• Journalists who fled country can return
  • January election was a vote for change

Two weeks after an electoral upset that ousted Sri Lanka’s long-reigning ruler, the country’s new leaders are moving quickly to investigate allegations of corruption under the previous regime and to enact legal and constitutional changes they say are aimed at re-establishing the rule of law. “This is going to be a huge, huge challenge,” said Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister after the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena have promised to complete a far-reaching revamp of the government within 100 days.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Wickremesinghe said one of his most urgent priorities was to depoliticize the police and “dismantle the apparatus that was built up” under Rajapaksa to stifle dissent. The term “white-vanned” became a euphemism in Sri Lanka because of the vehicles allegedly used to abduct opponents of the Rajapaksa administration. Wickremesinghe’s government has called on journalists and intellectuals who have fled the country to return.

A 65-year-old veteran politician who has served as Premier twice before, Wickremesinghe also said he is determined to work toward a lasting political settlement with the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.

Rajapaksa’s government crushed a decades long Tamil separatist insurgency in 2009.

January’s election was “a vote for change—change that includes reconciliation,” Wickremesinghe said.

The government would push to increasingly empower the provincial government in the north, where Tamils outnumber the nation’s majority Sinhalese, he said.

Wickremesinghe works in a small and sparsely furnished office in the Temple Trees compound, the former residence of Rajapaksa, who greatly expanded it. One new, multi-storey building includes an enormous wood-paneled presidential office, hung with paintings depicting scenes including a Sinhalese king leading his troops.

The President’s chair is flanked by a pair of traditional maroon-coloured parasols known as sesath, symbols of status once borne by the attendants of nobles. Behind it is a sprawling marble bathroom with a flat-screen television fixed to the wall across from the toilet.

In tackling corruption allegations, Wickremesinghe said he and other Cabinet ministers are still struggling to find out the exact terms of deals struck by the previous government with Chinese lenders and contractors. Agreements for some mega projects initiated under Rajapaksa were never made public and often there was no competitive bidding process, ministers said.

Some contracts appear to have been revised after they were signed and allegations of bribery and kickbacks abound, the ministers said.

Rajapaksa’s whereabouts after the election are unclear. He has denied any involvement in corruption.

Courtesy: Wall Street Journal

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