Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2016
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Archive for January, 2016

The Embilipitiya death, GSP Plus and a challenge for Yahapalanaya By Harim Peiris, MBA.

Posted by harimpeiris on January 29, 2016

The Embilipitiya death, GSP Plus and a challenge for Yahapalanaya

By Harim Peiris, MBA.

 Published in Groundviews on 29.1.2016

Sumith Prassana Jayawardena would not normally be a household name. But his sudden and violent death in Embilipitiya following an altercation and clash between guests and the Police at a social function, has become an issue of national interest and indicates the challenges of implementing Yahapalanaya. The story line in Embilipitiya is not unfamiliar in Sri Lanka. There is a clash between citizens and agents of the state, a citizen (or citizens) dies and life goes on. Occasionally as in Embilipitiya, as with Weliveriya and the Free Trade Zone, before this, there is a social outcry for justice, multiple investigations are launched until public attentions drifts and nothing comes out of it. The “Trinco Five” and the Prageeth Eknaligoda case are different because they seem prima facie to be abduction and murder and both are now before the Magistrates Courts, the former proceeding much slower, than the later.


However these issues come at a time, domestically and internationally when the status quo of a culture of impunity, is being challenged and is due for a change. Domestically the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January last year and the subsequent election of Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister on a platform of good governance and state sector (as well as economic) reform means, that there is a serious reconsideration of the nature of governance of the country. Basically post the war, the Mahinda Rajapakse Administration continued to govern Sri Lanka, as if a war was still on, with the same mindset, the same restriction on civil liberties, the same ethnic polarization and the same primacy or mantra of national security above all else. It was a formulae that wore thin among a majority of Sri Lankans, despite heated nationalist rhetoric as the election results of January and August, last year bear out.


Another fundamental difference since August last year, has been the establishment of the Independent Commissions, including the Independent Human Rights and Police Commissions. These two institutions have already started to act genuinely independent of the Executive and the difference from the Rajapakse years, is that there is no overt or covert pressure on them to white wash wrongs and sweep things under the carpet. Accordingly Independent Institutions, often now headed and staffed by civil society actors and those who genuinely believe and are committed to the principles of good governance and institutional reform are holding the executive branch including law enforcement and the security establishment to account. What state agents are finding is that the usual political pressure brought upon independent institutions to back off, beyond the farcical charade required to demonstrate some actions for international and domestic consumption, is missing this time.


Internationally Sri Lanka is making a comeback as a proud and equal member of the community of nations, distancing ourselves from the near pariah status to which the Mahinda Rajapakse foreign policy, managed by Professor GL Peiris and Sajin Vass Gunawardena had led us to. From seeking to regain the GSP Plus status for our exports to the European Union, which is largely dependent on our human rights situation, to the UNHRC process on accountability, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has a new focus on human rights that would serve our economy and our people well. The world is watching closely to see if the Maithripala / Wickramasinghe Administration is genuinely committed to and implementing the program and policies of reform which it promised the electorate at two elections and which were mandated by the sovereign people of Sri Lanka.


During Sri Lanka’s near three decades of war, there was a near national consensus and a clear governing elite’s consensus that as Cicero argued in the Roman Senate and as quoted by then President JR Jayawardena “in the fight of good against evil, the laws must be silent”. Initially there was the attempt to contain this maxim to the theatre of conflict, but over time it spilled over to the South and was finally used throughout the country. The final targets of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), were Azath Sally and Tissanayagem, one a politician and the other a journalist, both opponents of the then Rajapakse Administration, but never terrorists by any definition, except in the PTA and a pliant Attorney General’s Department.


The Rajapakse’s and their ideologues would argue that human rights is a western concept and that any argument in favor of a citizen or an individual’s right, is not in the national interest. That the primacy of the interest of the state and her agents must be paramount. However as history, including our own has shown us, it is power as much as the individual, who requires laws to contain and to be managed. Unchecked power is always dangerous. As Lord Acton was to famously state, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Absolute and unchecked power to the state only weakens and disempowers the citizen. At a time when we are taking about constitution making and the sovereignty of the people in our Sri Lankan republic, such sovereignty is not only exercised through our collective identity in the State, but also in our fundamental individual rights, including that most basic right to life, a right which was denied to Sumith Prassana Jayawardena, Prageeth Eknaligoda and the Trinco Five among many others. To the extent we hold those responsible accountable and eliminate the culture of impunity or state agents operating above the law, we have come a long way as a nation.


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Reflections on the “Maithri Palanaya” after one year By Harim Peiris MBA

Posted by harimpeiris on January 11, 2016

Saturday 9th January 2016, will mark the completion of one year of the Maithripala Sirisena presidency and it is an opportune time to reflect on the past one year of the Maithri Palanaya.

The first aspect of course about the Maithri presidency is that it occurred at all. Mahinda Rajapakse was deeply entrenched in power and seemingly determined to govern for generations. However the inevitability or unsustainability of a purely mono ethno religious support base, even that of the majority community, caught up with Mahinda Rajapakse. Even the Sinhala people, or at least a significant section of it seems to have tired of their champion, governing Sri Lanka like a personal fiefdom, with family bandyism, rampant corruption and scarce respect for the rule of law.


The inauguration of the Sirisena Presidency created a sharp change in the Sri Lankan presidency and how Sri Lanka was governed, most radically in the area of democratic good governance, the key issue on which the presidential election was fought. Sri Lanka immediately became a freer, tolerant and inclusive society. Roads around Colombo Fort which were blocked off was opened, the country wide deployment of the military under the Public Security Ordinance was discontinued, giving the civilian police force once again the primary responsibility for law and order. Some of the war affected Tamil civilians; living was IDPs in their own country were allowed to return to their hereditary and ancestral lands and the pervasive culture of fear which the Rajapakse’s engendered and exploited was removed. The white van culture was discontinued.


19th Amendment and Independent Commissions


Sri Lankan voters one year ago, had a clear choice, between Rajapakse’s promise of an economic developmental society and Sirisena’s promise of a democratic society, with the implication that democratic good governance was not mutually exclusive with economic development. A majority of Sri Lankan’s opted for a more democratic, pluralist and well governed society to those desiring even more of Rajapakse rule. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have basically received the free or freer society they voted for. Undergirding this change was the 19th amendment to the Constitution which limited the powers of the executive presidency, reestablished term limits and essentially  repealed the draconian 18th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, which Rajapakse had pushed through to consolidate his iron grip on power. Further subsequent to the 19th amendment and the subsequent parliamentary elections which saw Rajapakse allies and cronies relegated to a rump in Parliament, the independent Commissions were formed, ensuring that Sri Lanka once again become a society governed  by institutions and laws.


Dramatic improvement in Foreign Relations


The field of foreign relations saw a dramatic change around in Sri Lanka’s international relations as a result of the Sirisena Presidency. Sri Lanka, which had become a near international pariah state, due to the attitude, actions and policies of the Rajapakse Administration, suddenly witnessed a sea change in its relations with the outside world. Whether with the UN, the EU and the Western nations or especially with India, relations improved significantly. Sri Lanka which was facing censure and worse at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, was able to co-opt the process and make what was previously an adversarial process, into a cooperative endeavor between Sri Lanka and her friends. The very difficult relationship with our key donors and trading partners, especially the EU, US, India and other western allies were reversed and repaired due to addressing and dealing with their legitimate concerns regarding Sri Lanka’s international law and treaty obligations on human rights and accountability issues.


End to attacks on Mosques and Churches, while reestablishing rule of law


The consequential departure of the former Defense Secretary and some other changes in the defense establishment witnessed a complete and immediate halt to anti Muslim and anti Christian violence by the organized hate groups, patronized by the previous regime. These hate groups still retain their extremism but cannot indulge in violence with impunity.

A crisis for democracy in Sri Lanka was the low depths to which the rule of law and the justice system had sunk to. The ultimate nadir was surely the purported removal of Chief Justice Bandaranaike through a fatally flawed process and the installation of an interloper as Chief Justice. Ending the farce which was the higher judiciary under an interloper was a significant step towards an impartial judiciary.


Looking ahead to a new constitution


The year 2016, promises a new constitution which abolished the executive presidency, changes the electoral system and reforms the Sri Lankan state, so that it accommodates the full diversity of her society, which through devolution of power together with power sharing at the center and greater and guaranteed fundamental, individual democratic freedoms promises to create the platform for a new Sri Lanka in the decade ahead. While a new constitution may not be a panacea for all our ills, if the supremacy of a  new constitution is adopted with the enforcement through a constitutional court, it will certainly form the foundation for addressing the many other developmental and social challenges which Sri Lanka needs to address, for the shared prosperity of all her peoples.


(The writer is the Chairman of the Resettlement Authority. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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