When the Sri Lankan President’s motorcade encounters a red light now on the streets of the capital, Colombo, it does something unthinkable just months ago—it stops and waits for a green signal. The convoy itself is much smaller than it once was, down to three or four cars and two motorcycles from the as many as 16 cars and numerous outriders that sped through this port city until the man at the center of the procession—the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa—encountered an unexpected red light on Jan. 8.
That morning, election results showed a sudden reversal for Rajapaksa, 69, who had ruled the island nation for nine years. In 2009 he crushed separatists from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority to end a nearly three-decade civil war in a final push that the U.N. says may have claimed the lives of as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians. A year later, backed by the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, Rajapaksa overwhelmingly won a second term in office. As he tightened his grip on power, blithely ignoring calls to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses during the close of the war, the extended Rajapaksa clan wrapped itself around government like out-of-control wisteria. One of the President’s brothers oversaw national defense, another had charge of economic development. A third was Speaker of Parliament. Dissidents, meanwhile, risked being squashed by an iron fist. Critical journalists and activists were arbitrarily detained or harassed by shadowy thugs who would haul them away in unmarked white vans. Some did not return. (The Rajapaksa regime has denied any such involvement.)
Then, suddenly, it was over for the mustachioed strongman. Voters jettisoned him in favor of a little-known former ally who promised to be the anti-Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena, 63, pledged to reverse Sri Lanka’s slide toward autocracy and save it from becoming a one-family state. Even Sirisena was surprised by the outcome. “For a short period after being elected, I was not really certain that I am the President,” Sirisena tells Time, breaking into a smile during an interview at his Colombo office, his first with an English-language news organization since becoming Sri Lanka’s leader. “Similarly, the Rajapaksa family … must be thinking, ‘What happened here?’ ”
More than Rajapaksa’s extensive motorcade and security detail are out. The former presidential compound—expanded by Rajapaksa to include a 5,000-capacity banquet hall with shimmering chandeliers that change color at the flick of a switch—has been passed to the new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who uses it as an office. Sirisena continues to live in the Colombo home he occupied as Rajapaksa’s Health Minister.
It’s not just optics, say Sirisena’s aides. He is supporting constitutional amendments to weaken presidential powers, reintroduce term limits scrapped under Rajapaksa, and share authority with a stronger parliamentary executive headed by the Prime Minister. Under the Rajapaksas, Sirisena tells Time, Sri Lanka fell into the hands of one family: “With the amendments to the constitution, we will not leave room in the future for any single family to control the country in this manner ever again.”
sri lanka is one of the developing world’s oldest democracies, with a tradition of elections that predates full independence from the colonial British in 1948. So a return to past freedoms and a lighter governing touch are critical for the country’s future after years of strife. But the ripples of Sirisena’s unexpected ascent reach beyond Sri Lanka. Whether it wishes or not, the island nation is a player in a geopolitical game among bigger powers.
Sirisena works out of a large first-floor office in a grand colonial-era building on the Colombo waterfront. Right opposite, extending out from shore, giant red cranes loom over piles of rock and sand—the site for the Colombo port-city project, an ambitious $1.4 billion Rajapaksa-era venture to build shopping malls, hotels and apartment complexes on reclaimed land that has been suspended as the new government reviews the project’s approvals and permits. Backed by Beijing, which pumped billions of dollars in loans to fund big-ticket infrastructure projects under Rajapaksa, the project was inaugurated in September by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi’s visit underlined Sri Lanka’s growing strategic significance. Though small, with a population of only around 20 million, Sri Lanka sits just off India’s southern coast, making it a coveted bridgehead to the vast Indian Ocean—where India, China and the U.S. are vying for influence. Falling out with the West over his alleged human-rights record, Rajapaksa steered Sri Lanka toward Beijing, borrowing billions and then twice last year alarming India by allowing a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo. “Rajapaksa had been very much playing up his relationship with China,” says Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, casting it as the “diplomatic equivalent of thumbing his nose” at the West for its focus on allegations of wartime abuses.
The election of Sirisena, whose campaign manifesto said Sri Lanka’s foreign policy had “fallen into disarray after the military victory of 2009,” has sparked speculation of a diplomatic realignment. “I don’t call it a tilt away from China,” Prime Minister Wickremesinghe tells Time. “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.”
Indeed, since January, Sirisena has visited India—his first overseas trip after taking office—hosted its Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and traveled to China, where he was accorded a grand welcome, complete with an honor guard at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Still, the now suspended port project has become something of a test case for relations between Colombo and Beijing. Sirisena says his administration is reviewing both foreign-funded and domestic ventures as it investigates allegations of irregularities and corruption under the previous regime. But, he tells Time, “we do not have any enmity toward anybody; we extend the hand of friendship to all countries.”
An Unlikely Leader
There is little in Sirisena’s political résumé to herald a disrupter. Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena is a member of the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority and a veteran of the establishment Sri Lanka Freedom Party, joining its youth wing while still at school. In the early 1970s, Sirisena was jailed for 15 months for his alleged involvement in a left-wing antigovernment insurrection. He was arrested again in the late ’70s, shortly after quitting his job as a local administrative official to become a full-time politician, eventually entering Parliament in 1989. In the years that followed, Sirisena held a series of key party posts and did a variety of ministerial jobs. Throughout, he avoided scandal and cultivated an image as a clean-living leader with his feet firmly rooted in the paddy fields of his native Polonnaruwa district—traits that served him well when he defected from Rajapaksa’s side in November. “He made a contrast with the [Rajapaksa family’s] plans for dynastic rule, their love of luxury, the allegations of large-scale corruption,” says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Sirisena has also won a global PR battle. Rajapaksa resisted international pressure to allow a U.N. probe or to conduct an independent local inquiry into the allegations of human-rights abuses by the military at the end of the civil war against the separatist fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. (The Tigers were themselves known for brutality—they pioneered the use of suicide bombers.) Sirisena campaigned with the promise of setting up an independent domestic probe, the details of which, he tells Time, will be announced by the end of June. Giving Sirisena time, the U.N. has postponed the release of its own report to September. Colombo has also appointed a new governor in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, replacing a retired soldier with a civilian, and has revived efforts to form a South Africa–style truth and reconciliation commission.
But, first, Sirisena’s political supporters must win re-election. The President tells Time that he plans to dissolve Parliament in May, which means a general election at the end of June or early July. The vote could bring Rajapaksa back into the political picture—an aide says he is likely to contest a parliamentary seat. “He is like a sword of Damocles” over the new government, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank. In his villa in the seaside town of Tangalle on the southern coast, Rajapaksa tells Time that the new government should not write him off: “Too much of confidence is not so good.” He also denies accusations of misrule, nepotism and allegations that, before he left in January, he attempted to forcibly hold on to power. Rajapaksa tells Time the new government “wants to throw mud” at him.
For now, Sirisena is looking good. As he nears the completion of his first 100 days in office, activists and journalists in Colombo speak of a more tolerant attitude toward critical voices. “I feel less scared now,” says Ruki Fernando, a human-rights activist detained last year when investigating the arrest of a Tamil campaigner against political disappearances. “If you look at the state media, people they called traitors before are now on TV talk shows.”
Sirisena says he wants to reinforce the foundations of Sri Lanka’s democracy. “I came here not to strengthen power but to give over the power that is in my hands,” he says. “It’s a major problem for the country that power has been centralized. Power must be distributed.” In a nation that only months ago seemed destined to become a full-fledged autocracy, that message—and hope—rings loudest of all. —with reporting by Amantha Perera/ Colombo