Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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From Jaffna library to university – politics of identity

Posted by harimpeiris on January 21, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 20th January 2021)

A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.

Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.

Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.

Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.

Memorialising and remembering the dead

Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.

Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.

It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.

Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.

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Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar’s visit to Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on January 14, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 09th January 2021)

Indian Foreign Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, just wrapped up a three-day visit to Sri Lanka – the first by a visiting dignitary in the new year, underscoring the priority that both nations place on the value and importance of our bilateral relations. Prior to the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit, laying the groundwork as it were, was the visit, in end November, last year, of one of the highest officials in India’s foreign policy establishment, National Security Advisor Ajith Doval. The preceding few months had also witnessed several other high-level international visitors to Sri Lanka, with the visit in early November of US Foreign Minister, Mike Pompeo, and the month before, in October, of the Chinese former Foreign Minister and current Politburo member Yang Jiechi. The series of high-level visits to Sri Lanka, by powerful nations, such as the US, China and India, would indicate, even to a layman, the existence of real and competing interests of these nations in Sri Lanka. Balancing these different and often competing interests, in a neutral and non-aligned manner, which advances Sri Lanka’s own national interests, is really the strategic challenge of post-war Sri Lankan foreign policy. However, geography, history and, most importantly, modern-day economic reality, would mean that India, our closest and giant neighbour is the ‘primus inter pares’ or first among equals of international relationships, which Sri Lanka needs to nurture and protect. It was one of Sri Lanka’s most successful Foreign Ministers, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who used to repeatedly say that Sri Lanka’s relations with India formed the strategic base of our external affairs policies.

Entrusted with nurturing and further developing this relationship on the Indian side is Foreign Minister, Dr. Subramanyam Jaishanker, currently a Rajya Saba, or upper house, member of the ruling BJP, from Gujarat. Dr. Jaishankar is a very senior foreign affairs professional, a career diplomat, who is an expert in nuclear issues, and a former Indian Ambassador to both China and the USA. Interestingly, he also served as First Secretary in the Indian High Commission, in Colombo, in the late 1980s, just after the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed. Having served in the Indian Foreign Service for decades, he finally retired as Foreign Secretary, in 2018, and made history as the first Indian Foreign Secretary to become Foreign Minister.

As the world, and Sri Lanka, copes with the Covid-19 pandemic, and sufficient access to low-cost vaccines has become the new and most pressing Covid-19 management issue, it was indeed welcome that Dr. Jaishankar, in articulating PM Modi’s neighbour first foreign policy, pledged preferential and early provision of the Indian vaccine to Sri Lanka, no sooner India, which has a serious Covid-19 situation, in its densely populated urban centers, begins to export the vaccine to other countries.

The visit by the Foreign Minister, brought to the fore the key priority issues which currently undergirds India’s interests and engagements in Sri Lanka. Firstly, good economics is good politics and the robust Indian economy has been creating one of the world’s fastest growing middle classes. Sri Lanka, much more than India, stands to benefit from closer economic ties between the two neighbours, ideally establishing ourselves as a services, logistics and knowledge hub for the giant economy next door, as well as a low-cost entry point to the subcontinent’s economy.

It is clearly an irritant to India, that with fast track and increasing Government approval for China to pile on debt laden costly infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka of questionable utility value, such as the Port City and the Lotus Tower, that Indian investments on more mutually beneficial commercial terms, such as the Colombo Port’s East Terminal development, are stalled by government allied trade unions and political forces. India has quietly but carefully been a major grant donor to Sri Lanka, especially in the task of postwar reconstruction. The Sri Lankan Government railways beyond Omanthai, as well as rolling stock, the Palaly Airport development and indeed the 50,000 houses programme in the Central, Northern and Eastern Provinces, together with ADB funded road reconstruction, have actually formed the core of postwar rebuilding in the former war affected provinces of Sri Lanka.

It is in this context, that the most political articulation of policy made by Dr. Jaishankar was with regard to Sri Lanka’s postwar reconciliation, the devolution of power and the values of a pluralist society. It is, indeed, noteworthy that India, despite being a melting pot of ethnicities, languages, social groups and subcultures, have developed an overarching Indian national identity with a strong Indian civic identity. An example Sri Lanka can well learn from.

In a joint press conference, with his counterpart, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Dr. Jaishankar, did not leave any room for doubt, with his forthright statements. He articulated clearly if rather obviously that it was in Sri Lanka’s own interests to pursue reconciliation and that power sharing, through the Provincial Councils, introduced through the 13th Amendment, consequent to the Indo-Lanka Accord, provided the time, tested, best basis for further development of a governance structure which accommodates the diversity of Sri Lankan society. On the Sri Lankan side, the Indian Foreign Minister, met and invited to Delhi, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and had a bilateral meeting with a delegation from the TNA. Foreign Minister Gunawardena, who found himself agreeing with the sentiments expressed by his Indian counterpart, now faces the challenge of ensuring that the Administration, of which he is a part of, matches its deeds with its words.

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MCC finally pulls plug on 480-mn-dollar grant

Posted by harimpeiris on January 7, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st December 2020)

Generally the post budget period of mid to late December is always a slack time in terms of politics and policy making as December marks that rare convergence of Parliament, Court and school vacations. However, in a continuation of the extraordinary year, which 2020 has been, that norm too has changed as significant political events occurred during this time. Firstly, a few days ago, the US Embassy announced that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board had decided to cancel its near half-a-billion-dollar grant to Sri Lanka, for what it termed “lack of partner country engagement”. Just prior to that the former President, current ruling party leader and Speaker of the Maldives Parliament, jumped into Sri Lanka’s ongoing debate on refusing to bury Covid-19 positive people of the Muslim faith, by offering them burial in the Maldives, in accordance with Muslim rites. Closely related to that, Attorney at Law Hejaaz Hizbullah, Sri Lanka’s best-known PTA detainee and prisoner of conscience, needed to have lawyers on his behalf, go to the Court of Appeal, to get access to their client in government detention. It should strike even a layman that something is very amiss with our draconian PTA law and its application, when Appellate Court jurisdiction has to be invoked by those detained without charges for months, to get access to legal counsel. On a singularly more positive note, signaling a significant foreign direct investment into our infrastructure, media reports indicated that the Government had approved Indian investment into Colombo’s East Container Terminal. These developments signaled some significant political events of the past week or two.

The MCC pulls the plug, while India commits to invest

Losing the MCC grant, was a loss for Sri Lanka, both from the standpoint of an investment of a half a billion-dollars, injected into our economy over the next three years but also from the standpoint of investor confidence especially for American and western investors. The Rajapaksa administrations, both the current and especially the previous one, demonstrated an attraction for expensive Chinese debt, while inexplicably grant funds, or money you don’t need to pay back was looked at with a jaundiced eye. The objection to the MCC grant was ostensibly over the legal reforms over land laws, but that reform process is not only long overdue, to move away from an archaic colonial era legal framework, but would have been strictly a domestic Sri Lankan administrative reform process, that we controlled. The paranoia was unjustified but has now resulted in its logical end. The cancellation of the grant. This from a country which has just seen its sovereign credit ratings cut to junk bond status from B to C by all rating agencies. When one examined where the initial hostility to the MCC grant came from and recognized its sources as from the JVP and its breakaway the National Freedom Front (NFF), respectively in the opposition and government quarters and recognized their long standing political affinity, fraternity and relationship with the Communist Party of China, it is not difficult to connect the dots and identify the inspiration and origin of that opposition.

On a positive note, there was media publicity to the effect that the Government had approved Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Colombo Port’s, East Container Terminal. Good news because FDI is literally worth its weight in gold, but also because the lack of investment, stymies the volume growth opportunities for the Colombo port. Sri Lanka’s other experience of a port development, in Hambantota was with expensive Chinese debt, which finally required the previous government to negotiate a debt for equity swap with the Chinese. The current potential deal with the Indians, based on equity investment, rather than debt funded, is beneficial to our balance of payments and foreign reserves. Besides being a large investment into crucial infrastructure.

Burying Sri Lankans in the Maldives

The issue of burial rights for Covid-19 positive deceased, has become the latest political issue, with the Maldives joining in the debate through their offer to bury our dead, with the said offer being fairly speedily declined by the Muslim political leadership in Sri Lanka, both of the SLMC and the SJB. Interestingly, MPs from the Tamil political parties have been at the forefront of the legal and political battle for Muslim burial rights, even as the Muslim parties and MPs recover from their support for the Government’s 20th Amendment to the Constitution. TNA stalwart MA Sumanthiran was a key counsel for petitioners who went before the Supreme Court, seeking redress on the basis of fundamental rights, while that Party’s young and rising star from Batticaloa, Shannikiyan Rasamanikkam made an impassioned speech in Parliament for respect for Muslim religious burial rights, which consequently prompted the ACTC’s Gajen Ponnambalam to follow suit, in that August assembly, raising it as a matter of national importance.

The fact of the matter is that the World Health Organization and its technical medical guidelines for Covid-19 prevention and spread control, declares that either burial or cremation is safe and permissible. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s position flies against science and the international norm and global standard. We have further compounded it by not giving any reasons for the refusal to bury, except for a supposed threat of contaminating the ground water, which theory should fall into the same category as our untested and unproven native treatments for Covid-19 prevention and cure. One hopes in the new year 2021, grater sanity would prevail.

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Some Trump Administration Foreign Policy Legacies for Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on December 11, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 11th December 2020)

The politics of any nation, attracts attention beyond its own borders and especially so in the case of global and regional powers. As the outgoing Trump Administration makes little headway in its legal challenges to the various election results in different states of the US, which together comprise their federal presidential election, it will be the Obama Administration’s former vice president and current president elect, Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as the new president of the United States on 20th January 2021. However, the Trump Administration has profoundly impacted the politics of our world and will have implications for Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy, going forward.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy interests and focus is gradually changing and should change from its singular focus of the decades of the civil war era, to the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 realities of the world we live in. Post the war, Sri Lanka’s interests broaden and deepen primarily towards her economic and social interests. Foreign relations deeply impact our nation and her society. Sri Lanka is an island nation, embedded in and an integral part, of the global economy, especially regionally and in some very specific ways. Sri Lanka’s highest net foreign exchange earner is our expatriate work force, mostly in West Asia (Middle East), our highest volume and value of exports, both apparel and tea, both head mostly to the global North (western world), mostly the US and the EU. As our law enforcement focuses on drugs related crime, the origin of most illegal drugs is probably regional, in the Northern parts of our South Asian neighborhood. Pre and post Covid-19, foreign tourism is a key employment generator in our economy.

The Americans in their most recent and generous foreign policy initiative has approved a grant (not a loan) of US Dollars half a million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Rajapaksa administration and the SLPP’s China-instigated rejection of the same has been unwise and looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the contrary we have swallowed high priced Chinese loans with never a whimper. A key aspect in recent Sri Lankan foreign policy, has been the China factor, as Sri Lanka under the previous and present Rajapaksa administrations, play a key role in China’s belt and road initiative. China’s expensive debt driven network of ports, airports and land developments, of which we have our own disproportionate share.

1. Containing China

The US -China relationship is relatively new, in the post second world war era, with formal diplomatic ties being established only in 1979. The more recent China policy of the US, actually begun by the Obama Administration, but sharply escalated by the Trump Administration has been the attempt to curb Chinese influence, internationally and especially in the global south, including in Sri Lanka. The US attempt to curb Chinese influence has also been in tandem with China playing a much more assertive role internationally and especially in the Asia Pacific region. Chief among them have been significant tensions in the South China sea, the inability to contain North Korean nuclear adventurism and other local and regional tensions by proxy. China as a single party, non democratic political system, doesn’t fully understand either democracy or open societies and so has internationally often backed despotic leaders, whose sudden fall from power has caught them by surprise. The US even under a new Biden Administration, will continue with a policy of seeking to contain China and Sri Lanka will need to navigate carefully the competing interests of the US, China and India.

2. Switching Middle Eastern politics from Palestine to Iran

The Trump Administration has during its four-year term, profoundly changed the politics of the Middle East and Arab nationalism from its post second world war focus on Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the issue of containing the rise of Shia Iran at the expense of the largely Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. Containing the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran is the key strategic objective now for both Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. The architect of much of this change was President Trump’s son in law and Middle East policy czar Jared Kushner, a young property businessman and savvy political operator. The Trump Administration shifted the US Embassy in Israel from the internationally recognized capital of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and worked hard to normalize relations between several key Arab nations and Israel. Successfully so with both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, both two key Saudi Arabian allies. The Saudi’s though not establishing formal diplomatic relations have relaxed restrictions including airspace for commercial flights and other cooperation. Sri Lanka with key diplomatic and economic relations with all these countries, namely Israel, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Kuwait and Bahrain including trade, especially tea and oil and expatriate workers would need to navigate the changing politics of the West Asian, Persian Gulf region.

3. Sanctioning General Shavendra Silva

The US has in the past decade, both under President Obama and under President Trump and likely continuing with the incoming Biden Administration, wielded its domestic powers of sanctions against individuals for violations of humanitarian and international law and targeted people ranging from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, sanctioned after the brutal crackdown on pro democracy protestors and Hong Kong’s new draconian national security law, to Russian businessmen, high officials in the Iranian Government and others. Sri Lanka was also not excluded from this list and current Army Commander General Shavendra Silva has been sanctioned by the United States. The usual implication of a single person sanctioned in a country is that others may follow. When paradoxically the SJB Opposition rather than the government raised this during the late October visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the answer was that it was a judicial rather than a political measure. An answer we ourselves use frequently in Sri Lanka. But the implications are clear. The Trump Administration, as it relinquishes office next month, has made its mark on the world stage and its policies will continue to shape the world we live in, for years to come.

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A Year into Rajapakse Presidency Amidst Covid-19 Pandemic

Posted by harimpeiris on December 3, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 30th November 2020)

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

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