Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January 6th, 2015

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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The SLMC and TNA also support Maithripala Sirisena for President

Posted by harimpeiris on January 6, 2015


The SLMC and TNA also support Maithripala Sirisena for President

By Harim Peiris

(published in The Island of 31st December 2014)

 

Tissa Attanayake leads an inconsequential group of political light weights, who post the Uva PC polls have crossed over from the opposition to the government, rumored to be for considerable sums of money. The real substantive political consolidation and coalescing of support has been in the opposition camp where common candidate Maithripala Sirisena has been making friends and influencing people at an astonishing pace. In contrast Mahinda Rajapakse finds himself without many of the people who stood by his side in the 2010 campaign; they are on his opponent’s political platform, explaining to Rajapakse’s constituency, why seven more years of Rajapakse rule would be disastrous for the country.

It is corruption verses development

 

The Mahinda Rajapakse camp seems short of ideas and stuck back in 2010 as far as their political message goes. Recognizing that economics or bread and butter issues as they are often called, matter to people, the government has been focusing on its infrastructure development plans. The counter to this, of course has been that the development has been with such significant corruption that we for instance have the world’s most expensive high ways. The Rajapakse Administration does not help their cause by violating every government tender procedure in the implementation of the mega projects.

Maithripala Sirisena is campaigning on constitutional reform, an end to corruption and good governance. The Mahinda Rajapakse Administration is campaigning and indeed governed as if none of these issues mattered to the Sinhala constituency as much as security and development. During the war, yes for the sake of security, a national consensus did exist to limit certain freedoms. But even at the height of the war, judicial independence and democratic norms were generally followed. It is really post the end of the war and after re election in 2010 that the Rajapakse Administration really lost their way, jailing the opposition presidential candidate, impeaching the chief justice, repealing the 17th amendment and centralizing all powers in the presidency, abolishing term limits, getting nearly 60% of the national budget directly under the control of Rajapakse family members, compromising our foreign relations with nations which had  supported our war effort and providing an enabling environment for communal violence against religious minorities to flourish. It is no surprise that the Muslim parties have now deserted him.

Maithripala Sirisena himself, personally as a seasoned politician, firmly believes in his own message. That the Sinhala electorate, though security conscious and wanting development is also extraordinarily proud of the Sri Lankan state and believe that it belongs to them. High literacy rates means that Sri Lanka has a fairly sophisticated electorate and a highly politicized society. Accordingly in such a context, the alleged abuse of state power by the Rajapakse’s (apparent in even the increasingly violent election campaign) which they believe does not matter to the Sinhala electorate, may actually prove to be their undoing. Abusing the Sri Lankan State, is unpopular among the Sinhalese. On January 9th, we will know.

The SLMC quits the Government

 

After weeks of consultations with their constituencies, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) of former Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, resigned all their posts in the Rajapakse led UPFA and pledged their support for the common opposition candidate. This follows the previous defection to the opposition of the ACMC of Rishard Bathuideen. The SLMC decision to quit the government seems popular with their rank and file all of whom have little sympathy for the Rajapakse regime. The SLMC did not make a major justification for their decision, their principal rationale was that in a process of consultation with the community, this decision was the message they received. Given that it is indeed so, this was the easiest argument to make.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) bets on a  future with a Maithri Palanya

 

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the third largest party in Parliament, with thirteen members, followed the SLMC on Tuesday 30th by formally announcing that it was requesting their supporters to support the candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena for president. The rationale they provided was along the lines of the SLMC but more articulate and forthright than the SLMC. Listing a litany of the governance issues including devaluing the judiciary, the TNA has essentially claimed that strengthening democracy was a priority and in the interest of all Sri Lankans including the Tamil people.

Now the Rajapakse campaign will use the TNA support and active participation in the opposition campaign in the North to allege an LTTE resurrection or a Tamil Diaspora plot. Clearly the Rajapakse Administration having fought the war claiming that it was only against the LTTE and not against the Tamil people and indeed claiming that the war was a humanitarian operation to liberate the Tamils from the clutches of the LTTE, have once the LTTE are defeated, now treating all the Tamil people not as a liberated people but as enemies of the Sri Lankan State. To the extent that ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka are alienated from the State, there is a political problem or challenge to be overcome through dialogue, rather than a politically opportunistic exercise to persist with ethnic polarization and social divisiveness. The Rajapakse regime’s own pre war Tissa Vitharana report or the post war LLRC reports on reconciliation gather dust as nonexistent processes.

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The TNA follows JVP strategy

Posted by harimpeiris on January 6, 2015

The TNA follows JVP strategy

By Harim Peiris   (Published in Groundviews)

 No less a person than the JHU’s General Secretary, Patali Champika Ranawaka, went on record over the past weekend, stating that every attempt at campaigning by the joint opposition is being violently and illegally suppressed by the Rajapakse regime. He stated that if democratic dissent and a genuine electoral process did not occur, the country would slip back to the era of extra parliamentary and violent opposition to the regime. A free and fair election, at least by Sri Lanka’s own flawed standards is a must for us to continue our claims to be a democracy. That claim is being negated by the unprecedented abuses of the entire election process by the Rajapakse campaign. Notwithstanding the same, the joint opposition campaign is graining traction, politically because the SLFP is not really running too hard on behalf of Rajapakse’s and administratively because officials and police are no longer certain that come January 9th that the Rajapakse regime will remain and accordingly are loath to accept illegal commands. The IGP standing up to the Law and Order Ministry on the illegal transfer of police officers is a good example.

It is in this context, that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Anuradhapura, His Grace Norbert Andradi, was quoted in the press earlier in the week as stating that this was not an opportune time for the Pope to visit Sri Lanka and claimed that several other Bishops too shared this view and also expressed concern about the misuse of the Papal visit for political advantage at the election. However, this caution about the visit, has been pulled back through a pastoral letter by the Catholic Bishops Conference welcoming and anticipating the visit. Now the Vatican foreign ministry and security desired to access the post election climate prior to making a final decision on the visit. However, the pre election environment has been so badly tarnished that for the Pope to visit Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of a disputed, flawed and violent election, might be just unsuitable for the Holy Father. However, many observers believe that the visit of the Pope will act as a damper to any thoughts of post election violence.

The TNA and the JVP  

Two important political parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) arguably the third and fourth political forces in the country, have both adopted a similar strategy, which is actually working well for the joint opposition’s National Democratic Front (NDF) of Maithripala Sirisena. The NDF holds out the promise of a National Government of both the UNP and the SLFP, under a “Maithri palanaye” in a post Rajapakse political environment. The general expectation is that with a Rajapakse defeat the SLFP will revert back to a Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena leadership, especially when it holds the promise of continued partnership in government, as opposed to languishing in opposition.

Not directly joining in this process, is both the JVP and the TNA for slightly different but also similar reasons. The JVP would be well placed to be the small but main opposition to a UNP- SLFP combine, while the TNA or its predecessor the TULF / Federal Party, which historically does not hold executive office in government, except for its one experiment under Dudley Senanayake, can continue to represent the interest of its constituency from outside the executive.

However both the TNA and the JVP will play a crucial role in the presidential election, because this early presidential election, wanted by no one expect President Rajapakse, is in fact, a request from Mahinda Rajapakse to continue to rule this country for seven more years ( six year term plus one from the current term) or until 2022 as opposed to retiring in 2016. The JVP is already busy telling their supporters countrywide that a further term for Mahinda Rajapakse is not in the interest of all Sri Lankans. Essentially the TNA is most likely to be telling its constituency the exact same thing. After all Sinhalese and Tamils have many if not more shared common interests, than just only competing ones. Listen carefully to ITAK spokesman, Human Rights lawyer MA Sumanthiran and several things become clear.

Firstly the ITAK / TNA believes that a democratic and law abiding Sri Lanka is beneficial to everyone including the Tamil people. After all minority rights cannot exist in an environment where all rights are at stake. Incidentally, MP Sumanthiran was a leading part of Chief Justice Bandaranaike’s impeachment defense team and put up a valiant fight to prevent the usurpation of judicial power by the Rajapakse presidency. Moreover, the Tamil people like to exercise their franchise, something which some misguided sections of the Tamil Diaspora should bear in mind as it supports the Rajapakse campaign’s dream of a Tamil vote boycott. It was such a Tamil boycott in the close 2005 election which saw Mahinda Rajapakse elected. On that occasion with allegations of having paid the LTTE money, via an alleged Tiran Alles deal to boycott the vote. History must not repeat itself. However, the real lesson of the 2005 election was this, in the Batticalo District, where the LTTE was weakened post the Karuna defection, the Tamil people disregarded the LTTE boycott call and voted in droves for the UNP. If the LTTE could not stop the Batticalo voter in 2005, one pities some Diaspora busybodies, playing to the Rajapakse campaign’s dreams of seeing a Tamil vote boycott in 2015.

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