Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • May 2022
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The inverted October coup in May 2022

Posted by harimpeiris on May 24, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island & Groundviews on 14th May 2022)

The president of Sri Lanka, sensing serious frustration by the electorate at non-performance, sacks his prime minister and swears in another prime minister. The former PM was reinstated but even lost his own parliamentary seat at the subsequent elections, one year on. No, not President Gotabaya but President Maithripala Sirisena, who back in October 2018 sacked Ranil as Prime Minister and brought in Mahinda for an infamous 52 day “coup administration” ended by the superior Courts, which upheld the several no confidence motions passed by the then parliament.

Now in May 2022, the scenario is now inverted. As President Gotabaya, successfully demanded the resignation of his own brother and installed Ranil Wickremasinghe again as Prime Minister, for a record sixth term. In a multi-polar Sri Lankan polity of 2015-2018, that was Sirisena, Ranil and Mahinda, the calculation was that any two getting together could checkmate the other. The current calculation is that President Gotabaya, with just a part of the Rajapakse clan (Basil is backing the president) and Ranil, with very little support in the country, can hold at bay Sajith Premadasa and his SJB opposition front. Here are the reasons why Ranil’s own tenure as PM will likely be quite “interim” and his exit will also signal the end of the Rajapakse Administration, which has completely lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. 

The deal that Ranil cut

The recent farcical re-election of Ranjith Siyambalapitiya in Parliament as deputy speaker, demonstrated that the Rajapakse’s ruling SLPP though discredited within the country, clearly held its numbers in the House. Somewhat reduced, but still a majority. This then presented the opportunity for both the SLPP and Ranil. The SLPP to kick out its non-executive ceremonial prime minister while retaining all executive authority through the 20th Amendment strengthened presidency and create the window dressing of an ostensibly opposition or independent MP as Prime Minister. Ranil wanted a last hurrah, before a retirement which he is determined will never come and was sworn in yesterday as PM, his United National Party (UNP) at a full conference of one MP (himself), backed by the government group, less most probably Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, which must be seething at not having the former President as the new PM. 

The political instability would go on

Sri Lanka’s political crisis arises out of the near collapse of its economy. Ironically from a President elected on a mandate of promising to provide “vistas of prosperity and splendor”. A government that so totally fails at the provision of basic services and even maintaining the existing economic well-being of the populace, loses its political legitimacy. President Gotabaya Rajapakse has lost all legitimacy in the country. His refusal to accept responsibility for a crisis resulting from his administration’s tax slashing, money printing and fertilizer banning is unconscionable and actually delays remedial measures and policy reforms. Several senior members of the clergy, have already signaled their opposition to Ranil as PM. He is not a figure around whom people will coalesce, so it is doubtful if his cabinet will be inclusive and multi-party. The real problem for Ranil though is he is being seen as prop, albeit a very weak one, for a widely discredited and now even reviled leader.

Moreover, for the Rajapakse clan, being united is critical to capturing or holding on to state power. The 2019 election victory was exactly because the several brothers were able to iron out their differences, present a united front and win big. For the same reason, the divisions and discord within the famous political family is now on full display. Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, his sons and their backers believe with some justification, that Mahinda, shorn of any executive power once he ceased to be Finance Minister, in favor of younger sibling Basil, has been unfairly held responsible and thrown to the wolves as it were, to assuage public anger caused by the president’s own policy blunders. After all the “voodoo economics” of tax slash, money print and ban chemical fertilizer all came from the President’s “Viyath maga” and “Eliya” groups, ironically a path to destruction and darkness, the anti-thesis of their names.

The economic mess

The immediate socio-economic challenge is keeping basic public services and key utilities including fuel and electricity provided at least at the reduced rates as of present, instead of further cuts and reductions of supply. This also applies to LP gas, rice, other food staples including milk powder and medical supplies. Getting out of Sri Lanka’s economic mess requires the kind of fiscal overall that will require significant and painful reforms, which only a government elected and with a popular mandate can implement. If the ruling SLPP does not rescind the 20th amendment, then the same should be on the SJB manifesto and implemented within the first 100 days. If the president will not resign, the office must be made non-executive, he can serve out his term as a ceremonial president. 

Meantime in the days ahead, parliament is due to vote on a motion of no confidence on the president and the new Prime Minister would also be required to demonstrate his majority or support in the House, through the passage of a new budget. Earlier elites used to bristle when Sri Lanka was called a fragile state, now the voices on the street, in the aragalaya at Galle Face and elsewhere, is saying much the same thing. An election will clear the decks and bring in both the political legitimacy, stability and policy reforms that are sorely needed. Replacing Mahinda with Ranil will not. 

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The Need Of The Hour: A Nelson Mandela 

Posted by harimpeiris on May 24, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 11th May 2022)

Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown requires urgent remedial measures and the political impasse created by a President and his administration, which both refuses to either take responsibility or credibly effect corrective policy measures, has placed Sri Lanka in the position of a terminally sick patient who isn’t being taken to hospital for the urgently required life-saving care.

Why President Gotabaya must go

Sri Lanka’s system of governance is not just an executive presidential system, we are the closest to an absolute presidency, like an absolute monarch, found anywhere in the world and especially after the SLPP brought in its signature 20th Amendment to the constitution, which further centralized power in the presidency. Sri Lanka under its 1978 constitution, as amended by the 20th Amendment has an executive presidency and a ceremonial prime minister, the very opposite of what we had from 1948-1978. Therefore, for any meaningful change of government power, it is the president who has to change. It is ironic that a president whose election pledge was “vistas of prosperity and splendor” has presided over the total destruction of Sri Lanka’s economy brought about by a combination of voodoo economics and the absolute refusal to consult, compromise and course correct. Even an A/L commerce student would be able to forecast that the combination of fiscal slippage and loose money, carried out in an absolutely unrestrained manner would have catastrophic consequences. The president needs to take responsibility for the havoc that has been wrought by his administration on Sri Lanka and transition himself out of power.

The fiasco of the Prime Minister’s resignation

Sri Lanka had a farcical resignation of members of the Cabinet as demonstrated by the fiasco of the resignation, re-appointment and re-resignation (the word created by our own recent experience) of Parliament’s deputy speaker. It is clear now that there is a deep division between the President and the Prime Minister, the former trying to put the responsibility for the economic meltdown on the ceremonial post of the Prime Minister, having failed to do so by getting the Cabinet to resign. It is equally clear, that the Prime Minister, is equally determined not to be the scape goat and fall guy for a situation, which he clearly believes was not solely of his making. The reality though is that the Sri Lankan public holds the Rajapakse’s as a ruling family collectively responsible for the sorry situation we find ourselves in today and is requiring a new future without them.

The other phenomena arising from the “aragalaya” is the discarding of the ideology of the SLPP, namely that of majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism. Just like the government of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike so discredited socialism that we are now socialist only in name, the downfall of the Rajapakses is also discrediting their ideology. The young people on the streets, want a new Sri Lanka to be inclusive, pluralistic and tolerant of diversity.

Violating the sovereignty of the people

The president some weeks ago, declared a state of emergency, with possibly the intent to prevent mass anti-government protests, which was resoundingly rejected by the people, who got on the streets anyway. The likelihood of the emergency being defeated in parliament saw the president withdrawing the measure two days later. Now, possibly egged on by hardliners running the ministry of defense, the president has again declared a state of emergency, even as the legal challenge to the prior declaration is still pending before the Supreme Court. As the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the resident diplomatic community noted in statements and social media, there is no justification at all for a state of emergency and using emergency regulations to stifle dissent is not what the emergency is designed for. We have a political and economic problem, not a military and security one. The LTTE and even the JVP insurrection posed an armed challenge to the State, the “aragalaya” poses a political challenge to the government. The people of Sri Lanka are sovereign and unleashing state violence on the people, engaged voicing their dissent is a violation of the sovereignty of the people. It will seriously and permanently diminish the military in the eyes of the citizenry.

Unleashing state security on the organized but non-partisan protest movement and seeking a sequel to the Rathupaswala shooting by the Army of unarmed civilians is a very unwise decision which the generals in the Defense ministry should seriously reconsider. The consequences are likely to be dire. India is bailing out Sri Lanka financially, much more than China, which is refusing to restructure their exorbitantly priced debt. The Indians are unlikely to want an escalation of the instability caused by state violence. The Sri Lankan Army still holds on to lucrative UN peacekeeping roles in Mali and elsewhere, even as there are growing calls for their use to be re-examined. A bloody crackdown on civilian protests will be the final nail in the coffin of Sri Lanka’s “peace keeping” operations. Sri Lanka’s Army commander is already a “sanctioned individual” under US law. It is not in the interests of Sri Lanka’s military to keep having a long list of officers as “sanctioned individuals”. Anything the military does now, will be in the center of our capital city, in the full glare of global publicity and recorded on countless smart phone videos.

Some in Sri Lanka, who should have known better wanted a Hitler type leader. It may be instructive to reflect on how that experience resulted in the destruction of Germany and the last days of the Berlin bunker. What we really need now is a Mandela, a unifier who brings us together, makes the difficult choices and navigates the uncharted waters ahead, as we seek the way back from the self-destruction, which was thrust upon us as a nation.

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Divided govt. loses its two-thirds majority

Posted by harimpeiris on March 11, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 10th March 2022)

Last week witnessed the coming to the fore of the deep divisions within the governing alliance as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sacked two Cabinet Ministers, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpilla, and laid bare the internal disquiet and dissent within the Government, which had been brewing for quite a while. Concurrently, the 11other minor political party allies of the government also essentially parted ways, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara stating that he will neither attend cabinet meetings nor go to his ministry and the other parties also vowing that their common political journey with the Rajapaksa and the SLPP is all but over. The government’s intraparty relationships have ruptured and this brief analysis will examine some of the important ensuing political ramifications.

1. Political economy at stake

Watching the current situation unfold from the spectator stands, as it were, one gets a strange sense of deja vu. A populist president, elected with an overwhelming mandate so mismanages the economy that even his own constituency of the majority ethnoreligious community comes to accept that their interests are just not served through the combination of poor governance, weak economic management, but very large doses of ethnonationalism, disguised as patriotism. The classic formulae for regime change are a divided government and a united opposition. When the government splits, the opposition just sniffing political blood makes the extra effort to unite. No, not just in the present but a very similar scenario existed in 2014. Earlier, the departure of the then JHU, from the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first very public rupture in it. In the present administration, the departure of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpilla, signals the same rupture.

2. Rajapaksas rid themselves of majoritarian nationalist spokesmen

Incidentally, during both Rajapaksa administrations, the break came from its right-wing, as Sinhala nationalists, who explored the non-existent political space of being more ethno-nationalist than the ruling Rajapaksas, were forced to make their exit. On both occasions, the exit preceded or coincided with the rise of other non-party political organisations pushing an anti-minority, especially anti-Muslim agenda. In 2011/12, the effort was on the part of the civil society, NGO space and of course in the current dispensation the same personality heading an innoxiously named presidential task force is more clearly positioned within the state. But what this rupture does is quite politically significant. The near-monopoly of the Sinhala nationalist vote and uniting it for a political victory, as President Gotabaya correctly claimed during his presidential victory speech at Anuradhapura has, in less than three years, come apart. Mainstream media claim that the President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister were not unanimous in their decision to sack the duo. While the Rajapakses and the SLPP certainly command more support than Wimal’s NFF and Udaya’s PHU, the duo will cause more political damage as regime dissidents than any assistance they gave as regime supporters. Fighting with your allies is political suicide. Look at Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their infighting and disunity ended their administration and their political careers at the apex.

3. Divided government loses supermajority and causes are economic

The rupture within the Government has also effectively eliminated the Government’s two-thirds majority in Parliament. The number of minority MPs it can buy over are now limited, having effectively emptied the shelves, or rather the benches, right after the general elections, so that option does not compensate for breaking with its allies. Various routine, non-controversial bills may pass with large majorities, but the SLPP administration does not have the political clout or ability to push through its will.

A recent Verite Research poll put the government’s approval rating at about 10%. An entirely believable number, given the complete collapse of public services brought on by purely ruinous policies. Very similar, in fact, to the SLFP’s economic mismanagement of 1970-77, but this is worse and the people’s expectations and aspirations are higher, so the political price to pay and the vengeance of the electorate at the polls will be severe. Governments don’t lose public support over a fuel shortage but bring about a continuous combination of gas, milk powder, diesel, raw materials and foreign exchange shortages and five-to-seven-hours-a-day power cuts, combined with soaring inflation, rising unemployment, declining agricultural yields and collapsing rural incomes due to the government’s fertiliser fiasco, and the SLPP will experience at the polls, what the UNP did in 2020, its effective elimination.

This brings us to the relatively new alternative government of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The SJB has not been quite as inactive as is made out to be, by the same media which downplayed the government’s long-running divisions, till it exploded. The SJB has been doing a series of pocket meeting type gatherings within COVID-19 prevention guidelines, perhaps prompting the Governing party’s Anuradhapura rally and Sajith has been drawing increasing crowds. A recent political cartoon in a leading daily broadsheet was quite telling, it showed a picture of a sinking ship and rats jumping ship, with the faces of the eleven leaders of the political parties, which broke with the Government, superimposed on the rats. The proverbial rats deserting the sinking ship. The issue though is that the ship is sinking. It is necessary to ensure that the country doesn’t go down with them.

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The PTA and Defending the Human Rights of a Sovereign People

Posted by harimpeiris on March 3, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 03rd March 2022)

The onset of the bi-annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in which Sri Lanka features prominently on the agenda through UNHRC Resolution 46/1, contributes to several local activities. It results in an increased public debate about the state of our nation’s human rights situation, witnesses a hand-picked team from the Attorney General’s department enplaning for Geneva as essentially the Government’s defence attorneys and a flurry of activities, currently completely inconsequential, coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to assure the world that the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, is not really as bad as it is made out to be.

This brief commentary seeks to contribute to the public debate about human rights, in the context of one of the entrenched, inalienable features of our republican constitution. Namely that sovereignty lies with and is riposte with the people of Sri Lanka. Article 3 of the 1978 Constitution states “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise”. We will look at the arguments about the inalienable fundamental rights of the people and in practice of persons, in the context where the state and / or elements of the state, rouge or otherwise are alleged to be complicit or instrumental in violating the same.

Firstly, the state faced a protracted decades long civil war, preceded and interspersed with two armed insurrections which led to our nation’s governance for long, being under emergency rule, regulations under which, essentially superseded the constitution. During the conflict period, there was a tacit social compact, understandably so, that the state, facing an armed rebellion required to curtail the personal liberty of citizens. This social compact was aided by the absolute brutality of the armed opponents of the state, even against the very constituency it claimed to represent. The LTTE was most brutal on the Tamil people, their kids conscripted and their old traditional political leaders assassinated, while the JVP in the South, was murderous in their rebellion, their nadir being assaults on the families of military personnel. The real issue then is that post war since 2009, there has been no significant improvement in Sri Lanka’s human rights situation or indeed any meaningful post war reconciliation, say for instance as recommended by the Government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Sri Lankans have not really received a post war peace dividend, either economic, social or political.

Ten years after the war, when the expectations of a peace dividend were increasing, come April 2019 and the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, the answer by the entrenched establishment if not the deep state (Sonic/Sonic), was that we are again under threat, this time from yet another internal enemy, with external connections. How much credibility that claim holds, just two years after it was made, is perhaps best denoted by the fact that His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith is this week at meetings with His Holiness Pope Francis, enroute to Geneva, where in both the Vatican and in Geneva, as a high level representative of the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, Cardinal Ranjith will, internationally articulate what he and Catholic Church spokesmen have decried locally, the absolute lack of progress by the Sri Lankan State authorities in identifying and holding to account the master mind(s) or conspirators of the devastating attacks, given the increasing consensus that the trigger pullers pulverized in their own blasts were clearly not the mastermind(s). On the contrary the State, armed with the PTA, for public safety and security has arrested Attorney Hejaz Hizbulla, Poet Anaf Jazeem, Government medical officer Dr. Shafi Shabdeen, activist Shehan Malaka and attempted the arrest of Harin Fernando and Rev.Fr. Cyril Gamini, in the latter two cases, stopped from doing so, by Sri Lanka’s apex Court. In all honesty, the public security, threat perception from the Harin Fernando and the Rev. Cyril Gamini is rather low and if the argument is that their actions are a violation of the law and the law in question is the PTA, therein lies a serious problem.

The PTA is bad in law and worse in practice. Current Court of Appeal Justice Meneka Wijesundara in a recent judgement noted “…. four decades have past and the PTA has strayed from its historical context. The PTA, if in its application and implementation, creates a vicious cycle of abuse, the very purpose of the statute will be defeated”. The PTA, as it now stands, originally a temporary provision brought in by an arrogant presidency does not conform with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. There is no argument about that. Its most problematic features being the admissibility as evidence of “confessions” made to a police officer and a completely vague definition of terrorism which makes all political dissenters of the government, terrorists. A strange construct in a democratic republic of a sovereign people.

The safety, security and well-being of all Sri Lankans is better served, when the state is required and the judiciary enforces the protection and promotion of our people’s inalienable fundamental rights and freedoms. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s first decade after the end of the war and two years after the deadly Easter Sunday bomb attacks, emerging issues, not just in Geneva but also in Sri Lanka, are, besides the repeal or reform of the PTA, the independence of the Attorney General’s Department, parliamentary oversight of the State’s intelligence services and de-politicization of the nation’s police force.

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Catholic Church Demands Justice From The State

Posted by harimpeiris on February 17, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 17th February 2022)

The latest drama in the long running saga of the Easter Sunday bombings was the sudden arrest by the CID and subsequent release by the Magistrate’s Court of social activist and Easter Sunday attack justice advocacy activist, Shehan Malaka. This was even as the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, backed fully by the Vatican in Rome, has been relentless in pressing the state to seek out the truth regarding the horrific coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in 2019.

At a media conference Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, said “A course of action is being organized by the Sri Lankan Catholic Church together with the Vatican but we will not divulge anything about it now. It is the government which has to be responsible for the consequences which Sri Lanka has to undergo, if the church seeks international assistance to mete out justice for those who were affected by the Easter Sunday mayhem”.

That the attacks had political ramifications is obvious. As Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has stated plainly, the current SLPP administration and its then presidential candidate chose the immediate aftermath of the bomb attack to announce his presidential candidacy, an unusual occasion to say the least, for a political announcement. The rationale however for the announcement was very clear once the campaign for the presidency commenced shortly thereafter. The issues were national security, preventing terrorism and generally saving the country’s majority community from real and perceived enemies within. Once the election results rolled in though, both in November 2019 and again in August 2020, it wasn’t entirely clear as to what carried the day. Was it the nationalistic security rhetoric or the political hara-kiri or self-destruction in which the Yahapalanaya administration engaged in through constant infighting between its two chief constituent parts, the President and Prime Minister and their respective parties, ostensibly in a governing alliance?

Seeking answers

The Catholic vote in the Western Province, mostly Sinhala, in the Colombo and especially the Gampaha districts are important in national elections though it is not really a fixed block vote; it moves with the political winds of the day. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was able to capture that vote on a pro-peace platform, Mahinda was able to capture it for a more nationalist agenda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to capture it on national security rhetoric or less charitably termed as fear mongering. The issue that now comes to haunt him is that there is a widespread perception that has not been delivery on that or any other score. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has some very salient points that cause him to take issue with the administration, chief among them has been the failure of the state to identify the conspirators or chief mastermind(s) behind the attack and not just the trigger pullers who were pulverized in their own blasts. There is widespread interest regarding the alleged role, if any, played by sections of the state intelligence. The code name Sonic is today a household name in Sri Lanka. Harassment by law enforcement of activists ranging from Father Cyril Gamini to Shehan Malaka and other civil society actors demanding and working for justice for the victims doesn’t do the state any good in making the argument that there is nothing to cover up.

US President Richard Nixon resigned on the eve of an impeachment vote in Congress when it became clear he would lose the vote and be impeached after the Watergate saga and attempts to cover it up led directly to the White House. There is a particular loss of popular and political legitimacy that comes from being associated with something considered a national atrocity. The Easter Sunday attacks were just such an atrocity. The Catholic church on behalf of the victims is demanding justice. The association of any political actors with that atrocity would be politically fatal for them. It is unwise for powerful state actors to lend credence to that belief.

UNHRC and an international probe

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution and process on Sri Lanka has internationalized our human rights weaknesses and issues. Seeking to wrest back the initiative and argue for purely domestic remedies has been a bi-partisan consensus on Sri Lanka; even the previous government’s co-sponsored UNHRC resolution clearly stating that the remedial measures would be a domestic process, albeit with the participation of non-nationals. On an aside, a significant feature of the 20th Amendment was to allow dual citizens to be members of parliament and ministers of the government. A key feature of the domestic process consensus is that our justice system delivers justice. That argument, while accepted in Sri Lanka where the judiciary is mercifully held in high esteem – merciful because trust in the efficacy of the judiciary is essential for social order, is challenged internationally where well documented research exists on the culture of impunity and the paucity of legal remedies that exists with regard to the violation of human rights, especially by actors associated with the state.

The Catholic church hierarchy has been vocal and public that it has not received justice and does not believe that victims will receive justice in Sri Lanka, at least at the investigation stage, and is calling for an international investigation that can provide the evidence for local judicial remedies. Cooperation among law enforcement, whether through the structure of Interpol or other bi lateral arrangements exists, so this is not impossible. But what it does do is create for the first time a strong domestic lobby and constituency in the Sinhala south demanding an international investigation.

To add insult to injury for the Catholic church was the tragi-comedy of the grenade at the All-Saints Church Borella and the rather public exchange of words between the Inspector General of Police and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Politicians calling the police biased and a political tool of the government of the day is common but what is new is when religious leaders with significant sway over their faithful and with a worldwide network of sympathetic fellow faithful basically call out the state law enforcement and security structures on their actions and inactions – something we have not seen before is happening and the genie is not going back inside the bottle.

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