Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • November 2016
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Archive for November, 2016

Constitutional reform and devolution of power

Posted by harimpeiris on November 25, 2016

Constitutional reform and devolution of power

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 24th Nov 2016)


The current Sri Lankan Parliament sits as a Constitutional Assembly to rework Sri Lanka’s basic law and social contract, in a nation building exercise, which is an opportunity that was created through the ending of our long running civil war. The process adopted by the Constitutional Assembly was to create a steering committee which included all the parties represented in Parliament. The steering committee in turn divided into six sub committees each tasked with a different thematic area to study and report. Earlier this week, all six sub committees submitted their reports to the Constitutional Assembly.


This particular milestone in the constitutional reform process, is an opportune time to reflect on Sri Lanka’s prior attempts at constitutional reform and perhaps its key component, the devolution of power. There is certainly a consensus among Sri Lanka’s ruling class, that the current constitution has some serious flaws which needs to be rectified. These areas have been the executive presidency, the electoral system and devolution of power. While there is little principled or political dissension regarding the first two, the issue of devolution of power gets caught up in the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka.


Sri Lankan polity currently has almost thirty years of experience with the system of devolution of powers established by the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s unitary constitution. It was under the Rajapaksa presidency and during the war, that the All-Party Representatives Committee (APRC) and especially its progeny, the APRC Experts Committee worked through much of the glitches which ailed the provincial councils and came up with the plans and amendments which would make provincial level decision making meaningful.


The recent Conference of Provincial Councils and the publication of its proceedings, which brought together a representative cross section of provincial politicians, officials and civil society actors, show a remarkable interest on the part of provincial councillors and the provincial administrations on making devolution meaningful and substantive in Sri Lanka. While at a certain level, this can be dismissed as the usual parochial focus in one’s own interest, the fact that many provincial councillors proceed on to become parliamentarians, demonstrate a close link between the community and provincial administrations.  The key issues which come up in discussions on devolution are around the themes of centre-province relations, fiscal and financial arrangements, public service and administration, legislation and process support.


The deliberations of the provincial councils brought out the two key issues which always arise, that of land and police powers. In all prior political conclaves on devolution including the Mangala Moonesinghe Parliamentary Committee, the Kumaratunga Administration’s devolution proposals of 1994, the constitutional reform proposals of 2000 and the APRC, the general consensus has been that land powers be made representative and devolved fully to the provinces. On the potentially more vexatious issue of police powers, the emerging technical solution has been for both a provincial and national police service, with serious crimes which should be dealt more appropriately at the national level, being done so, whereas the provincial police can deal with all other minor functions, including traffic policing. Such a mechanism would ensure a more citizen-friendly, community based and hence accessible and effective police service throughout the country.


The politics of the devolution debate


The current constitutional reform process has two stated objectives. The first and considerably less controversial objective is to increase the democratic spaces and features of Sri Lankan society. The second objective of the constitutional reform, is to make those communities currently experiencing exclusion and hence alienated the Sri Lankan state, mainly ethnic and religious minorities to be included. This objective is also expressed as dealing with the causes of the decades long conflict, of creating a sense of inclusion in minorities currently feeling excluded from the State and rectifying what constitutional lawyer and LTTE suicide victim, late Dr. Neelen Tiruchelvam so aptly described as the “anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”.


The Sri Lankan political divide in Sri Lanka into three, not two competing ethnic nationalisms, the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. The end of the armed conflict considerably reduces or eliminates the risk of armed secession from the State and accordingly, the current National Unity Government of the two major parties are generally confident that they have a sufficient consensus among and of the majority community on constitutional reform and devolution.


Political insiders strongly anticipate and indeed expect that this thesis would be tested by the political opposition, the newly formed SLFP offshoot, the SLPP of the Rajapakse wing, though nominally headed by G.L. Peiris (no kinsman I hasten to add), which is likely awaiting the constitutional reform proposals to try and whip up political opposition to the same. But the real decider on devolution is likely to be the rather unpredictable and unwieldy Muslim polity, which solidly backed the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe combine in both January and August last year. The Muslims are a predominant present in Eastern Sri Lanka and the consensus which the TNA needs to craft is not solely what is acceptable to the Sinhala Southern polity but also to the Muslim polity predominating in the East. Such a consensus is not an impossibility and the remarkable exercise of the Parliamentary Constitutional Council has indeed created an inclusive and participatory process. As the sub-committee reports are submitted and considered by the Constitutional Assembly as a whole in the near future. It is hoped for Sri Lanka’s sake and shared future, that a consensus is forthcoming.



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The Trump presidency – hastening a multi polar world

Posted by harimpeiris on November 11, 2016

The Trump presidency – hastening a multi polar world

By Harim Peiris MBA

 ( published in the Daily News paper on 11.11.2016 )

The world was shocked when Donald Trump, defied all expectations and pulled off a stunning victory in the US presidential election. It was shocking because he was trailing, though by a thin margin in the opinion polls and because conventional wisdom only gave him an outside chance of winning, his support base of a largely Caucasian (white) working class electorate seen as two narrow to carry him to victory. In the all-important calculation of the electoral college, that actually elects the US president, Hilary Clinton was projected to have an almost insurmountable lead. The changing demographics of the USA, with an increasing share of non-white voters and younger voters were making even traditional republican states, become competitive for the democrats. However, election day 2016, was to change all that. The result now history. Many reasons would be adduced for Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat, but the numbers from the exit polls show, that despite a campaign that outspent its opponent that Hillary Clinton just could not be the successful political heir and hold on to the winning rainbow coalition, which Barrack Obama built and rode to victory twice before. Every key segment of that coalition, Hispanics, African American, women and youth voters, turned out less and voted slightly less emphatically for Hillary Clinton, which together with the swing of rust belt democrats angered at job losses, in a globalizing economy was enough to create a unique Republican party constituency, which for the second time in recent history would lose the popular vote, but win the electoral college convincingly and hence result in the Donald Trump Administration of the next four years and also  consequently bequeathed the world with an entirely unchartered US international agenda.


The Republican party whitewash of the 2016 election was complete. The Republicans were widely expected to or at least considered quite likely to lose control of the US Senate, where a third of the seats were up for grabs. As it was, the Republicans retained control of Congress, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, providing President Donald Trump with no real Democratic Party challenge to his relatively radical agenda of change for America. Together with the ability to fill the US Supreme Court seat made vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Trump presidency promises to mold US society in a manner which will likely be near permanent for decades.


However, this article will seek to examine what the Trump presidency would have for the world. The initial world reactions, in terms of the reaction of global financial markets was a near free fall, with the Dow Jones Futures down about 500 points. However, this was more likely an over hysterical reaction to the unexpected rather than a considered evaluation or response to the president elect’s policies, which are after all not entirely known in any great detail and not applicable until he takes office in January next year. President elect Trump though, on the campaign trail did give clear indications about his views on global affairs and his Administration’s policies on several foreign policy or international fronts are likely to be a radical departure from his predecessor’s and also defy conventional wisdom, as he indeed did throughout his campaign.


Syria, ISIS and the Middle East


Nothing has dominated the world during the past year as has the situation in Syria. As that country comes apart in a bloody and brutal civil war, it has challenged American and foreign policy makers in the West, to cope with the flood of Syrian refugees and to deal with Russia in stabilizing the situation in Syria. Donald Trump has been quite critical of the current US policy of challenging the regime of President Assad, through support for the non-ISIS, rebel alliance battling his regime. He declared that Hillary Clinton’s policies in Syria would start world war three. Accordingly, he is likely to reduce or eliminate support for the anti-Assad, rebel alliance and thereby over time concede influence in Syria to Russia. Reading between the lines, the Trump formula for dealing with ISIS seems to be, significantly enhanced aerial bombardments of ISIS targets in the Middle East and enhanced domestic vigilance against terror attacks on US soil.


Global Trade


Global trade has not really been growing in dollar terms during the past few years. However, the US has a significant impact on the global economic landscape by virtue of being the world’s largest economy and most importantly the global economy’s biggest consumer. As the single largest global customer of goods and services, the US is in a strong position to dictate on international trade. Protectionism or various barriers to trade with the US, would lead to an end to the era of developing countries, including Sri Lanka, having economies growing through exporting to the United States. Rather like the make in India policy practiced in the sub-continent, companies wishing to sell in the US, may increasingly be compelled to manufacture in the US. The economic theory of comparative advantage and global competitiveness has been voted out at the US ballot box.


International Security


The international security arrangements in place since the end of the second world war, would also come under a fresh look and renewed scrutiny by the Trump presidency. Candidate Trump on the campaign trail, took umbrage at the financing arrangements of NATO, declaring that the practice of the US picking up much of the tab for the security of the Western world and the established order, was out of place an anachronism of the aftermath of the second world war. A scale back of US defense commitments, troop and naval deployments, in Europe and East Asia, in both Japan and South Korea are likely. US foreign policy interests will be defined more narrowly and domestically, the Munroe doctrine would be contracted significantly rather than expanded gradually, as occurred in the decades since the second world war.


The rise of China, economically and politically, definitely as a regional power and as a fledgling global power, has predicated the evolution of a multi polar world, from the unipolar world in existence since the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The advent of the Trump presidency and its likely foreign policy trajectory would in all probability hasten the reality of a multi polar world.


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




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