Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January, 2015

The delusion of a Rajapakse come back and the general election stakes

Posted by harimpeiris on January 28, 2015


The delusion of a Rajapakse come back and the general election stakes

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 28th Jan 2015)

 

The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe has been proceeding without a major hiccup and the issue making the most news daily has been the ongoing revelations of corruption against the former Rajapakse regime and extending up to its highest levels. The most news worthy post election development was the collapse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) into the lap of its longtime former general secretary, President Maithripala Sirisena.

Mahinda Rajapakse has delusions of making an immediate political comeback. Barely was the ink dry on the official president election results than he was visiting the SLFP office at Darley Road and summoning central committee meetings. Within forty eight hours or so of that meeting, the SLFP Chairmanship rested with President Sirisena.  Consequent to Maithripala Sirisena succeeding in securing the leadership and control of the SLFP, the balance of social and political forces in the country, essentially is a Maithripala Sirisena Administration, which is run by the UNP in association with other parties including the SLMC, the JHU and the early movers to Maithri within the SLFP. The rest of the SLFP are paying for their poor political judgment or lack of courage by sitting in opposition while supporting their new party leader’s Administration from outside the government. Given that the JVP and the TNA are also supporting the 100 day program, the government has solid support.

A delusion about a Rajapakse come back 

 

Looking at the political landscape one only sees the NFF of Wimal Weerawansa, the MEP of Dinesh Gunawardena for ethno nationalist reasons and the now largely irrelevant old left of Vasu, Dew and Tissa, for no apparent reason, still holding on loyally to the delusions of a political comeback at the general elections with Mahinda Rajapakse at the helm. There are multiple and almost insurmountable obstacles for this, which we shall briefly look at.

  1. Mahinda lost a nationwide poll

In what must be the most ungracious speech ever made welcoming a new Prime Minister, who after all did get the candidate his party backed elected president, MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena stated that Ranil Wickramasinghe was Prime Minister without having won a general election. True, but he forgot a bigger reality, that while the UNP led the NDF’s winning campaign, the real looser in the election was Mahinda Rajapakse and the politics of fear, authoritarianism, corruption and bad governance which he and sadly his extended family run government represented. With only 47% of the popular vote, a comfortable majority of the electorate voted against Mahinda and today we have the Maithri palanaye.

  1. A repeat of the 47% at a general election

Wimal Weerawansa, the politically orphaned leader of his small National Freedom Front (NFF) and possibly Dinesh Gunawardena, leader of the even smaller MEP have visions of Mahinda Rajapakse leading a charge of the light brigades and basically achieving a similar vote as the forthcoming general election and resulting in being the largest block, when the TNA and other constituent parts of the NDF contest the general elections separate from the UNP. There are several factors which mitigate against this scenario, which seemingly Wimal, Dinesh, Vasu and co have not taken into account.

  1. Mahinda is a rebel without a cause and a party  

Mahinda Rajapakse, at his zenith after the conclusion of the war, was clearly the most popular political leader in Sri Lanka. Even then though at the post war election of January 2010, fought on the basis of ending the war, his 57% of the popular vote could not match up to the 62% of the popular vote won by his predecessor in office, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. However Mahinda Rajapakse now has the ignominy of being the only executive president of Sri Lanka to have ever lost a presidential election. In every previous presidential election, the incumbent won and no sitting president was ever defeated at a re-election poll. Mahinda was so defeated. Having failed to retire from office at the end of two terms and loosing the unprecedented third term bid, the SLFP has dumped Mahinda Rajapakse as political leader. His reelection had no theme, other than fear mongering about minorities. The hope giving 47% which warms the cockles of the hearts of the diehards of the ancient regime, Wimal, Dinesh and co, was achieved with the support of the SLFP party machinery. The major obstacles for a Rajapakse comeback in opposition to Sirisena is the lack of a political party. The SLFP is with Sirisena.

  1. Having to run an opposition campaign

Furthermore, the Rajapakse’s are used to running national elections totally using the state machinery. As a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Rupavahini, it was deeply distressing to see the low depths to which the national broadcaster was forced into by the Rajapakse propagandists. Such tools, like the state media are no longer at the disposal of the Rajapakse’s and their dwindling band of never say die loyalists. There is no Samurdhi animators to distribute leaflets, no government money to fund the campaign and no state vehicles to be used in the campaign. Basil has taken wing, unlikely to return anytime soon.

  1. It is all about corruption

However, the real impediment to a Rajapakse return is that currently it is only a three weeks since the presidential election and the details and information on the massive corruption in the regime is still being collated and sorted out. Well before the general election, Mahinda Rajapakse, members of his clan in government and some acolytes and the inner coterie of his regime are going to be having to answer to the charges of massive, unprecedented corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels and the electorate will only reinforce the result they delivered on January 8th this year.

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President Kumaratunga and President Sirisena – winning the battle for the SLFP

Posted by harimpeiris on January 20, 2015

 President Kumaratunga and President Sirisena – winning the battle for the SLFP

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 17th January 2015)

 President Maithripala Sirisena ‘s election victory at the head of the National Democratic Front (NDF), was an amazing democratic exercise of a beleagued opposition which only a few weeks before the elections, no one would have believed would ever be a politically viable alternative to the mighty Rajapakse regime, came from behind to topple a deeply entrenched and authoritarian regime. The credit for the victory and this amazing turn of events has to largely go to the political foresight and adroit hard work of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who quite early on realized that the simple but near impossible formulae to defeat the Rajapakse regime, was a united opposition, a divided regime and a high turnout. It was President Kumaratunga who had the relationships and the political trust of both Ranil Wickramasinghe and Maithripala Sirisena to craft the deal that led to the formation of the National Democratic Front. The rest is now history.

The election defeat was not even considered a possibility by the inner circle of the Rajapakse regime, including the brothers and propagandists Dallas Alaperuma and Wimal Weerawansa. They forgot or disregarded to their peril a key teaching of Buddhism, that nothing is permanent in life. The Rajapakse regime, acted like it was a monarchy organizing a coronation rather than a political party contesting an election. Leading lights of the regime issued dire threats against those that dare oppose them. President Rajapakse himself spoke darkly of the famous ‘files” and violence was unleashed upon the Maithri campaign, with a number of meetings attacked and sadly one fatality. The NDF’s swan campaign hardly had a grassroots presence except in a few places and was completely outnumbered in terms of airtime on TV. But a mature electorate watched the Rajapakse antics quietly and delivered their verdict last week on 8th January, which resulted in only forty five (45%) to Mahinda Rajapakse and over fifty one (51%) to Maithripala Sirisena, now president of Sri Lanka.

A possible violent response to the defeat

 The initial response of the Rajapakse regime to imminent defeat was hardly democratic.  According to former Maithri campaign spokesman and current Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s formal complaint to the CID, the Rajapakse camp facing the inevitability of an electoral defeat conspired to thwart the democratic will of the people through the use of military force. A week or so before the election, there was a massive military troop deployment plan drawn up by a section of the security establishment by passing the normal channels and without the knowledge of the Commissioner of Elections or the concurrence of the Inspector General of Police. However, the democratic elements and wiser counsel in the state apparatus asserted itself, especially in the person of the Elections Commissioner and the IGP, who denied ad any request for military deployment and thwarted the attempt. The complaint to the CID by the new Foreign Minister is that his predecessor and an inner coterie of Rajapakse loyalists including Mohan Peiris were present during the plans to thwart the election results. The military’s lack of support for any illegal and extra constitutional measures meant that the Rajapakse family was on an early morning flight back to Hambanthota.

Parliamentary politics and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)

 It was apparently not clear to the inner coterie of the Rajapakse’s, that with their defeat at the polls the center of political gravity had shifted away from the Rajapakse’s and towards the Sirisena, Wickramasinghe, Kumaratunga combine. If this wasn’t apparent due to the results, the post election defection of yet more SLFPers to President Sirisena resulted in the parties of the NDF now enjoying a simple majority in the parliament. However, parliamentary polls are to be held within three months (or at the end of the one hundred days) and it has to be a particularly politically fool hardly exercise of anyone to hitch their wagon to a fading Rajapakse brand.

The breaking news as this article is being penned is that Mahinda Rajapakse is prepared concede the Chairmanship of the SLFP to Maithripala Sirisena, acknowledging perhaps the inevitability of the political trend. This situation, where President Sirisena controls the SLFP, actively supported by former President Kumaratunga and the UNP led by Ranil Wickramasinghe, promises the unique opportunity a truly national government or a grand coalition of the two principal political formations in the country towards implementing a nation building agenda. There is much to do to rebuild and repair the damage which the Rajapakse years did to the fabric of a democratic and free society in Sri Lanka, including the judiciary.

Electoral Reforms and the General Elections

 The one hundred day program of the National Democratic Front (NDF) promises electoral reforms and the introduction of a mixed electoral system, where there will be voting in constituencies and a “top up” of the seats proportionately to parties which poll higher than their seat allocation. The NDF is well advised to try and contest as an alliance, denying nomination to the tainted elements of the previous regime and exploring a grand national governing coalition which works towards creating a genuinely new Sri Lanka.

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The Maithri Presidency – The triumph of hope over fear

Posted by harimpeiris on January 20, 2015

The Maithri Presidency – The triumph of hope over fear

By Harim Peiris

 

President Maithripala Sirisena‘s election victory was a triumph of hope over fear. Maithripala Sirisena, dared us to hope, to hope and believe in a better Sri Lanka, a “Maithri palanaya” where Sri Lanka would be re-democratized, the rule of law restored, where cronyism would not be endemic, where corruption would not be an occupational past time of the rulers and where all Sri Lanka’s diverse peoples, including ethnic and religious minorities can live free from fear. Mahinda Rajapakse on the other hand, tried desperately to continue the polarization in our society, to frighten especially the Sinhala people about vague threats from various sources. We were asked to fear our fellow countrymen, be they Tamil or Muslim demonstrating that while Mahinda Rajapakse had to his credit led our country to a post war situation, he was completely unable to take us to a post conflict or harmonious, Maithri if you like, stage.

Initial stages of “Maithri Palanaya”  

 

The initial, first week of a “Maithri era” started off commendably. Winning against all odds and especially the unconscionable vitriol of the state media, the new president took his oath of office in a simple ceremony at Independence Square, to which the public were just welcomed to turn up. The clear message against post election violence has kept the same to a minimum, with law enforcement acting swiftly. More commendably there have been no visible signs of revenge taking on the defeated elements in Rajapakse regime, though eventually the law may take its course against law breaking, unless President Rajapakse negotiates a quiet retirement from political life in return for immunity from prosecution for many alleged misdeeds not least being an attempted coup in the face of electoral defeat, as well as corruption in the mega scale, untendered Chinese projects.

The alleged attempted coup

 

Former Maithri campaign spokesman and current Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has taken the lead in making a formal complaint to the CID about the alleged coup attempt by the Rajapakse’s as the inevitability of the electoral defeat became apparent late on election night and in the early hours of January 9th morning.  From about a week before the election, talks of a possible coup or attempts by the Rajapakse regime to hang on to power notwithstanding the election results was doing the rounds in the NDF campaign, diplomatic missions and political circles. The factual basis for the concern was a massive military troop deployment plan drawn up by the Chief of Defense staff, not only by passing the normal security channels, but more importantly without the knowledge of the Commissioner of Elections or the concurrence of the Inspector General of Police. The core of the plan was to deploy the military to take over key communications installations in Colombo, including the TRC and the state media, supposedly for their protection. Mercifully the democratic elements and wiser counsel in the state apparatus asserted itself, especially in the person of the Elections Commissioner and the IGP, who denied ad any request for military deployment and thwarted the attempt. The complaint to the CID by the new Foreign Minister is that his predecessor and an inner coterie of Rajapakse loyalists including Mohan Peiris were present during the plans to thwart the election results. The military’s lack of support for any illegal and extra constitutional measures meant that the Rajapakse family was on an early morning flight back to Hambanthota.

Restoring Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike to the Supreme Court Bench

 

The impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranaike in a farcical process or rather the absence of any due process, completed with a boycott of the then opposition in the parliamentary committee proceedings and against the rulings of the Appeal Court, together with military searches of the Supreme Court access roads, has resulted in the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the apex body of all lawyers in the country resolving that Mohan Peiris, the former defense ministry advisor appointed to head the bench after impeaching Justice Bandaranaike should vacate the bench and Justice Bandaranaike allowed to resume functioning in the office of Chief Justice. The legal position largely favored by the Bar Association is that Shirani Bandaranaike was never legally removed, so accordingly was never duly appointed and that his purported appointment was null and void and of no force and avail in law. President Sirisena demonstrated his own views on the matter very clearly when he chose not to sully the start of his “Maithri Palanya” by taking his oath of office in front of Mohan Peiris. Accordingly the senior most judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Sripavan presided over the swearing in of President Maithripala Sirisena.

A mature Sri Lankan democracy

Sri Lanka has drawn the admiration of the international community once again on its mature democracy and the ability of our society to change political power peacefully. The election also showed a strong commitment by all Sri Lankans to a democratic process and way of life. Irrespective of ethnicity or religion there was high turnout and more importantly the Sri Lankan State system showed a strong systemic bias towards respecting the wishes of the people through election. The main government officials demonstrated a commitment to a free election, the police withstood enormous pressure and strove to be politically neutral and the military refused to be drawn into a political contest and use force on a democratic exercise. The underlying people’s support for a re-democratization of Sri Lanka, post the Rajapakse’s or a Maithri palanaye has begun.

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Presidential elections and losing the battle for a pluralist state

Posted by harimpeiris on January 6, 2015

 

 

Presidential elections and losing the battle for a pluralist state

Published in the January ‘15 issue of Direction Magazine

“Be still and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10)

 

As this article is being penned, in mid December, in time for the publishing deadline of Direction Magazine, the outcome of the presidential election is hard to predict. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s unprecedented attempt to secure a third consecutive term of office, which was only a few months ago, thought to be essentially a no contest, has in the contest of a breakaway from his own party suddenly become a tight race between a unified opposition’s mass movement and the government’s electoral machinery. Irrespective of the outcome of the election, the following socio political realities would face the Christian community and her churches leaders in the decades to come.

The pluralist state is being replaced by a Sinhala Buddhist state

 

Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic and a multi religious society. That is just a demographic fact of life. That the various different ethnic and religious communities live together as equals in this country has been the idea that has been consistently challenged by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist dogma since the Anagarika Dharmapala Buddhist revival, which also led to the first Muslim – Sinhala riots. The rather worrying feature of the current variant of Buddhist nationalism is not a Buddhist revival, in fact if Buddhist nationalists actually practiced their noble teachings of Buddhism rather than focusing on fighting for it, everyone may be better off. Rather today we have an anti minority religions attitude growing in society, fuelled by the enabling environment created by the Rajapakse Administration, which has basically provided the socio political space and tacit support if not overt support to such extremists groups as the BBS.

The barely commenced process of post war reconciliation

 

Even a casual reading of the recommendations of the Sri Lankan State’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Report (LLRC) would indicate that dealing with the effects and the causes of Sri Lanka’s three decades long civil has barely commenced. Post war, the Rajapakse Administration governed as if the end of the war required no post war reconciliation and hence, there has been little to no serious attempts to move forward the process of reconciliation. To the Church, which has a Biblical mandate for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), not only between God and man but also between man and man, a renewed community level push on reconciliation will be required, irrespective of who had won the election. We must remember that the Church is the only ethnically integrated social institution in Sri Lanka.

The challenge of Christian children being forced to practice Buddhism

 

The Government’s education system, of course inapplicable to the wealthier Christian kids in international schools, but very applicable to the vast majority in the public school system, are required as per the public examination syllabus and guidelines to compulsorily, study a religion as a subject for their ordinary (O/L) level examination. Since most government schools except for Colombo’s largest and best, do not offer “non RC” as Christianity is known, the vast majority of non Colombo Sinhala Christian children are forced by government policy to study Buddhism as an academic subject. While far from ideal, even this situation can be borne up, after all the Biblical Daniel learnt and indeed excelled in the language and literature of the Babylonians (Daniel Ch.1). However, in recent years, under the Rajapakse Administration for the first time Christian children throughout Sri Lanka, studying Buddhism are being forced to observe and practice Buddhism, including participating in pre-poya pirith, to take “Sil’ and offer pooja. This is a scandalous state of affairs, which is the worst unethical religious practice which violates not only all norms of decency but also is a violation of international standards of the rights of a child. The Church has been powerless to stop this outrage against her most vulnerable next generation.

The challenge to evangelism and informal practice of Christianity

 

Twenty five years ago as a young man, during the Premadasa presidency and the NGO Commission days, I participated actively in the then raging debate about unethical conversion, the issue being the ethics of conversion from one religion to another. On one such occasion in the mid 1990’s, I wrote a piece in the Daily News, where I clearly stated that though the argument was being made about the ethics of conversion, what was really being opposed through the discourse was conversion itself. Two decades later, the church has got outshouted in that debate, the issue is no longer the ethics of conversion, but conversion itself per se is taboo. Though actually it is the Christian community, which has declined in Sri Lanka/ Christians were 10.2% of the population according to the 1900 census, but currently only 7.5% of the population as per the 2012 Census. Further informal Christianity worship in rural homes, is under sustained attack through the Ministry of Buddha Sassana and unlawful police activity to restrict such worship with no basis in law whatsoever.

All these and more would be challenges to the Church in the years to come, should our Lord tarry to come. United in our diversity we may be able to stand and withstand (Ephesians ch.6) the above. Divided we will grow our churches, but be in strategic retreat, as in the above areas in our land.

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Diminishing prospects for a third Rajapakse term

Posted by harimpeiris on January 6, 2015

Diminishing prospects for a third Rajapakse term

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 6th Jan 2015)

 

President Mahinda Rajapakse has in the past been a master of the Machiavellian political art of divide and rule. There was not a political party represented in Parliament, which he was either unable to woo over to his side or breakaway at least one member. Even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members was not immune to Rajapakse charms or lures, its only Sinhala MP, Piyasena from the Ampara District crossing over to support the President in his own reverse Magna Carta, of the 18th Amendment, which consolidated all state power in the Presidency, removed independent governance institutions and eliminated term limits on the presidency. For such a political leader it is quite a unique feature that he has succeeded in once again almost uniting every other political force in the country except this time, they are all against him, led by his own general secretary and a significant swath from his own party, including his predecessor as president. From the main opposition UNP to the JVP, from the JHU to the SLMC and the TNA, from the Democratic Party of General Fonseka to the tiny Liberal Party of Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, from professional groups and civil society including artistes (who get assaulted by goons), lawyers and university academics are all united against a Rajapakse third term.  The common message of a united opposition, which is fielding a common candidate, is that enough is enough. Two terms is enough. Even Mahinda has no real rationale for explaining either the early election or the unprecedented attempt at a third term, except that he feels it is his duty. Taking this claim with a more than a pinch of salt, challenger Maithripala Sirisena and the united opposition has clearly stated that Rajapakse Administration mostly benefits the Rajapakse family and an attendant coterie and not really the country.

A Sinhala only game plan

 

A close analysis of both the 2005 and 2010 presidential election demonstrates that Mahinda Rajapakse was elected on a preponderance of the Sinhala vote. The razor thin 2005 victory grew by leaps and bounds following the war victory over the LTTE in 2009. However, as any marketing specialist would say, it is impossible to defend a monopoly in a competitive environment. Accordingly Mahinda Rajapakse was always going to be vulnerable in a challenge to his Sinhala base. That challenge has come and come with a vengeance. It was not really possible in 2009 right after the end of the war. But in 2015, five years down the road, the primary issues are not security but non corrupt governance and economic well being. On these counts, the Rajapakse Administration was vulnerable and demonstrated its vulnerability in the Uva provincial polls and it has been downhill from there. The opposition united, his party split, the allegations against the president and his family are made openly and his campaign is reduced to a state machinery run façade with diminishing public support.  The latest to break away from the Rajapakse’s is the young deputy minister for investment promotion, lawyer Faizer Mustapha, who pledged his support to the common opposition challenger Maithripala Sirisena.

Rajapakse Governance benefiting the Rajapakse’s’

 

The presidential election campaign has created the political space for unprecedented attacks and assaults on President Rajapakse and his governance. Now this would be normal in a democracy, but Sri Lanka has been one of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists and free speech during the Rajapakse years, from the murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga to the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, leading to strict self censorship, especially on criticism of the Rajapakse’s in the Sinhala media. The lid though is partially off, given a presidential election and the basic allegation against President Rajapakse is that he has done a de facto transformation of a multi party democracy into a near absolute monarchy complete with a ruling family, a dynastic project and a designated natural heir apparent. This is being challenged within the Sinhala constituency and Mahinda Rajapakse needs to only lose some support among the Sinhala electorate to be vulnerable to an electoral loss in a straight forward two person contest and Sinhala support seems to slipping away sufficiently to indicate that Mahinda verses the rest may be a losing proposition for the incumbent.

A Chinese conspiracy verses a Western conspiracy

 

The Rajapakse camp likes to allege a western conspiracy in the opposition campaign. However, as the old English saying goes, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. The Rajapakse’s western conspiracy theory has no evidence and has hence not had traction with the public. On the contrary the Rajapakse Administration can be faulted for turning Sri Lanka into a Chinese dependency by mortgaging our futures and national assets at loan shark interest rates in opaque mega deals to the Chinese, dispensing with all tender procedures, resulting in the most expensive high ways in the world.  Clearly the Rajapakse campaign does not seem short of money. Leaving aside the abuse of state resources, the “Nil Balakaya” besides alleged goon squads, seems to have endless supply of money. The voters will give their verdict on January 8th, where the real conspiracies seemly exist.

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