Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for June, 2016

A small problem with Gota

Posted by harimpeiris on June 16, 2016

A small problem with Gota

By Harim Peiris

 

The joint opposition after its May day rally seems to running out of steam. It is always difficult to have a sustained opposition campaign with no election or democratic opportunity of government change in the offing and the leading lights of the joint opposition (JO), basically the small party allies with the UPFA and a little over a third of the SLFP has been trying to oppose the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe national government almost before the ink was dry on the results sheets of their twin electoral defeats in 2015.

 

The latest setback for the JO was the comprehensive defeat of their no confidence motion against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. Not only was the motion defeated but it almost touched the two thirds mark with one hundred and forty-five (145) votes against, with one hundred and fifty (150) being the magical two thirds. The JO could only muster fifty-one (51) votes and that with the JVP voting for the motion. The main opposition TNA abstained. What the voting in Parliament demonstrated is actually the parliamentary strength which the National Government commands, when it uses a three-line whip and has essential business to accomplish. Even its much amended budget was finally passed with more than a two thirds majority and of course the motion to create a new constitution, which had all the potential to be controversial was adopted unanimously. This is in no small measure due to the consensus creating ability of President Sirisena, who by nature is a consensus builder. This process takes time, which is often criticised as being a slow process, but it is sure, in that it has sufficient support to be durable.

 

The latest initiative of the defeated Rajapaksa camp to raise its head has been the not entirely new suggestion that the former Defence Secretary and Rajapaksa sibling be installed as a senior SLFP leader. This on the basis that he should get considerable credit for the ending the war and would be presumably a future electoral asset to the SLFP.  This reasoning is somewhat flawed and entirely untimely.

 

Firstly, President Sirisena clearly has a public mandate received in January 2016, that was unequivocally a clear repudiation of Rajapaksa rule. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not only intimately a part of the three brothers who ran the country, but towards the latter period, the clearly brother number two (pun unintended) and also the sharp end of the stick or the muscle of the Administration. Sri Lanka was notorious for white van abductions, human rights abuse and threats to the media. The Defence Secretary by virtue of his office and rather than even the allegations of complicity were responsible for the situation. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Administration has the unique distinction of being the only incumbent presidency to be voted out of by the Sri Lankan electorate and that from an entrenched and all-encompassing control of the Sri Lankan state. Accordingly, for all the talk of popularity, his credibility as an alternative to the government or as a leader in waiting is rather low and the parliamentary strength of his Joint Opposition rather weak, in that enables the government to muster the all important two thirds majority when needed. To insist or suggest a senior role in a jointly ruling party would be an abrogation of the mandate of January 2015 and a travesty of the democratic process.

 

Now unlike many other SLFP leaders who switched their support to Maithripala Sirisena after the election victory of January 2015, Gota and indeed any of the Rajapaksa’s or their allies in the Joint Opposition have neither expressed support for President Sirisena or demonstrated that it accepts some of the key pillars of the Administration’s mandate to re-democratise Sri Lanka.

 

One argument used by the few politicians promoting a Gota entry, is the moral persuasion of his contribution to ending our long running civil war and that the SLFP almost owes it to him. The weakness in this argument of course, is that the loudest proponents of the former Defence Secretary are the most deafeningly silent on the role, rights, privileges and dues of the former Army Commander Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka. In fact, Sarath Fonseka, can escape political culpability as a professional solider, who later politically challenged the Rajapaksa’s while the Defence Secretary was a key leader in his brother’s administration.

 

However, the lesson of the January 2015 election and indeed of the 2010 election and the 2014 Uva Provincial Council election, is that “ending the war” as a standalone election winner was waning and insufficient. Even former President Rajapaksa realised this as early as 2009, which is why he brought forward the previous presidential election to 2010 and informed Parliament and the SLFP that in future, governments would not have a war to blame for economic woes and the electorate would judge governments on governance and economic performance. Regrettably for Sri Lanka the Rajapaksa Administration in its second term, was found wanting quite badly on both scores and the electorate delivered its verdict, not once but twice in 2015. The Joint Opposition’s impatience to overturn the verdict of the people, without waiting for the next end of the term in 2020, through various backroom deals and machinations, while understandable and perhaps even fair game, in the rough and tumble of politics, should be stoutly resisted by the 6.2 million Sri Lankan who voted for change in January 2015 and do not want a retreat to the past.

 

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Eastern Province Chief Minister and Maximising Civilian Space

Posted by harimpeiris on June 2, 2016

Eastern Province Chief Minister and Maximising Civilian Space

By Harim Peiris

The recent verbal fracas involving the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and a Navy officer, a Captain who is the commander of the Vidura Naval Training camp, has resulted in unfortunate tensions, where non needed to have occurred and created a situation where saner counsel needs to prevail and the wider national interest in post war reconciliation needs to be preserved.

The incident itself was a very local affair and that it caught national attention shows the power of social media and the growing influence of social media as an agent of disintermediation between traditional elites and the public. But for social media, the genial and savvy Governor of the Eastern Province, would have been able to smooth over a small incident at a local function in Trincomalee. However, the amateur recording went viral on social media and we have a national incident.

The event itself, a ceremony at the Sampoor Maha Vidyalaya, a provincial school was organised to handover new computers to the school which had been organised by the Navy through a corporate donor and school bags and other educational materials to the student. The school which was occupied and used by the Navy during the war years had only two weeks earlier been handed back to the provincial authorities due to the untiring efforts of the Governor. The Navy had a laudable objective, to hand the school back to civilian authorities better than they took it over, complete with computers and equipment for the students. Hence as the donor coordinator, they played the central role in organising the equipment handover ceremony.

The verbal fracas itself has been referred by both the Chief Minister and the Navy to the President and Prime Minister, as the political leaders of the country and the former also being the commander in chief of the Sri Lankan Armed forces. However, the incident demonstrates how fragile Sri Lanka’s post war reconciliation is in the former conflict areas, the ease with which tensions can arise between ethno religious minority political leaders in the North and East and Sri Lanka’s largely mono ethnic military deployed there and the issue of civilian space which has been inadequately addressed, in the case of the East, a decade after hostilities ended there in 2007 at Thoppigala.

The Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka are our only provinces, where ethnic and religious minorities comprise a majority of the population of the two provinces and it has been the site of our bitter, polarising and decades long civil conflict. Accordingly, the challenge of healing the hearts and minds, of Sri Lanka being inclusive and tolerant begins in the North and East. It is this factor that President Sirisena refers to very often at appropriate forums, where he stresses the need for “sanhidiyawa” or reconciliation.  The provincial council system, is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s efforts to devolve power to the majority of the ethnic minorities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and to be inclusive in governance. To correct what LTTE suicide victim Dr. Neelan Tiruchelveam so eloquently defined as the “anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. Accordingly, it is in Sri Lanka’s national interest of post war reconciliation and the Sirisena Administration’s objective of “sanhidiyawa” that the provincial administration be strengthened and the civilian space in the North and East be expanded.

Clearly the Eastern Province’s Chief Minister felt that his provincial administration had been ignored in a school function organised by the Navy, in a school which came under the Provincial Council’s purview and that he personally and his Education Minister from the TNA had been insulted at the event. It is clear in retrospect, that that had clearly not been the intention of the Navy in general and not even of the officer concerned. However, it is also clear, that in organising the function, the Chief Minister, the Provincial Education Minister and the provincial administration had not been given what they believed was their due place.

The situation with regards the provincial politics of the Eastern province is a very delicate but promising one. The Eastern Provincial Administration is the grandest of grand provincial coalition administrations, bringing together the SLMC, the TNA, the UNP and the SLFP into the Administration, in perhaps what may be a model and a possibility nationally at a future date. The inclusion of the TNA in the Administration, being the significant addition from the National Government at the Centre. Supporting and managing this delicate situation in the Eastern Province, is the astute Governor Austin Fernando, himself a former Defence Secretary, besides many other senior roles and a trusted confidante of the President.

The TNA only barely lost the last Eastern Provincial Council, at the last provincial elections, the entire province by just 6,200 votes and that too in Ampara, where it also previously managed to elect a Sinhala MP on its ticket to the last Parliament. Elections to the Eastern Provincial Council are due next year in 2017 and the TNA finds itself in good stead to capture power in the Eastern Provincial Council, requiring only a small increase in the Muslim support it garners. The resolute and principled position adopted by TNA leader R. Sambanthan in the face of Mosque attacks during the days of the Rajapakse regime, has held the TNA in good stead in the East.

It is important that sane counsel prevails and a small incident be not blown out of proportion, in a manner detrimental to the national interest of post war reconciliation.

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