Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for September, 2013

The political landscape post the provincial polls

Posted by harimpeiris on September 30, 2013

The elections to the North Western, Central and Northern provincial councils are over and the results have been largely as many political analysts predicted. The UPFA won in both the North Western and the Central provinces, while the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) romped home in the North. The political landscape though remains largely unchanged subsequent to the polls, with the polls reiterating but not altering the political dynamics that existed since the end of the war and the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2010.

UNP badly defeated

The ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) retained in the recent elections a 66% and a 60% popular vote share in the North Western and Central provinces respectively, roughly similar to the 69% and 59% they secured in the same provinces 2009. In fact in both provinces the UPFA increased their absolute number of votes and in the Central province, moved up from 59% to 60%.

In sad contrast the United National Party saw its percentage of the popular vote actually erode in both provinces. In the Central province the UNP went down from the 38% they polled in 2009 down to 27%, while in the North Western province they went down from 28% to 24%. In an election that saw over  one hundred thousand additional voters in both the North Western and the Central Provinces, the UNP actually polled less votes in 2013 than they did in 2009. So the UNP did not just loose votes only in relative terms, they lost votes in absolute terms. Thus the UNP General Secretary’s proud pre election claim that they will actually poll more votes than they did in 2009 was proved wrong, as the party actually polled a whole lot less. It would be wise for the UNP Working Committee, that precocious group of persons, to contemplate the sorry plight of their party. In the Northern province, the UNP’s 0.6% of the popular vote is not merely an embarrassment, it is farcical.

The Rajapakse regime must be feeling vindicated, that despite impeaching the Chief Justice, despite turning the military loose to brutally assault and shoot dead villages’ demanding unpolluted potable water in Weliweriya, despite increasing electricity tariffs by nearly 40%, despite allowing places of Muslim and Christian religious worship to be attacked with no effective preventive or corrective action, that they poll over 60% of the popular vote amongst about 2.3 million voters in two provinces. Possibly more an indictment on the UNP, than an endorsement of the regime.

TNA sweeps the North

The Northern Provincial Council elections of 2013, will be noted in history as the first election that the Rajapakse regime lost and lost big. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), led by Rajavarothiam Sambanthan, won a resounding victory in the North, getting almost four fifths (4/5) of the popular vote at 78.5% and about the same proportion of the seats or 30 out of 38 seats, in the provincial legislature. That the TNA pulled this off despite, all the kings horses and all the kings men, being deployed against it was indeed an amazing performance for the regional  ethnic minority political party and surpassed expectations. The UPFA as a government demonstrated just how alienated it is from the Tamil people of the North, by getting just 18% of the popular vote. Clearly governance in the North, whether by the Presidential Task Force or the Governor, that ignores and does not engage the TNA, would be completely unrepresentative of the local people and communities. However hard work lies ahead for the TNA and its newly elected Northern Provincial Council, to make the Council work for the benefit of the Tamil people of the North. Basically Northern Chief Minister elect, retired Justice C.V.Wigneswaren would have his work cut out for him and would have to replicate what Mayor Muzzamil has accomplished in Colombo, running the country’s largest municipality as a UNP controlled council in the context of a UPFA central and provincial administration.

Democratic Party comes of age as the third player while JVP declines further

Just when we thought the JVP was at rock bottom, they sink to new lows, getting about 1.5% of the popular vote, demonstrating that there is no political space for them to occupy, since the UPFA has run off with their political clothes.

A winner of sorts at the provincial polls was the new Democratic Party (DP) of retired General Fonseka, who firmly established itself as the third force in Sri Lankan politics securing about 4% of the popular vote and five seats in the two provincial councils. The Machiavelli of Madamulene’s political calculations were right when he released General Fonseka from custody, that General Fonseka would split the opposition vote and eat into the UNP support base, further weakening an already ineffective opposition. A quick analysis of the Democratic Party vote would indicate that it came largely at the expense of the UNP. General Fonseka and the Democratic Party has not really added to or increased the size of the opposition support base, it has merely cannibalized support from the UNP, which really means that General Fonseka and the DP, is not effectively taking on the Rajapakse regime either.

Basically the provincial polls has merely reiterated and strengthened the political realities which existed before the election. President Rajapakse demonstrates that he is hugely popular among the Sinhala voters, while the TNA demonstrates that they are similarly popular among the Tamil people. These two facts, we knew with certainty even before the elections, though the polls reinforce that. The real challenge is will the UPFA and the TNA, or more correctly would President Rajapakse and R.Sambanthan restart their structured political dialogue and engagement or not. For the sake of both their constituencies and the nation as a whole, we would all hope so.

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Judiciary apologizes for failing to safeguard basic human rights by Harim Peiris

Posted by harimpeiris on September 21, 2013

No, not in Sri Lanka, as readers may have hoped, but in Chile. In Chile, last week, on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup by General Pinochet which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, the Chilean Judges Association issued an anticipated but unprecedented apology for the failure of the judiciary to act as a check and balance against the executive and protect the fundamental rights of its citizens, including their right to life.

The Judges statement said “It must be said clearly and completely that the court system and especially the Supreme Court at that time, failed in their roles as safeguards of basic human rights and to protect those who were victims of state abuse”. Chilean courts rejected some five thousand cases by those who were seeking the court’s intervention in the cases of their missing loved ones. Authorities now believe that over three thousand people were extra judicially killed and over thirty eight thousand tortured by the Pinochet regime in Chile. The case study of Chile provides important lessons for us all.

The context 

Firstly in Chile there were abductions of political opponents of the regime by armed gangs in vans (color unknown). The courts refused to intervene and the practice continued with impunity, with the authorities making ridiculous statements to justify the continuing abduction of opponents of the regime. There was impunity for the perpetrators. It is only now, decades after his removal from power, that the Pinochet era government and security officials responsible for rights violations are being called to account.

Chilean society had an entire sub sector of people that had experienced the trauma of having family members categorized as missing persons. The requirement of accounting for the missing and bringing closure to their survivors and next of kin, took a long while in Chile, but it has finally occurred, with the government initiating a program to trace or account for the missing who are all presumed dead.

Patriotism and Rights abuses

 The arguments in favor of violating human rights in defense of the state including especially the right to life are not new. As Cicero argued many centuries ago in the Roman Empire’s Senate “in the fight of good against evil, the laws are silent”. It is in the face of existential threats that societies often tolerate rights abuses as a necessary evil. However more often than not, as in Chile, rights abuses become widespread and often targeted against political opponents of an authoritarian regime. Even in the case of existential threats, the challenge is to minimize and limit the suspension of civil liberties and rights and to do so with due process.

In Chile when a popular military took over the reins of government, it was easy to try and whip up nationalist fervor in support of the regime and argue that any criticism of rights abuses were in fact unpatriotic. However, the paradox is that it is rights abuses that are unpatriotic. If one defines patriotism as love of country and love of her people, then the defense of the basic or fundamental rights of the people would be the highest act of patriotism and the violation of the same, especially the sanctity of and the right to life would be the biggest violation of patriotism.

Sri Lankan rights debate rages 

Consequent to the visit of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the debate about the state of human rights in Sri Lanka is renewed with vigor. Ms.Pillay who will report to the UN Human Rights Council about Sri Lanka and subsequently issue a more detailed report, had among other things the following to say on the eve of her departure.

“The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.  The 18th amendment, which abolished the Constitutional Council which once recommended appointments to the independent bodies, such as the Elections Commission and Human Rights Commission, has weakened these important checks and balances on the power of the Executive. The controversial impeachment of the Chief Justice earlier this year, and apparent politicization of senior judicial appointments, have shaken confidence in the independence of the judiciary.

I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”. She also touched on the Weliveriya shootings, the attacks on mosques and churches as well as the attacks on journalists and media institutions.

Government’s Response

Now the Rajapakse Regime’s response to all this is the blanket denial, that Sri Lanka has no human rights problems, there are no missing persons, no torture, no custodial deaths, no abductions etc. Such a response may suffice for its own core constituency in the Sinhala South, but after Weliveriya, the Matale mass graves and the impeachment of the Chief Justice, one wonders whether even in the South such a response sufficiently resonates. It certainly does not internationally and not because of an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka, but simply because facts are stronger and more enduring and convincing than fiction.

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