who announced a surprise run for the presidency a day after his ex-boss called the snap election in November. Shortly before declaring his hand, Sirisena had dined with the former President, who, after bringing a long-running civil war with Tamil separatists to an end in 2009, had secured a second term in office with a landslide victory in 2010. (Both sides are accused of human-rights abuses in the conflict, which lasted 26 years.)

At the time, Rajapaksa — who followed up his re-election with measures to remove presidential-term limits and concentrate executive authority in his office — seemed assured of another victory, with his grip over the machinery of government tighter than ever. His brother Gotabaya looked after the defense department; another sibling Basil was responsible for economic development; and a third, Chamal, oversaw the Sri Lankan legislature as Speaker.

The opposition accused the President and his clan of abuses of power and plundering the nation’s wealth. But Rajapaksa confidently shrugged off such allegations, safe in the knowledge that, whatever opposition parties might say, they did not have a viable alternative candidate for the January race.

That changed with the arrival of Sirisena, who, like Rajapaksa, belongs to the country’s Sinhalese majority. His emergence from within the President’s fold turned what looked set to be a coronation for Rajapaksa into a gripping contest, as opposition groups, including the country’s main Tamil party, backed Sirisena’s candidacy. (Rajapaksa’s isolation came into sharp focus earlier this month when he sought the support of the Tamil minority by asking them to vote for the “devil you know” over an “unknown angel.”)

From the start, Sirisena took aim at Rajapaksa’s accumulation of power. “One family has taken control of the economy, power and the party,” he said when he defected. “The country is moving toward a dictatorship.”

Voters responded to his promise to reverse this trend and dismantle Rajapaksa’s executive presidency.

“This [result] shows that autocracy is not something that Sri Lankans will accept,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think thank, tells TIME after Rajapaksa conceded defeat in an early morning meeting with opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Congratulating the new Sri Lankan leader, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he looked forward to working with Sirisena as his government “works to implement its campaign platform of a Sri Lanka that is peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and prosperous.”

Kerry went on to commend Rajapaksa for conceding defeat following a largely peaceful ballot.

Ahead of the vote, there were fears of violence as the country geared up for what looked like a close contest between the President and Sirisena. But with the opposition candidate clearly in the lead, the violence did not materialize.

“At the end of the day what clinched it was the writing on the wall that there was a generalized desire for change and that any attempt to cling on to power wouldn’t have support from within government itself,” says Saravanamuttu.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also quick to congratulate Sirisena.

Under Rajapaksa, New Delhi had been left on the sidelines as Sri Lanka built stronger ties with China. Beijing stepped up its economic involvement in the country, becoming a major investor investor and trading partner. The two countries also strengthened their military ties and, last year, India expressed concern at the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo.

With Sirisena’s election, New Delhi will be watching closely to see if he keeps his campaign promise to build bridges with not just China but also India and other Asian powers. His election manifesto assured voters that “cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia,” noting that Sri Lanka’s “image has been destroyed due to its incompetent and naive foreign policy and strategies.”

“They [Sirisena and his supporters] are concerned about balance in Sri Lanka’s international relations,” says Saravanamuttu, expecting the new government to look beyond Beijing.

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s President Concedes Defeat in a Major Poll Upset

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa listens to a speech during his final rally ahead of presidential election in Piliyandala
Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa listens to a speech during his final rally ahead of the presidential election in Piliyandala, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 5, 2015

Mahinda Rajapaksa, dogged by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism, ends a decade in power

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa ended a decade in power on Friday, conceding defeat in a midterm election. He didn’t expect to lose, but found himself vacating his residence after polls showed his challenger Maithripala Sirisena with over 51% of the vote, Reuters reported.

Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa’s government, defected to the opposition in November, and used his anticorruption stance as the cornerstone for his campaign.

He pledged that his first act in office would be to weaken the very presidency that had allowed Rajapaksa to consolidate a huge amount of power, and reportedly plans to hold fresh parliamentary elections within 100 days of being sworn in.

Rajapaksa was re-elected in 2010. He initially came to power in 2005, riding a wave of popularity after defeating the Tamil Tigers separatist group and ending the country’s violent civil war, but his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.

Rajapaksa abolished the two-term limit on the presidency to allow himself to run for a third time, and then called Thursday’s snap elections two years before his second term ended — a move that backfired badly.

The violence against opposition supporters that marred the lead-up to the polls was absent on Friday, as the outgoing President asked opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to ensure a smooth handover of power.

“People need a change and this is a democracy,” a government official and close Rajapaksa ally said.

[Reuters]

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Strongman President Could Be Facing a Poll Upset

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures to the media after casting his vote for the presidential election, in Medamulana
Dinuka Liyanawatte—REUTERS Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures to the media after casting his vote for the presidential election, in Medamulana, January 8, 2015.

Two months ago it looked like it would be landslide victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa, but now things are far from certain

Sri Lanka went to the polls on Thursday, kicking off an election that could result in the biggest shake-up of its government in over a decade.

Thousands lined up to vote at more than 12,000 polling stations across the country after the polls opened at 7 a.m. local time, with local media reporting that most districts had showed a turnout of 30 to 40% within the first three hours.

The snap election was called by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in November, about two years before the conclusion of his second term, with a view to consolidating the power and control he has been steadily centralizing since he first took the helm in 2005. Rajapaksa’s decisive re-election in 2010, following the 2009 defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers that ended a 26-year civil war, has been bolstered by steady economic growth and stability in the past four years.

But the straightforward victory he anticipated while calling the election is far from certain, and the president has been reduced to urging voters to elect him, “the devil they know,” over an “unknown angel,” as Reuters reports.

The unknown angel he refers to is Mithripala Sirisena, a former minister and key Rajapaksa lieutenant whose sudden defection in November blindsided the president and was followed by an exodus of dozens of others. The hitherto fractured opposition has since rallied behind Sirisena, who promises to crack down on the corruption and nepotism that many say has set in under Rajapaksa’s rule. His son and two brothers rule alongside him, and several relatives occupy key posts in what academic Razeen Sally called the country’s “one-family show” in a Wall Street Journal column last month.

Should it come to power, the Sirisena-led opposition reportedly plans to do away with the presidency altogether and revert to a British-style parliamentary democracy, according to the Financial Times, undoing the constitutional reforms that allowed Rajapaksa to run for an unprecedented third term.

While Rajapaksa is relying on an uptick in Sri Lanka’s economic growth and the support of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, Sirisena enjoys an almost unequivocal backing from the island nation’s minority groups including Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The former government minister’s anti-corruption stance has reportedly also appealed to a section of the Sinhalese population, and might just be enough to ensure an upset win.

Thursday’s voting has been dogged by reports of violence against opposition supporters, with organizations like Amnesty International and even the U.S. government expressing concerns. But Election Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, remained confident that there would be no foul play. “Don’t worry about this election, this election will be free and fair,” he told reporters.

Rajapaksa told media he was confident of a win, after casting his vote on Thursday morning. “We will have a resounding victory. That is very clear,” he said.

The truth is anything but.

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