Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 11, 2015

The newly-elected President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, will welcome Pope Francis when he arrives at Colombo international airport on Tuesday morning, January 13.

His predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa,who had been in power for ten years and had hoped for a third term in office,, invited Francis but another Sri Lankan leader will greet him on arrival following the major political upheaval in the country’s election on January 8. It is interesting to note, from a historical point of view, that something similar happened when Paul VI and John Paul II visited the country: one leader invited the pope, another received him.

To understand the significance of this major change in the political leadership of this majority Buddhist country of 21 million people, which has sizeable Hindu and Muslim communities, and a minority Christian community (7 percent of the population, including 1.5 million Catholics), I asked  Hector Welgampola, a veteran Sri Lanka journalist, for his comments.  He is an acute observer of the situation in the State and in the Church having served as editor of the island’s Catholic weeklies from 1972-87 and afterwards, for fourteen years, as editor-in-chief of UCA News, the main Catholic news agency in Asia.    

When Paul VI came to Sri Lanka, he was invited by one head of State but received by another, the same happened with John Paul II.  Now on the eve of Francis’s arrival the President who invited him lost the election and so the Jesuit Pope will be welcomed by his successor.  Isn’t this quite extraordinary?

You are right. In 1970 Prime Minster Dudley Senanayake invited Pope Paul VI to visit Sri Lanka, but soon after, there was a change of government and the Holy Father was received by Prime Minster Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first woman prime minister. Likewise, in 1995, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe invited Pope John Paul II, but the pope was received by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. History will repeat itself in the coming days when newly inaugurated President Maithripala Sirisena welcomes Pope Francis, who had been invited by outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

After the election you said, “The election is over, but not people's fears.”  What did you mean?

Sri Lanka’s new president won the electoral battle, but the political war now awaits him.

With political alacrity, Sri Lankans have voted in a new president thwarting an incumbent’s plan for an unprecedented third term seen as a move to further entrench dynastic power. The cosmic speed of behind-the-scene events before and after the Jan. 8 election took many by surprise.

Was President Mahinda Rajapakse’s decision to quit midway through vote-counting a final act of magnanimity or a crafty move to ensure his political future? Where does it leave the kitchen cabinet of siblings and son, who continue to hold office? Before returning to his native village, Rajapakse had a final tete-a-tete with soon-to-be prime minster Ranil Wickremesinghe, a longtime friend, though vintage political antagonist. What transpired remains unknown. Only history or future political memoirs will divulge the mystery of the Rajapakse exit.    

Some insights may be discerned from newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena’s speedy decision to by sworn-in within hours of his victory. The ceremony was simple but rich in symbolism. He took the oath of office in the presence of a Tamil judge of the Supreme Court, not in the presence of the country’s chief justice, Mohan Pieris, the Catholic appointee promoted by Rajapakse after impeaching Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike.

Reportedly, the installation was unduly speeded up partly to relieve the public regarding fears of an alleged military intervention. Two days before the Jan. 8 election, a Muslim citizen wrote a 13-point open letter to the army commander deploring politicization of the military. All armed forces are under the defense secretary, Rajapakse’s sibling Gotabhaya. Social media too reported that even before President Sirisena swore him in as prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe had private discussions with military leaders to assuage army fears of counter politicization, as well as to allay public fears.

What does the election result mean for the Nation and the Church?

Social peace and stability will be essential if the new president is to implement his 100-day program of constitutional reform and return to a just and equitable system of governance. He heads a rather loose coalition of disparate political elements, some of whose retinue may be nursing hopes of political perks and rewards. But the new president’s greatest asset is public confidence and hope for a return to an era of peace and social justice based on the equality of all citizens irrespective of race, religion or political persuasion. He received the unprecedented support of all ethnic groups. His highest percentage of votes came from the Tamil-speaking northern and eastern regions.

 After a decade of discrimination, partisan politics, nepotism and corruption, the ethnically and economically fractured nation of 21 million will have thousands of grievances. The religious sector has the unenviable role of soothing their anxieties and championing their just causes. Religious leaders must heed the chiding by the nation and recommit themselves to guiding rulers with diligence and not pandering to their weaknesses. Much fallout of this period of transition could be contained if Church leaders act as Romeros, not as Richelieus.

In a statement to the Fides news, Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy, has already welcomed the election of Sirisena. The country’s senior bishop expressed hope that the new president would implement the program of anti-corruption, good governance, commitment to development and reconciliation which he placed before the country’s bishops before the people voted.


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