Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for October, 2013

Women in post war reconstruction and recovery

Posted by harimpeiris on October 29, 2013

Women in post war reconstruction and recovery

By Harim Peiris

 (Published in Groundviews & published in the Sunday Leader)

The aftermath of Sri Lanka’s decades of civil conflict have left, not only massive damage of physical property, both public and private, requiring extensive reconstruction but many households and even whole communities affected by the conflict through loss of loved ones, loss of property including homes, personal injuries, displacement, disruption of children’s education, loss of means of livelihood, loss of the family breadwinner and conflict related trauma. Many of those affected and indeed the most vulnerable are women and accordingly war widows, women headed household, single women, female ex combatants and girl children are both numerically significant and the most vulnerable sections of the communities of the post conflict areas. The details of this situation are well researched and documented, not least by State mechanisms such as the LLRC.

 The solutions for this situation, not just in Sri Lanka but the world over has also been exhaustively debated and dialogued, with the Covenant on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Security Council resolution 1325 among many other global instruments and locally the LLRC report and various national action plans all detail the consultation, gender sensitivity and women’s inclusion that should be a key aspect of recovery and reconstruction efforts.

 However, Sri Lanka’s achievements in addressing women’s issues in reconstruction and recovery have been abysmal, with conflict affected women still excluded and vulnerable over four years after the end of hostilities. There are political dynamics that work to prevent an outcome, which seems universally accepted, desirable and required, both locally with solid support for the same, as well as internationally.

 1.     Women severely underrepresented in Government

The first reason for this is that women are underrepresented in Sri Lankan political life. Despite our proud achievement of having the world’s first woman prime minster and one of the still few popularly elected and reelected executive presidents in the world, Sri Lankan women have not been active participants in seeking or holding public office. Currently women hold only 2% of elected positions in local government, 3% in provincial government and 6% at the national level. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Sri Lanka has a man as the minister of Women’s Affairs. An obvious way out of this situation is the principle of a quota system at election, with various models and options available on how to ensure greater women’s representation in elected bodies. Given that Sri Lanka experimented with youth candidate quota’s as a result of the 2nd JVP insurrection, some pro women measures are not impossible to achieve and should be lobbied amongst the political parties. There is some sympathy and support for these measures among the opposition parties, the UNP’s recent constitutional reform proposals being open to gender representation and the TNA appointing an unsuccessful woman candidate to one of its bonus seats at the recent Northern Provincial Council election, the other bonus seat given towards increasing Muslim representation. It is however the UPFA, though led by the SLFP a party with strong matriarchal roots, which is regrettably the most disinterested in such issues at the moment.

 2.     Tamil women face double discrimination

The second reason for this failure of addressing women’s issues and including them in recovery and reconstruction in the North and East is not primarily because they are women but because they are an excluded ethnic minority group, the Tamils. Accordingly the challenge of both including and rehabilitating the lives of the conflict affected Tamil women in the North and East is made doubly difficult by the fact that the system works against  both Tamils and women. The best example of this is the Presidential Task Force on reconstruction in the post war areas, which is a generally well intentioned but significantly less effective apex government body appointed by the Rajapakse Administration at the end of the war, which at its inception had neither even a single Tamil nor a single woman in the nineteen (19) member body. This being a group appointed to see to reconstruction and recovery efforts in the Tamil majority North, where the majority of victims were women. Not a single Tamil, nor a single woman. Not even from the Government’s own allies like the EPFP or the TMVP. It is little wonder then that the task force has been significantly less sympathetic to more softer human needs such as post traumatic stress disorder, the need for counseling and as well as unique concerns of women. Accordingly bringing about involvement of women in post war reconstruction,  necessarily requires involving and the political participation of the Tamil community. The recently concluded Northern Provincial Council election, in which the Tamil National Alliance secured more than a 2/3 majority in the Council, with the resultant ability to keep the unelected but generally assertive former military Governor on a short leash, holds the promise for a new empowerment of democratic Tamil political participation in the recovery and reconstruction process. One hopes that not only the Presidential Task Force, but also the multilateral institutions, especially the lending institutions of the World Bank, the IMF and the ADB would be both gender sensitive and  consult and engage the elected Tamil representatives of the NPC in their reconstruction programs in the North.

 3.     A fragile democracy

The third reason for this failure to address women’s issues and include them in recovery and reconstruction is democratic or a problem of Sri Lankan democracy. Sri Lanka has a representative system of government but not a responsive system of governance. Our democracy is largely limited to voting at periodic elections but our system never consults, rarely listens or is responsive to our people. That’s why Sri Lanka is ranked globally as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for independent journalism and media and more recently even to stage a peaceful protest. Even our representative government is only somewhat representative, we have parliamentary select committees made up only of government members and constitutional reforms that are passed as urgent bills within a half day, denying even most of our elected representatives an opportunity to be heard on national issues. What chance then for civil society and especially for disempowered ethnic minorities in rural communities. Accordingly unresponsive and non representative government is the third impediment to addressing women’s issues.

 Accordingly addressing the obviously urgent women’s issues in Sri Lanka’s recovery and reconstruction process requires addressing several underlying issues of democracy, ethnic minority political participation as well as women’s representation in government. These issues can be addressed through a robust engagement by civil society, religious leaders and our international friends with our government and state institutions to ensure that the required reforms to our system occur. Such reforms may not occur overnight, but overtime, with dogged persistence, history shows us that most societies, especially those with democratic roots, traditions and institutions will move towards a better path. For the sake of the resilient conflict affected women of the post conflict North and East, we should hope so.

 (Abridged text of speech delivered at the felicitation of Dulcy De Silva, veteran women’s and labor rights activist)

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Sambanthan and Vigneswaren reach out to President Rajapakse

Posted by harimpeiris on October 14, 2013

Sambanthan and Vigneswaren reach out to President Rajapakse

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews and the Island of 10/10/2013)

On Monday 7th October, the Tamil National Alliance, the only political party in the country to have comprehensively defeated the UPFA and captured power in the Northern Province, creating the first ever opposition controlled provincial council since the Peoples’ Alliance victory in the Southern Provincial Council in 1993, which also heralded the end of UNP rule an year later, politically reached out and magnanimously decided that it’s Chief Minister designate, retired Supreme Court Justice CV Wigneswaren should take his oath of office before President Mahinda Rajapakse at Temple Trees. In the ethnically polarized Sri Lankan society and polity, it was a very significant political gesture, magnanimity in victory and a unilateral concession to President Rajapakse by the TNA leadership, which the Rajapakse regime should be pressed to reciprocate.

 Reaching out to President Rajapakse

 The Rajapakse Administration in the post war period had not adequately addressed either the effects or the causes of the war. The only thing it has done has been reconstruction that focused solely on infrastructure with no focus on the victims of the conflict. Also the economic benefits of that infrastructure from fishing rights to tourism projects have been expropriated by the military or government cronies. Quite similar to the “carpet bagger” reconstruction, in the American South, following the Confederacy’s defeat in that country’s civil war. As far as a hearts and minds campaign goes, the election results indicate that a mere 17.5% of the Northern Province voted for the Government.

Further, the Rajapakse Administration tried rather ham handedly to weaken provincial powers further through the proposed 19th amendment, has been disinterested in implementing the LLRC recommendations and broke off the Indian initiated structured dialogue with the TNA. It is in this context, that the decision of the TNA to swear in before President Rajapakse should be viewed. It took the principled stand that it would not swear before the Governor, retired General Chandrasiri, who broke all norms for an appointed state official to campaign like a street activist on the UPFA public platforms in the North. The decent thing to have done following the results was to have resigned, nonetheless he is now on a tight leash with the TNA’s two third majority in the Council sufficient to pass a binding impeachment resolution on the Governor, if he seeks to frustrate and obstruct the democratic mandate of the Council. Following the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranaike, the bar for impeachment has been set quite low in Sri Lankan democracy.

 Sambanthan shows true leadership and weakens the Diaspora

According to the 4th schedule to the Constitution, elected officials need only swear before a Justice of the Peace and the general TNA consensus was that its victorious Northern Provincial Council should swear in before their now undisputed political leader, Rajavarothiam Sambanthan. The election victory of the TNA, demonstrates the true difference between the Diaspora organizations, self appointed hardliners with a ludicrous nostalgia for the LTTE and the comparatively more moderate TNA, which with grass roots appeal and an engagement with the Sri Lankan State, secured the democratic mandate of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. The center of gravity of the Tamil political leadership has indisputably consolidated comprehensively in the hands of the TNA leadership in Trincomalee and Colombo, namely Sambanthan and Sumanthiran and the popular pro government theory that the TNA is controlled by the Diaspora is disproved by the facts.

The pro government and Sinhala nationalist sections of the press, has been taking great delight in a narrative which went something like this. The TNA is weak and divided; it is only one among many Tamil political leadership voices, the Diaspora controls the TNA and eventually it will lose its political clout to government allies in the ruling alliance, such as the EPDP and the TMVP and become at best another CWC or an SLMC. Nothing like a dose of electoral reality to break a propaganda myth. The TNA captures nearly 80% of the popular vote in the entire Northern Province, secures a two third majority in that Council; it defeats the EPDP in even their pocket borough of the Kytes constituency and uses its two bonus seats to appoint a Muslim and women showing sensitivity to Muslim and gender issues.

The so called divisions in the TNA are nothing more than normal electoral and alliance politics pales in comparison to the UPFA’s difficult choice for Chief Minister of the Central Province, ignoring a Prime Ministerial offspring who secured the highest preference vote, the Cabinet rebellion over the proposed 19th amendment, the ongoing political struggle in Anuradhapura between the supporters of the late Bertie Premlal and SM Ranjith, the complete contradictory positions on devolution between key UPFA constituents such as the JHU, NFF on the one hand and the CP, LSSP, NSSP and the Liberal Party on the other hand.

In recent times, the TNA leader, Sambanthan has been exercising great political leadership, in pushing through far reaching and moderating political changes in Tamil politics, which has weakened the Diaspora and strengthened his moderate leadership. First he personally bucked the entire Tamil polity and single handedly persuaded and then steered the most eminent retired Tamil jurist in Sri Lanka to election as the first ever Chief Minister of the North. In victory, he made a major concession and political rapprochement with President Rajapakse by coming before the President to be sworn into office, to provide the most public and visible commitment to both an engagement with the Rajapakse regime and a united and undivided Sri Lanka.

The best bulwark and defense against an extremist Diaspora Tamil polity, is a strong and moderate Sri Lankan Tamil political leadership. In Sambanthan, Sumanthiran and Vigneswaren, Sri Lanka is beginning to get that. The Rajapakse regime must seize the opportunity and move forward towards rapprochement and reconciliation.

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The UNP and the opposition political landscape

Posted by harimpeiris on October 3, 2013

The UNP and the opposition political landscape

By Harim Peiris

The recent elections to three provincial councils, namely the Northern, North Western and Central and the consequent results together with the general political expectations that several more provincial elections would be held next year followed by national, presidential and general elections, make the opposition or non UPFA political landscape a rather important factor in determining the extent of a genuine alternative or real challenge to the current Rajapakse Regime.

 A politically resilient and dominant Rajapakse regime

 The provincial council results indicate that baring a serious shake up in the opposition political landscape, President Mahinda Rajapakse can fairly comfortably predict a series of wins in the rest of the provincial councils, with the possible exception of the East and romp home to victory in a presidential contest held somewhere in 2014 / 2015. The current political position between the ruling SLFP led UPFA and the UNP in terms of popular support is essentially the UPFA at about sixty (60%) of the popular vote and the UNP at barely thirty (30%) of the popular vote. If political currents continue in the same way, securing a third term sometime in the not too distant future, President Mahinda Rajapakse would become Sri Lanka’s longest serving executive president.

At the heart of the Rajapakse regime’s political resilience, in spite of the regime’s generally unpopular governance from imprisoning the opposition’s presidential candidate, impeaching the chief justice, grabbing further executive power through the 18th amendment,  trying to convert the EPF into a pension scheme, raising electricity rates by forty (40%) percent, shooting dead protestors in Weliveriya, creating a dangerous environment for independent media, assaults on minority religious communities, militarizing significant civilian society space, being at loggerheads with the academic community and failing to bring about national reconciliation through adequately implementing the LLRC proposals the Rajapakse regime continues at sixty percent (60%) of popular support, a truly amazing political feat.

One reason for this of course is the ethnic Sinhala nationalism, which is the political ideology of the Rajapakse regime and accordingly there is considerable bi partisan or multi partisan support for the regime based on identity politics. However, the resilience of the UPFA is not solely based on majoritarian ethno religious nationalism, because the most ardent supporters and ideological proponents of such Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, the MEP, the JHU and the NFF actually have in the past and did currently as well, fare poorly at the polls, demonstrating that mercifully, extreme ethno religious nationalism, of an exclusionary and anti minority nature, though influencing government policy and controlling a significant swathe of the State apparatus, is at the political fringes and does not attract significant public support. None of the JHU, NFF or MEP nominees got elected at the recent provincial polls.

The UNP’s leadership issue

A major contributory factor for the Rajapakse regime’s resilience is in fact the absolute lack luster performance of the main opposition United National Party. The UNP does not act like an opposition political force; it tends generally to act much more like a party that is supporting the government but from outside rather than the inside. Like the JVP supported the PA for several years, prior to their formally joining the PA and creating the UPFA. Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe behaves politically, more like a minister without portfolio, rather than as the leader of the opposition. Convinced that the government would collapse over the weight of its own internal contradictions in due course, which of course has not shown the slightest sign of occurring and mostly insecure in his own position as the “only alternative” to the sole representative of the Sinhala people, the opposition leader seeks and receives favors from the government which allows him to provide limited patronage to a core support base and safe guard crucial interests, which in turn work hard to keep him in the seat of the opposition leadership.

 A contrast from history and the TNA

In contrast to this situation, consider how Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike led the SLFP, subsequent to a crushing defeat from 1977 to 1994, despite the deprivation of her civic rights. She neither sought nor received any quarter from President JR Jayewardene but became a rallying point for the democratic opposition to the then UNP regime and eventually in 1993, was persuaded to permit the formation of the broad opposition coalition of the People’s Alliance, step aside in favor of the next generation represented by her charismatic daughter, resulting in an SLFP victory in 1994 that continues to this day, almost two decades on.

Furthermore in recent times, consider the performance of the Tamil National Alliance, which is the real political opposition to the government. This small, regional ethnic minority party, captures power in a provincial assembly, controls over thirty local government bodies throughout the North and East, pushes the government hard on its human and democratic rights records, seeks to represent and stand up for the minority religious communities both Muslim and Christian, stands up for democratic principles whether in defending Chief Justice Bandaranaike or supporting academic freedom alongside FUTA, while seeking constructive engagement with the UPFA Administration.

Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe has many lessons he can learn historically from Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike and currently from Rajavarothiam Sambanthan about being a viable opposition and over time a credible alternative government. But the current approach will over time only solidify what would effectively become a one party state, with the addition of some smaller parties representing specific and limited interests of which the UNP would also be one.

 

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