Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for May, 2016

President Sirisena at the G7 Summit – The Yahapalanaya Foreign Policy

Posted by harimpeiris on May 30, 2016

President Sirisena at the G7 Summit – The Yahapalanaya Foreign Policy

By Harim Peiris

 

President Maithripala Sirisena, together with a team of senior ministers, including Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrama, Ravi Karunanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera and Navin Dissanayake, participates by invitation at the G7 Summit, that elite collective of the world’s richest and most economically powerful nations which drive the global economy and whose economies together comprise a significant part of global economic output. This is the first time ever that a Sri Lankan head of state has by invitation, participated in the G7 Summit and it marks a remarkable turnaround in Sri Lanka’s international standing and honour among the community of nations.

 

It is no secret that under President Rajapakse, during his second term of office, Sri Lanka’s foreign relations and place in the world, stewarded by the good Professor GL Peiris (no kinsman, I hasten to add), sank to new lows, with deteriorating relations with Sri Lanka’s largest trading partners from the US, India, UK and the EU. With regard to relations with the latter, Sri Lanka lost its GSP plus preferred trade status, with an estimated annual loss of over half a billion Euro. With regards India, Sri Lanka so antagonised our giant neighbour, that it reversed a long standing policy on country specific resolutions at the UN, to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. This despite President Rajapakse’s jumbo delegations to all international fora and ultimately unsuccessful prestige exercises like attempting to host the commonwealth games in Hambanthota. The short sighted, adversarial and confrontational attitude adopted with the UN, especially in Geneva, did not serve Sri Lanka’s long term interests and only resulted in our slowly descending to near international pariah status in the company of other controversial and barely legitimate rogue regimes around the world.

 

Sri Lanka was often spoken of, in the same breath and in the same vein as such international hot spot trouble areas as Syria, Sudan, Libya and North Korea. In tandem with our relative international isolation, Sri Lanka’s balance of payments became hostage to large scale Chinese white elephant projects, mostly in Hambanthota, financed with commercial loans at extremely high interest rates, including an empty convention centre no one uses, an airport that no airline found commercially viable to fly to, a port which few ships wanted to berth at, among others. The Chinese cannot really be faulted for not looking a gift horse in the mouth, it is the Rajapakse Administration’s capriciousness, which the voters ultimately and rightly held accountable.

 

The silent, democratic revolution of January and August 2015, is no more visibly successful than in the area of foreign policy. On many other fronts, civil society partners and allies of the rainbow coalition’s national government may be impatient at the slower than expected pace of reforms, though the politically savvy leaders, opinion makers and dignitaries in the international community, all grant the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration, due credit for the policy and political changes that have been wrought. While the pace of reform may be less than many hope or wish for, there is little doubt about the new direction of the country, or that Sri Lanka is democratizing after a disastrous slide to authoritarian totalitarianism post the 18th amendment to the constitution together with the dubious jailing of the defeated presidential candidate and war winning army commander Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka and the impugned impeachment of Chief Justice Shiranie Bandaranaike. It is a testament to the domestic policy, political and governance changes wrought by the Yahapalanaya Administration, that President Sirisena has been invited to participate in the G7 Summit and that Sri Lanka has been given a seat at the table with the world’s elites, once again a proud, valued and equal partner in the international community of nations.

 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration, guided and directed by Minister Mangala Samaraweera, has shifted from the Rajapakse Administration’s frantic search for international allies to support its cause, to a situation where the allies have been won and the goodwill towards Sri Lanka and her peoples has been created. Sri Lanka’s past desperate search for friends abroad, a la Rajapakse style was to replace our foreign service officials with political appointees, substitute public relations firms for the work our embassies normally do, engage in foreign jaunts of dubious value with jumbo delegations and a so called “pivot to Africa” which resulted in nothing much beyond some very expensive new embassies in African nations. From such a disaster, Sri Lanka has recovered under the current Administration, but the challenges remain.

 

Sri Lanka needs to progress on domestic mechanisms and processes of dealing with the human losses, tragedies and pain of a near three decades long civil conflict, in a manner which inspires both local and international confidence with a guarantee of non-reoccurrence and adequately provides redress and closure to the many direct victims of the conflict. Further, not only in the former conflict theatres of the North and East, but also in the rest of the country, Sri Lankans need a clear economic peace dividend, with a war and violent conflict, no longer reasons which a government can blame for low economic growth. As Sri Lanka consolidates as a middle income nation, it is increased exports or international trade and foreign investments, rather than foreign aid, which will be the drivers of our future economic growth on a sustained basis. Real challenges for the long term remain and President Sirisena’s and Sri Lanka’s unprecedented seat at the G7 Summit, is a real boost in addressing those issues.

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Lessons not heeded

Posted by harimpeiris on May 17, 2016

Lessons not heeded

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News)

 

The latest drama in a long running saga of the power struggle in the SLFP between President Sirisena and his predecessor has become the May day rally, with the former president and an as yet unknown number of his political allies in the SLFP, intending to attend the joint opposition’s May Day rally in Colombo rather than the SLFP rally in Galle. However, the SLFP’s discomfiture in the national government, brought about by a section of the party refusing to sit with the government, is a bit of a self-inflicted wound from which it is slowly healing, with President Sirisena slowly but surely beginning to prevail.

President Sirisena, chose the less risky and less politically costly method of dealing with his predecessor who refuses to retire, of letting him fade away and become stale news rather than precipitate a crisis by trying to sack him from the SLFP. Long term this will work, simply because the Rajapakse political project and its joint opposition does not have the political capacity to reinvent itself or be flexible, it remains stuck in the same old dogma that lost it two elections in 2015, a formula of essentially Rajapakse verses the rest and a purely Sinhala only constituency which does not provide the formulae for any political comeback. It is however a political refuge for the non SLFP small alliance partners of the UPFA, who profit by trying to use the former president as a de facto opposition leader.

The SLFP in the joint opposition make some arguments which just does not make sense or hold water in relation to a national government. They keep referring to the Government as a UNP government, but it is in every sense, a partnership between the two parties. There are almost as many SLFP members in government as UNP ministers and deputies and further the SLFP has in President Sirisena, the constitutional head of government and state. Further the SLFP members in opposition act like the SLFP has never had coalitions or alliances in recent times and this is patently not correct, since the SLFP back in 2000 and the original formation of the UPFA, by the then PA, was to accommodate the JVP. These were of course all instances in which the SLFP then had a majority in Parliament, while the post August 2015 experience has been that the SLFP is second best in Parliament in relation to the UNP. But the SLFP should be positive about the national government initiative which enables it to continue in office, even after losing the general election.

The real obstacle of course to a national government is Mahinda Rajapakse. Were he to bow to the will of the people who voted him out of office, (the only incumbent executive president to have sought re-election and lost) and really retires and leaves the joint opposition to be actually led by Dinesh Gunawardena, the SLFP would be free to continue to serve in government, effect state reform and then come before the people again at the next general elections. The two major parties in a country coming together to form a government and then contesting against each other again at subsequent elections is not an unusual occurrence politically, especially in countries such as Germany, where the so called grand national coalitions are formed.

President Maithripala Sirisena is slowly gaining ground within the SLFP or rather even amongst its constituency who may have voted against him in 2015, not so much from any one spectacular move but through a process of numerous measures. As SLFP organisers are changed to new persons loyal to President Sirisena, with a new UPFA general secretary unsympathetic to the former president, through slow but steady progress in various judicial proceedings against the former regime and mostly due to the lack of any new message or a course or policy correction, the Rajapakse magic which slid into minority status in January 2015 and confirmed that status in August 2015, cannot expect a different result from an even more enthusiastic rendering of the same old tune that lost twice in 2015. The Joint Opposition expects the electorate to turn back the clock to pre January 2015 and accept that public made a big mistake in 2015. That is unlikely to happen. Mahinda Rajapakse and his advisors and coterie thought they could win the presidential election and could not. This at the height of their power. Their similar enthusiasm for a local government election, the most difficult election for an opposition, due to a second string contesting an election which cannot change the government or state power, will similarly see his proposed new political formation lose yet again. As Mahinda Rajapakse gradually loses his grip on the SLFP machinery, those backing him have a harsh choice, buck the two party trend and try and make it in a third political formation or fall in line with the new leadership of the SLFP.

Sir Lankan political history has been unkind to third party efforts, most recently in August 2015 to both the JVP and more drastically to Field Marshal Fonseka’s Democratic Party. It was over twenty years ago that the Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake combination, the UNP breakaway DUNF garnered about 13% of the popular vote, the best third party showing in Sri Lanka to date. The big difference even between Lalith and Gamini’s breakaway was that it was political while Rajapakse’s decline in the SLFP is electoral, he and his brothers are out, because they lost. The formulae that made them loose, that they lost the support of every socio political sector except for a section of the majority ethno religious block, persists. Their dismal record of governance is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. The Joint Opposition as they plan their May day rally, would be entirely unrealistic if they believe in a comeback anytime soon.

 

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Learning the lessons of 1994 for constitution making in 2016

Posted by harimpeiris on May 16, 2016

Learning the lessons of 1994 for constitution making in 2016

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 28th April 2016)

 

Sri Lanka elected a new President, full of promise of reforms, of re-democratizing Sri Lanka, of correcting the wrongs of the past, of making government more people friendly, of resolving long outstanding issues of inclusivity and tolerance towards minorities and reforming the economy from a crony capitalist one to a social market economy. The winning coalition overthrew an entrenched incumbent administration, which had successfully if somewhat brutally crushed a concerted armed rebellion against the State. The ethno religious minorities in the country had enthusiastically supported the winning candidate and Sri Lanka seemed poised for a bright future. No, not Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 at the head of the National Democratic Front but Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, twenty years ago in 1994 at the head of the People’s Alliance.

 

The similarities of the situation between 1994 and 2015 as outlined above are almost uncanny. But the twin elections of 2015, provide yet another opportunity for Sri Lanka, to resolve our differences and move forward as one nation with a new social compact, which would be mutually beneficial to all our peoples. We didn’t entirely grasp our chance in 1994 and an opportunity was missed. As a nation, we must not miss, this historic opportunity, to effect the reforms of the Sri Lankan State, to ensure that the Sri Lankan State is more democratic, just and inclusive and accommodates equitably the full diversity of our pluralist society. There are many lessons of our failures in 1994 which if learned and avoided in the present time, can likely lead to a success of the makeover of the Sri Lankan State, which is being attempted by the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe, bi partisan administration.

 

The major difference and indeed opportunity of the present time from 1994, is the absence of the LTTE and the armed, violent and militant expression of Tamil nationalism which existed previously. The spoiler of all efforts at state reforms, democratization and economic development was the LTTE. And the brutal armed conflict they waged. A relevant achievement of the Kumaratunga Administration with assistance from the UNP, during an uneasy prior period of cohabitation was to convince the world and especially India, that the Sri Lankan State and the Southern polity was genuine about state reform while the LTTE was the obstacle to a solution. The absolute political intransigence of the LTTE, driven at least in part by an over estimation of its own military capability as well as political myopia during the decade long attempt at a negotiated political solution facilitated by the Royal Norwegian Government, contributed in no small part to the LTTE’s international isolation and international community consensus that Sri Lanka and indeed the world was better off, without the LTTE. Sri Lanka was fully supported by the world in our fight against the LTTE, from arms, ammunition, military hardware, jet aircrafts, naval vessels, intelligence sharing and crucially post 9/11 chocking off the LTTE’s international supply of money and weapons. Once the Indians facilitated the sinking, by the Sri Lankan Navy, of four or five LTTE arms ships on the high seas off our coast, the writing was on the wall for the LTTE. Their disastrous leadership of the Tamil polity, ended in 2009, on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon and any vestiges of nostalgia for them among the Tamil polity, is merely a reflection of the unfinished work of a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

We need to ensure that the hard won peace is durable and sustainable. There are several lessons from the missed opportunities of the past, which we can learn from, for the present.

 

  1. Cannot pursue politics of the LTTE

The first lesson from 1994 is that the politics of the LTTE, cannot be pursued by their new democratic successors in the Tamil political leadership, namely the Tamil National Alliance. In the bigger scale of things, Sri Lankans are blessed with the sagacity of the genial Rajavarothian Sambanthan, leader of the TNA who replaced Vellupillai Prabhakaran as the undisputed leader of the Tamil people, ably supported by his core team of Mavai Senathirajah and the young MA Sumanthiran. The more extremist elements of the Tamil polity, inspired as they are by alienated and self-appointed political orphans in the Tamil Diaspora have been repeatedly rejected at the polls by the people, the best example being that the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) of Gajenkumar Ponnambalam actually polled less votes than the Sinhala nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the Jaffna District in the August 2015, general elections. Elements in the TNA who also sought not so subtly to support the ACTC at the polls, were rebuffed by the Tamil people. President Kumaratunga was widely popular in Jaffna in 1994 and the LTTE saw this as a threat and scuttled talks in 1995. Likewise, President Sirisena is trusted in the North today, they voted overwhelmingly for him in 2015 and this is an opportunity rather than a threat and needs to be grasped by the Tamil political leadership.

 

  1. The Muslim Community matters

The other lesson of the 1994 era and more recently is that the Muslim community and their political concerns matters. It is a matter of deep regret, that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, politically moderate, secularly led and deeply integrated into national life in Sri Lanka has been at the receiving end of violence, from extreme elements in both the Tamil and Sinhala polity. The expulsion of Northern Muslims from Jaffna by the LTTE and indeed even from the Vanni, can only be defined as “ethnic cleansing”. More recently in the post war era, the assaults on the Muslim community, by extreme elements of the Sinhala community, captured also on video camera, with attacks on Mosques from Dambulla to Grandpass to Durgha Town, at a time when all Muslim parties were in the then Rajapakse Administration, meant that not a single Muslim vote went to Mahinda Rajapakse at the January 2015 presidential elections and the Muslim community continues to remain a solid block of support for the current administration. Their concerns of electoral representation, the security of their community and the right of minority religious observances and practice, together with other land, and  equity issues needs to be addressed in the process of constitution making and state reform.

 

  1. Timing is important

Finally, the constitution making experience of 1994 demonstrated that timing is all important. A new constitution cannot be brought to Parliament, on the eve of a general election and at the tail end of a term of office. In 1994 there was little choice for an Administration which had only a single seat majority in Parliament. The situation in 2016 is markedly different with a National Government which enjoys a two third majority in Parliament and politically only a sufficient consensus is required to see through major reforms, as the dynamics of the 19th amendment last year and indeed the motion for a new constitution last month demonstrated. Moving ahead on the constitutional reform process, so that it is completed and comes before Parliament and the people, early next year will also be crucial to the success of this national endeavour. We, as a nation cannot afford to fail this time around and must learn from and profit from our many mistakes of the past.

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