Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for July, 2016

National Unity Government decides to serve full term

Posted by harimpeiris on July 27, 2016

National Unity Government decides to serve full term

By Harim Peiris MBA 

 ( published in the Daily News )

Both the Government and the Joint Opposition (JO) have ramped up its political activities recently with the joint opposition, basically a faction of the UPFA, planning a “pada yathra” or a long march down from Kandy to Colombo, scheduled to begin towards the end of July. The march is in the context of an ongoing attempt by former President Rajapaksa’s sibling Basil organizing essential a new party, gathering together local government level activists and politicians, with an eye on the impending local government elections, due any time after the task of delimitation is over and arrangements are in place to conduct the election on a mixed system of first past the post and proportional representation. To what extent the former president is supportive of all this hectic activity of the opposition is not entirely known, however he did decline to serve in the essentially still born shadow cabinet of the joint opposition. With regards the seemingly now defunct shadow cabinet it was not very clear, where out of parliament JO stalwarts such as Professor GL Peiris, fitted in.

 

However, the response of the National Unity Government, through its apex leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe was swift. With more than a year left to go in the initial two-year MOU signed between the two main political formations in the country, the UNP and the SLFP, the Government announced that it would extend that period to serve out its entire five-year term of office. This public statement of intent, makes clear some very obvious political objectives which has seemingly surpassed the much narrower and self-centered interests of those who were seeking to divide the Unity Government and promote an alternative single party government, specifically an SLFP or UPFA only government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister.

 

President Sirisena has seemingly decided at a very fundamental level, that implementation of his mandate for the manifesto of the National Democratic Front, is his own social compact with the people. This social compact or the implementation of his mandate is best and perhaps only served by with the partnership of the political allies of the National Democratic Front which secured his mandate in January last year. The support of the SLFP too towards this mandate, needs to stem from respect and support for the concurrent implementation of the twin mandates of presidential and parliamentary elections of last year.

 

For Premier Wickramasinghe and the UNP which essentially won the last general election, the Unity Government provides it with a two third majority in parliament enabling the state reform essential for moving Sri Lanka up to the next level of development and also ensuring that the hard won end of the ethnic conflict is durable and sustainable. For the UNP and its leadership, especially active and well versed in state craft in other countries through its active participation in the international conservative alliance, the International Democratic Union (IDU), the experience of the two major parties in a country forming a grand national alliance is not unusual. In Germany, Belgium, Israel and other countries in which the electoral system often does not produce a winner with an outright majority, the first and second largest parties in Parliament forming a government is not unusual. After serving out a term of office, the parties again go before the people, seeking a fresh mandate. Prime Minster Wickramasinghe is a believer in sharing some executive powers with political allies and especially between the two major parties to have broad based support for the government. An essential required for constitutional and state reform.

 

Joint Opposition hype over local elections

 

The Rajapaksa strategists and propagandists are all hyped up over the impending local government elections, but it fails to recognize many political realities in the process.

 

  1. Firstly, the Rajapaksa’s and their allies thought they could win two previous elections in January and August last year and clearly failed to do so. This at the height of their entrenched power, with all resources of the state at their disposal to abuse at the election and also with their star, Mahinda Rajapaksa as the candidate, first for president and then for prime minister and did not win. They are unlikely to be third time lucky.
  2. A local election is a very difficult one for any opposition to win, given that it is not an election which changes governments and that essentially a second string of candidate’s contest, as opposed to their better known MPs.
  • The Eastern Provincial Council, elections to which will also be due next year, provides an interesting example of the grandest of all coalitions, governing the province in an alliance of the SLMC, TNA, UNP and SLFP in that order. This example of inter party cooperation in local governance is certainly a model to be explored in the rest of the country as well, without the very adversarial and vitriolic politics, more widely prevalent elsewhere right now and obviously being anticipated by the minor parties of the Joint Opposition in the context of the local elections.

President Maithripala Sirisena in getting the support of minorities towards him, in the presidential elections last year, holds out the hope that the SLFP can once again become a broad based, multi ethnic and multi religious party that it was in the past with stalwarts like Alfred Duraiappa and Bathurdeen Mohamad. The barely disguised racism and strident majoritarian ethno-nationalist rhetoric of the JO, risks reducing the once grand SLFP to a mirror image of the regional and largely mono ethnic TNA, where the SLFP would be purely Sinhala and having an appeal only in the Sinhala south. A successful concurrent implementation of the twin mandates of January and August last year would reverse that trend and bring about the reforms required within the country.

 

(The writer is Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are personal)

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President Sirisena reiterates the urgent need for national reconciliation By Harim Peiris

Posted by harimpeiris on July 25, 2016

President Sirisena reiterates the urgent need for national reconciliation
By Harim Peiris

The recent clash along ethnic lines between students of the Jaffna University makes patently clear the urgent task of post war national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, is as yet an unfinished business. Sri Lanka’s head of State, President Maithripala Sirisena addressing this national issue at the opening of the new German Technical Institute in Killinochchi recently made some far reaching, but if rather obvious statements on reconciliation, which nonetheless had sadly been absent from Sri Lanka’s political discourse under the previous Administration, in the immediate post war years.
President Sirisena firstly acknowledged the existence of a problem of ethnic relations and the need for reconciliation which was denied by his immediate predecessor in office. The President requested the so-called heroes who conduct media conferences in the South to visit the North and East to listen and understand the concerns of the people living there. In fact, a major, though not the only reason for the premature end of Rajapaksa rule in Sri Lanka, was the singular unwillingness of the Rajapaksa siblings to recognize minority concerns. Consequently, the Muslim community almost to a person and the Tamil community by a preponderance majority joined voters in the rest of the country to move the Rajapaksa’s political project from the Presidency to a rather disorganized if vociferous combined opposition. The thinly disguised racism of Rajapaksa minor party allies, at every conceivable opportunity only contributes to further alienate a segment of society, of whom even some must vote and support the Rajapaksa’s’ for any comeback attempt to be successful.
President Sirisena unequivocally stated that “The Sinhala Buddhists will be able to live happily only after the concerns of other communities are resolved and the first step is to acknowledge that the people in the North also have grievances.”
This was stated by the President in the context that in January 2015, the people’s election of him as President, was an endorsement of his policy statement, presented at the election and he is committed to implementing all his political promises and fulfilling his mandate. The President has often stated that his election policy statement is his compact, social contract if you like, with the people of Sri Lanka.
President Sirisena further linked the ongoing constitutional reform process, through the entire Parliament sitting as a constitutional committee of Parliament with the reconciliation and political reforms program. He also linked good governance and financial integrity with future political leadership.
President Sirisena stated “With the introduction of a new constitution, we hope to unite the divided communities without in any way dividing the country.” In a not too subtle remark aimed at the political comeback efforts of the Rajapaksa siblings spearheaded by the now indicated and variously remanded and bailed out Basil Rajapaksa, the President stated that the emerging new political forces and leaders need to be free of allegations of corruption and misdeeds if they dream of becoming future leaders. However, the core supporters of the Rajapaksa’s based on ethnic Sinhala nationalism may be as forgiving of his misdeeds as Tamil nationalists were prone to forgive Prabhakaran of his crimes.
Specifically referring to the clash between two groups of students at the University of Jaffna, President Sirisena expressing his deep concern stated that all our educational institutions should be reformed to prevent recurrence of such incidents in future. President Maithripala Sirisena said all educational institutions, including universities and vocational training centers should act as reconciliation centers and reconciliation should be included as a subject in the school curriculum. Sri Lanka should relook at its ethno-religiously segregated system of state education which does nothing to promote ethnic or religious harmony.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was quick to move and capture the moral high ground from the agent provocateurs and the instigators of racism in the University system in Jaffna. They condemned the violence and invited Sinhala students back to study at the Jaffna University, a quick, commendable and bold move on the part of the democratic leadership of the TNA. Sri Lanka is indeed fortunate that seven years ago, the leadership of the Tamil community shifted from the LTTE’s Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman to the TNA’s Sambanthan and Sumanthiran. Similarly, leadership in the South has moved from Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Sirisena and Wickramasinghe, in the process also bridging the SLFP verses UNP divide. Never has Sri Lanka’s moderate political center been as strong and as it is now. Twenty years ago, the overwhelming mandate that Chandrika Kumaratunga got was mitigated by the LTTE’s leadership on the other side of the ethnic divide. With extremism on all sides being reduced to the margins, the urgent and unfinished task of national reconciliation spearheaded by the President and the Prime Minister, ably supported by the sagacious Opposition leader must be made to succeed this time around and the proposed constitutional reforms, usher in a new Sri Lanka, that is more democratic, pluralist and accommodative of the full diversity of our society.

(The writer is Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the views expressed are personal)

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Avoiding needless panic over Brexit

Posted by harimpeiris on July 12, 2016

Avoiding needless panic over Brexit

By Harim Peiris

The entirely unexpected happened and the British in a deeply polarizing referendum voted to leave the European Union by a margin of 52% to 48%. Voting to leave were seemingly older voters and most of England and Wales, while, younger voters, Metropolitan London and overwhelmingly Scotland voted to remain.  British Prime Minster David Cameron immediately announced his intention of stepping down at the Conservative Party’s annual conference due in October, while there is also pressure on Opposition and Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbin to resign after many labor bastions voted to leave, despite his support for remain.

The outcome of the referendum was wholly unexpected by the global community, whether financial markets, business or political leaders and policy makers for two reasons. The referendum was a discretionary mover by a popular Prime Minster, who had even managed to secure the support of the major opposition parties, the Labor Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats for the remain in EU efforts. Opposing this considerable alliance of parties was thought to be only the Euro skeptic faction of the Conservative Party and the small anti EU and anti Immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). If all the parties supporting remain in EU actually carried their constituencies, then the referendum would have been a very one sided affair. However essentially a significant section of both the Conservative Party and the Labor Party, bucked their own leadership and voted to leave, though the parties did provide a kind of conscience vote on the issue.

The global currency and financial markets have reacted to the unexpected developments with a significant degree of panic as the uncertainty of the economic consequences and the future of Euro integrated business, persons and processes are unclear. The early looses seem to be the UK itself, with the Sterling Pound (GBP) falling to near historic lows and UK equities declining and Moody’s putting their UK rating on negative. However in the medium term, the situation should stabilize, as the UK remains engaged and invested in Europe though not in the political and policy union of the EU.

The UK had always not fully got on board the EU integration efforts, due to a residue of Euro skepticism in its society, with European integration being driven by Germany and France, with the UK often creating exceptions for itself. The Euro single currency was the most significant example with UK opting to retain the Sterling Pound, while all other EU members gave up their individual currencies, including the German Mark and the French Franc.

The Schengen single EU visa arrangement was another UK exception, where the UK retained its own independent visa arrangement with non EU countries rather than accept a visa issued by another EU member. With the referendum polls campaign as well, the issue of immigration into the UK, especially from other and newer European countries was a major issue. In the past, the generally far right anti immigrant parties of Europe, including the UK’s own UKIP has not had any notable electoral success and it remains to be seen, whether the referendum which was obviously on multiple issues of integration provides a boost to anti EU sentiment and anti immigration sentiment elsewhere in Europe.

Sri Lanka a pivot to Asia

The Sri Lankan response has been both quick and thought through, by the senior panel of experts and advisors appointed by the Government for this purpose. Firstly Sri Lanka will obviously build on the historic strong ties with Britain to ensure that the World’s fifth largest economy remains open and accessible to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, even as we proceed on regaining GSP plus trade concessions from the EU.

However more importantly Sri Lanka will hasten to sign and implement the economic cooperation and technical assistance agreement with India, seeking to and positioning Sri Lanka to benefit from the economic growth and opportunities in Asia and especially the Indian sub continent.

Sri Lanka’s economy during the previous Rajapaksa Administration became inextricably intertwined with China; we became hooked on their loan funded infrastructure development and of necessity must proceed to rationalize those investments in the national interest. However trade with China, is very one sided, as we import from them but do not export much to China.

In contrast, India provides an exciting if challenging market for Sri Lankan goods and services. It has long being thought, since India’s economy opened up and liberalized that Sri Lanka’s economy can benefit from her proximity and location next to India, in much the same way as Hong Kong became a financial, services and logistics hub for the burgeoning Chinese economy.

The Sri Lankan economic vision to also be an economy that adapts and thrives in the emerging technologically driven knowledge economy, would most likely mean that we must benefit from not just our own small population and economy but from the growth, investment and trade opportunities available to us in Asia.

(The writer is Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the views expressed are personal)

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