Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for July, 2014

Ramaphosa and Government’s Policy shift on Reconciliation

Posted by harimpeiris on July 28, 2014

Ramaphosa and Government’s Policy shift on Reconciliation

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews and The Island)

 

Several weeks after Cyril Ramaphosa, Vice President of South Africa and Special Envoy of President Zuma to Sri Lanka, arrived in Sri Lanka to assist us in our search for durable post war peace and reconciliation, it is possible to observe several tactical moves by the Rajapakse Administration with regard to its post war reconciliation policies or the “North and East issues” as the Mahinda Chinthanaya, the Way Forward, manifesto of 2010, calls Sri Lanka’s unresolved ethnic problem.

 The Cyril Ramaphosa Visit

 That Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa, visited Sri Lanka at all was a small step forward for Sri Lanka’s snail paced post war reconciliation process. For the half decade after the end of the war, the government has been steadily stating that it will not entertain any foreign involvement in the post war reconciliation process. However, events overtook them and the international jurisdiction of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) resulted in repeated resolutions on Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). President Rajapakse also acknowledged Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law by signing in 2009, a joint statement with UN Secretary General, committing the country and his administration to three things, namely, post war rehabilitation, a political solution and accountability. However, there has been slow or no progress in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), notwithstanding claims to the contrary by the Administration, mostly because the national action plan on implementing the LLRC, does not really seek to implement the recommendation, only to make claims that no problem exists.

 Accordingly the Government now finds itself in the position, that the South African initiative is its only credible international alternative to the UNHRC process in Geneva and is accordingly compelled to engage with it. The engagement however has been less than competent. Firstly there is no formal interlocutor or counterpart appointed to deal with Special Envoy Ramaphosa, an uncoordinated two man act between Ministers Nimal Siripala De Silva and GL Peiris is not a formula for a cohesive government policy.  The farce with the Cabinet Spokesman claiming that the special envoy was a tourist on holiday, would have resulted in any other country, in the resignation of the Media Minister, at least as Cabinet Spokesman, but then Sri Lanka is, as the Tourist Board says, truly a land like no other. So despite the saber rattling by the Government’s resident in house pit bulls, namely the NFF’s Wimal Weerawansa and the JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, the South African initiative is on. It is now up to one of Africa’s most exciting and promising politicians to try and nudge the process forward and seek to restart a stalled reconciliation process. Regrettably the constraints of time prevented Vice President Ramaphosa from visiting Delhi after his visit to Sri Lanka, because the full support of the Indian government would be needed to provide the South Africans with international support, in facilitating reconciliation in Sri Lanka. There is suspicion in the West, that the South African process may be just to bail out the Sri Lankan government from the mess it finds itself in Geneva.

 The Reappointment of Maj.Gen (Rtd) Chandrasiri as the Northern Governor

 Demonstrating a schizophrenic approach to dealing with the Tamil people of the North, where the UPFA polled only 17% of the popular vote and that too mostly from Rishard Bathurdeen’s Muslim constituency of displaced northerners, the Rajapakse Administration just has no sense of even how to win friends among the Tamil polity or to have a minimum degree of consent of the governed. Major General Chandrasiri was the former Security Forces Commander in Jaffna and a good military officer. Upon retirement he was appointed Governor of the Northern Province, a majority Tamil province. During the Northern Provincial Council elections, Governor Chandrasiri, in an unprecedented act of political partisanship and in actions completely unbecoming a Governor, actively campaigned for the governing UPFA. He rushed around to their meetings, sat on their political stages and actively participated, if not led the Government’s state patronage led NPC polls effort. The result was a resounding repudiation of the Rajapakse Administration in the North, it secured only 17% of the popular vote. If the Governor had any self respect, he would have resigned. Now, perhaps in gratitude for his partisan politics he has been reappointed for five years more, demonstrating that the Administration is not serious in permitting the Northern Provincial Council to function, even with the extremely limited powers that provincial councils enjoy. The Governor’s real remit seems to be, to try and run the provincial administration by passing the Chief Minister and the elected representatives of the Tamil people, through the Chief Secretary and the military.  

 The Appointment of  Experts to assist the Commission on Missing Persons

 In an action that again ran counter to the strident rhetoric of Sinhala nationalist elements in the Government and its stated repudiation of both a war crimes probe and international experts, the Rajapakse Administration reversed itself on both these counts, though it did so after effectively ensuring total silence on the same in the Sinhala media. The government by gazette extraordinary,  not only extended the term of the “Disappearances Commission” headed by retired Judge Maxwell Paranagama, which has to date received over nineteen thousand complaints of missing persons, but also expanded the scope of its activities to include an examination of whether war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka’s civil war. To add icing to the cake it appointed three distinguished international legal experts, with relevant expertise on war crimes and related issues, to assist the commission. One can only hope that the under resourced Commission and its mandate undefined experts would be successful in addressing these contentious issues that are obstacles to post war reconciliation and a durable peace in Sri Lanka. 

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The BBS and a catalyst for a Buddhist Muslim conflict

Posted by harimpeiris on July 28, 2014

The BBS and a catalyst for a Buddhist Muslim conflict

By Harim Peiris

(Published on Groundviews and the Island)

 

The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sri Lanka’s catalyst for opening up a new Buddhist verses Muslim conflict, perhaps due to boredom now that a thirty year civil war has ended, follows more by design than accident a classic military strategy of an escalation or advancement and then a tactical retreat due to over reach. Immediately after the previous attacks as well, whether in Dambula or Nugegoda, there was silence for awhile and similarly after the anti Muslim events of “Dark June 2014”, there has been a steady denial both by the state security establishment and the extremist perpetrators of responsibility for the violence, the former denying connivance and the latter denying instigation. Both want to blame a spontaneous mob.

Sri Lankan society unequivocally condemns

 Political leaders, both those allied with the government and the opposition have taken aim at the BBS  as an extremist group bent on violence against religious minorities, both Muslims but also Christians. The Government’s own ministers ranging from Rishard Bathuideen to Vasudeva Nanayakkara and including such stalwarts as DEW Gunasekera and Tissa Vitharana have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the BBS. The main opposition UNP, through its media spokesman former minister Mangala Samaraweera has directly held the state intelligence agencies responsible for support to the BBS, while the UNP’s area MP for Beruwela and Aluthgama, Palitha Thewaperuma has also alleged police cover up. Lawyers have alleged that the JMO is falsifying evidence regarding the deaths of the three Muslim persons, claiming stab wounds, when they were actually gunshot injuries, raising the question as to who carried guns that day. The Bar Association has formally lodged a complaint with the Attorney General’s department regarding the BBS and understandably the ethnic minority parties are even more concerned, with Minister Rauff Hakeem a publicly troubled man and TNA leader R.Sambanthan condemning the anti Muslim violence. Even President Rajapakse felt compelled to visit the victims, talk vaguely of compensation and thereafter claim, quite correctly, that the true Buddhist path was both moderate and non violent. Clearly the Sri Lankan polity is reacting negatively to the Aluthgama and Beruwela violence and the response has been two fold. Firstly the standard blanket denials, lacking much credibility but now more insidiously, a rationale for the violence.

The Dalada Maligawa attack did not enrage mobs

 The General Secretary of the BBS in a full page interview in a leading national newspaper, on Wednesday 16th July has sought to articulate what in essence is an excuse for not just the violence which occurred but also possibly lay the ground work for future violence. Firstly the ethics of giving extremist groups, the oxygen of free publicity and the veneer of respectability through media interviews, is itself an issue which should be avoided, given that Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha is on record in the same newspaper stating that the media should bear some responsibility for the rise of extremist groups, due to giving them undue prominence and free publicity. They are also intolerant, even of other monks, voicing contrary views and attack their press conferences

In the interview, the BBS chief states that a mob became incensed due to an alleged assault on a Buddhist monks, three days prior to that. However, mobs get enraged spontaneously and immediately, not after a three day cooling off period, unless instigated and orchestrated thereafter. The alleged assault on the monk or his driver over a traffic altercation was anyway before the courts. So the BBS rally was a contempt of court, since it was about a matter pending before courts.

Moreover, the gravest and most dastardly, cowardly and utterly contemptible attack of all time on the religious traditions of our country and society was the Dalada Maligawa attack by the LTTE. However, to the credit of Sri Lanka and her then leaders, there was no anti Tamil pogroms or a repeat of Black July’83, the folly of attacking civilians for a terrorist outrage had been learned. Highly unlikely that a traffic altercation unlearns those lessons without a lot of help .

A possible ground work for future violence 

The most troubling aspect of the BBS rationale for the violence of the past, is the ground work that it lays for further violence. Firstly is the claim that there are Muslim extremists and that it is these forces should be examined. The staunchly pro government National Shoora Council and the All Ceylon Jamaiyyatul Ulama are the BBS definition of extremist. Even if one considered some unknown Muslim activist groups in the East, there activities are not violent. Just perhaps fervent in religious belief and practice. As one young social media activist put it quite simply after Aluthgama “some people seem more interested in fighting and killing for their religion than in practicing its teachings and precepts”.

The other rationale for further violence lies in the premise, advanced by the BBS, that Sinhala Buddhists face threats from the other minority religious groups, the government is doing nothing about it and hence this may lead to further violence. Now the theory that Sinhala Buddhism is under siege, rather than progressing has been a thesis argued in the political arena especially by the JHU and  also the NFF. Especially during the Rajapakse presidency this message has just not resonated with the public. It is hard to imagine or portray President Mahinda Rajapakse as being a betrayer of Sinhala Buddhists in anyway. On the contrary, both the Tamil and Muslim communities, through their voting behavior clearly see his administration as hostile to them. Conversely the JHU and the NFF, which have been raising alarm bells about threats to Sinhala Buddhism has fared very poorly at the recent provincial polls. A message that does not resonate with voters, is now being touted by the BBS as the rationale for violence.

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A full frontal military assault on Mangala Samaraweera

Posted by harimpeiris on July 3, 2014

A full frontal military assault on Mangala Samaraweera
By Harim Peiris
(Published in Groundviews and the Island)

Late last week we witnessed the scenario where the Army spokesman, a brigadier in rank, made the unusual claim that current UNP spokesman and former Rajapakse Administration Foreign Minister, MP Mangala Samaraweera had compromised national security by alleging at a press conference, that state intelligence agencies or at least some intelligence chiefs, were supporting the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and that the Aluthgama and Beruwela anti Muslim violence was in fact an organized operation with state intelligence backing. An update to that allegation or rather to the traction that it gathered, was that the Defense Secretary, in a media interview published on July 1st, felt compelled to deny any personal involvement in alleged defense establishment assistance and help to the BBS or other extremist groups. He offered to resign if the allegations were proved.

Army Spokesman crosses a line

Firstly the Army spokesman crossed an important line in a democratic system by directly taking on an opposition political leader. As a former presidential spokesman, I would contend, that the role of the Army spokesman is to inform the public what the Army may be doing, not comment on what others, especially civilian politicians are doing. The Army getting involved in politics is a really bad idea.

Civilian oversight of the military is an important aspect of a democratic system of governance and if the defense establishment was aggrieved about any comments at an opposition press conference, the recourse was certainly not to directly take on the civilian democratic leader by a military officer in uniform. If the issue was political, then the rebuttal was up to the government. If the bone of contention was a security issue, based on the substance of the UNP spokesman’s claim, then the matter should have been referred to the Attorney General, for a determination as to a violation of any relevant law. Which according to press reports have now occurred, together with a complaint to the police. However, given that the issue has now been tried in the court of public opinion, with Mangala Samaraweera seemingly coming out on top, it is doubtful if a court of law can adjudicate fairly on the matter. The Army grievance does not seem so much to be with the allegation, as with the revelation of the identities of the intelligence chiefs. However in any democratic society, the identities of the senior most intelligence agency chiefs are public knowledge. The heads of the American CIA, the Indian RAW and the Pakistani ISI are not a state secret. In fact the Americans have a very public US senate confirmation hearing for the appointment of CIA chief.

Alleged Intelligence Chiefs assistance to the BBS

The Defense Secretary has in a media interview published on 1st July, denied that he is involved with the BBS. What is public knowledge in that regard is of course that he was the chief guest at the opening of the BBS Galle office and that Minister Rauff Hakeem tried desperately through the President to get the Defense Secretary not to go. He went. However, in the Defense Secretaries defense being a chief guest does not a conspiracy make.

Intelligence agencies as part of their core activities are often engaged in covert operations in support of their nation’s national security. For countries which assess their national security threats as being external, their intelligence agencies are active overseas, collecting information and thereby providing analysis for policy makers back home, but also engaging in covert operations. Sadly in the case of Sri Lanka, for much of our post independence history, we have to our shame, defined our enemies and consequently experienced our national security threats as being internal and coming from within ourselves. In the 1970’s it was the first JVP insurrection, in the 1980’s it was the Tamil militant movement, in the late 1980’s it was back again the second JVP insurrection and thereafter we had a full blown civil war with the LTTE. Now five years after ending the war with the LTTE, we have opened up a new conflict, this time against the Muslims.

Given this situation and that Sri Lanka is South Asia’s most militarized society, going by the ratio of security services to the population, when one includes in that number, in addition to the three services, the police, the STF, the auxiliaries and the civil defense force, it is hard to believe that state intelligence was either unaware or uninvolved in the new flash point and fault line in society, at least even in a benign way. Given the hate speech and vitriol spewed publicly by the hate groups, deemed incitory by all except for the police spokesman and the attorney general, going by the fact that no action is being taken against the BBS, despite a formal complaint by the Bar Association to the Attorney General. It is difficult to imagine that state intelligence was hands off the issue. Either way it was a colossal failure of security.

The rather obvious question that arises in the minds of independent observers from Sri Lankan citizens locally, to the international community and indeed our mayhem in Aluthgama and Beruwela was carefully noted by the UNHRC in Geneva, is whether the failure of security was due to a lack of ability or a lack of will. Given that Sri Lanka is highly militarized, few doubt the ability of state security to enforce law and order. The suspicion, which opposition spokesman MP Mangala Samaraweera voiced out loud was, that it was a matter of the administration’s will. Allowing minority bashing burnishes its Sinhala Buddhist nationalist credentials and increases support ahead of national elections. It works. Buddhist nationalist elements which dissented from the Rajapakse Administration over the casinos was back to defend the government on the anti Muslim violence. In Colombo’s diplomatic cocktail circuit for the past many months, after the phenomenal rise of the BBS and the enabling environment in which they operate, the vehicles they travel in, the buildings and offices they use and the deference of the police towards them, has been that the BBS has covert state patronage.

MP, Mangala Samaraweera was only stating publicly what many are stating privately and the opposition spokesman must be given the democratic space and opportunity to make his claim. Mangala may be faulted for many things, but a lack of courage is not one of them. Democracy and our future as a free society, demands that we defend his right to say it.

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From Black July’83 to Dark June’14 – A violent peace in Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on July 1, 2014

From Black July’83 to Dark June’14 – A violent peace in Sri Lanka

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in Groundviews)

 

Mobs on the streets, houses being burnt, people being attacked due to their race or religion, some being killed, the law enforcement and security services unable or unwilling to arrest the situation, that describes the streets of Colombo and the rest of the country in July 1983 and thirty years later, after a bloody civil conflict was brought to an end, we were at it again as a nation. Back then it was the Tamils, with a UNP President and administration, this time around it was the Muslims and the President and administration was SLFP. We seem to have a bi partisan problem with justice and social harmony. Paradoxically a nation which prides itself on an ancient history based on a tradition and religion of kindness and tolerance, has become an intolerant and violent society.  During the war with the LTTE, we blamed every atrocity on the exigencies of fighting a brutal foe. However neither the victims of July 1983 nor those of June 2014 were armed opponents of the state or civilians caught in the “fog of war”. They were ordinary fellow citizens and clearly we failed them and ourselves. The death and destruction was not on the battle field, it was on the streets of our cities.  Sri Lanka’s peace is a violent peace and we wonder why the world through the UNHRC keeps telling us in resolution after resolution, that our post war reconciliation is deficient and our democratic and human rights sadly wanting. The government acts indignant, but the reality of the ground situation is that the concerns are more than justified, not just internationally but domestically too.

The Sunday Times editorial of 22nd June 2014, put it this way. “It is the supreme irony of our time that, in claiming to defend Buddhism, a handful of monks with their hate speech and instigation to violence have managed to do quite the opposite. The mob attacks this week on Muslim houses and businesses in Aluthgama, Beruwela and Dharga Town drew international censure. Attracting equal if not more alarm was video footage of a radical Buddhist  monk spewing revulsion and animosity at the Muslim community during a public rally just hours before violence broke out. It is not the first time he has done this”.

Initial reports would indicate that there was certainly a clear enabling environment created for the violence to occur. An altercation which had occurred between a venerable monk or rather the driver of his trishaw and some youth was used several days later to spew venom and create the necessary background for an attack on the Muslim community. The altercation itself, was quite correctly handled by the local law enforcement,  suspects were in custody and the matter was before courts. However, the incident was used as a pretext for launching a hate campaign and a violent attack. That the violence was expected and anticipated by community and political leaders is made evident by the concerted efforts of Transport Minister Kumara Welgama, the UPFA leader for the Kalutara District, who did his best to get the meeting banned.

Again the Sunday Times, puts it this way, “In this country, brute force is used to crush labour and student protests, while court orders are secured at the drop of a hat to deprive the populace of their right to assembly. This time despite the very real prospect of violence, the precaution taken was pitifully inadequate and action came too late”.

The DIG of the area, refusing Minister Welgama’s request to ban the meeting, raises the very real question as to where the DIG got the guts to do so. Was there someone more powerful than a minster instructing the DIG to allow the meeting to proceed. Seemingly in response to that question, the UNP, through its Media Spokesman and director of political affairs, former Foreign Minister Hon. Mangala Samaraweera, has in a public and official statement claimed, that the BBS is a government backed organization and that it was fueling communal tensions.

The BBS is termed a “terrorist organization” by international defense analysts, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara wants them banned, Minister Rishard Bathuideen wants them brought before the law, Minister Rauff Hakeem is wringing his hands in public and supposedly hanging his head in shame at being in the government, Minister Kumara Welgama does not want them anywhere near his electoral district, almost all other Buddhist clergy and lay leaders disown their venom and their violence. Despite all this, the BBS rides on and rides high. Protected by an unseen hand, they spew hate against minorities, break up news conferences they disagree with, witness their opponents even in the Maha Sanga, such as Ven.Watarake Vijitha slashed with a blade, get prime land to build high rise headquarters in the heart of Colombo and clearly never fall foul of the law.

Paradoxically though, all this works to the political advantage of the Rajapakse Administration. Sadly in the world of real politic and especially in the run up to an election cycle, with crucial presidential and parliamentary polls expected early next year, after the Uva provincial poll, there is little reason to hope for a change. The Sinhala nationalist elements and their leaders, such as Ministers Champika Ranawaka and Wimal Weerawansa, who were dissenting  and distancing  themselves from the Administration on the issue of gambling and the casinos, flocked back to defend the Administration from criticisms by the Muslim ministers and left leaders. Nothing like a bit of minority bashing to get the hawks to flock together. In his defense, President Rajapakse did visit the affected areas, spoke with Muslim leaders and promised some form of compensatory redress, all of which was more than what President Jayawardena did after July 1983. But we should have learnt very much more since then. Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are forced to relive them.

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