Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2017
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Archive for January, 2017

An open letter to Hon. Duminda Dissanayke, General Secretary / SLFP

Posted by harimpeiris on January 31, 2017

(Published in the Daily News of 27th Jan 2017)

Dear Duminda,


Consultation on Constitutional Reforms


I thought I must write to you openly when I learned through the mass media, that some SLFP seniors in government were unsupportive of serious constitutional reforms and accordingly had persuaded President Sirisena, as SLFP leader to direct that the SLFP engages in some dialogue and consultations on the proposed reforms. You may consider my views as part of this consultation and on my part, they are complimentary to my personal submissions to the LLRC during its public hearings and draws from my experience as the former Director General of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation under President Kumaratunga and more recently as Chairman of the Resettlement Authority.


  1. Consider the mandate of January 2015


I believe the context for the current process of constitutional reforms is the mandate received by President Sirisena in January 2015, which is clearly a mandate for reform. Those of the SLFP who were not part of securing that mandate, but now within Government, who were corrected by the sovereign voting public of our country, should be extra careful when opposing that mandate and defining the mandate is certainly not the purview of the defeated candidate former President Rajapakse.


  1. Public consultations of the constitutions have already occurred


You are no doubt aware that public consultations on the proposed constitutional reforms occurred throughout our country and there was opportunity for all stakeholders to make their submissions through this consultation process. It would be useful for the SLFP to not reinvent the wheel as it were but to study, incorporate and draw from the public consultations already held.


  1. A democratic deficit


A vast majority of the period since the introduction of the first republican constitution of 1972 and continuing through the period of the current constitution of 1978, Sri Lanka has been governed under Emergency Regulations which have superseded the Constitution and thereby compromised and damaged constitutional governance and the rule of law in our land. While this situation may have been understandable in the context of our decades long civil armed conflict it becomes untenable in a period thereafter. The democratic deficit which Sri Lanka suffers from needs to be rectified through constitutional reform and the abolition of the executive presidency, the implementation of electoral reforms, the strengthening of individual and human rights, are all part of the efforts to address this democratic deficit.


  1. Creating an inclusive state


It was former member of Parliament and LTTE suicide bomb victim late Dr. Neelen Tiruchelvam, who perhaps best explained the rationale for constitutional reforms nearly twenty-five years ago, when he stated that we should rectify “the anomaly of having imposed a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. It is patently clear to all but the willfully blind, that Sri Lanka is a society polarized on ethnic lines, with state institutions and structures of governance that are non-inclusive and intolerant. The virulent demagogy surrounding the singing of the national anthem also in Tamil at last year’s national day celebrations, demonstrates both the mono ethno-lingual nature of state festivals in the past and how much we need to reform to be inclusive and tolerant. If the SLFP position is that the 13th amendment should first be implemented fully, then there is no impediment to the executive decisions of immediately gazetting those provisions of the constitution not yet implemented.


  1. Examine prior SLFP positions on devolution under President Kumaratunga and President Rajapaksa


The SLFP has had a rich tradition of seeking political solutions of inclusivity, diversity and tolerance going back to the Bandaranaike – Chelvanyagam pact more than half a century ago. More usefully and practically, it is incumbent upon the SLFP to learn from and incorporate the policies, politics and thinking of both the SLFP led PA and UPFA governments of President Kumaratunga and President Rajapakse. Especially relevant in this regard are the various work, recommendations and policies of President Rajapakse under his initiatives of the All Part Representative Committee (APRC) and its various working groups, all ably headed and led in the past by the old left leaders of DEW Gunasekera and Prof.Tissa Vitharane. If former President Rajapakse is not standing by prior SLFP government positions on devolution including those of his own Administration, then such policy changes may well be construed as opportunistic and parochially motivated for extraneous reasons of temporary political self-interest by a person who promises to topple the government during the calendar year and need not be taken seriously.


  1. Seriously examine Rajapakse Administration mistakes and avoid a return to the past


I would respectfully submit that a key requirement for the SLFP, before the next general elections due in mid-2020, is an open and honest examination of what went so badly wrong, especially during the second Rajapakse term and seek not only remedial measures but also to chart a new course for the future rather than advocate a return to the past. The public perception and allegations of rampant corruption, mismanagement of the economy especially in mounting public debt on grandiose and ill-conceived projects, ruining our foreign relations with all our key trading partners, violating and abusing human rights with impunity, including press freedom, centralizing power in the executive presidency, subverting the judiciary and institutionalizing nepotism all contributed to ending the Rajapakse presidency, sooner rather than later.


Finally, I admired your courageous and principled stand in supporting then common candidate Maithripala Sirisena during the presidential election of 2015. Your political foresight and maturity is a tribute to your late father and I can think of no younger leader better suited to hold the responsible position of SLFP General Secretary.


As you are aware, I currently serve as Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but please consider these submissions as done in my personal capacity.

I take this opportunity to wish you every success in your endeavors.


With best regards,


Harim Peiris


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A new Sri Lanka under the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration

Posted by harimpeiris on January 11, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the daily news of 9th January 2017)

When Sri Lanka ended its civil war in 2009, we had been fighting our internal conflict for close upon half our post-independence period of sixty-one years. That our most significant political engagements were not through dialogue and discourse but through armed conflict speaks volumes about the political weaknesses and fragility of South Asia’s oldest democracy.


We ended our civil war as a deeply divided nation. Polarized on ethno-religious grounds, with badly wounded democratic and governance institutions and a sub optimized economy which has made going abroad, for employment or migration Sri Lanka’s most popular occupational ambition, for both women and young people.  Sri Lanka has had in the past three decades, three conflicts, the military conflict between the State Security forces and the LTTE, the political power contest between the UNP and the SLFP and the ethnic problem between the Southern Sinhala polity and the Northern and Eastern based Tamil polity.  These three conflicts were interlocking and influencing each other, addressing one conflict meant dealing with the other two power struggles as well.


The end of the war in 2009, not only ended the armed conflict between the State and the LTTE. The attendant change in the Tamil polity was that the leadership of the Tamil community changed from the armed and violent LTTE led by Prabakaran and Pottu Amman to the democratic and relatively moderate TNA led by the R. Sambanthan and M.A.Sumanthiran. It is in this context that Sri Lanka headed into the 2010 presidential election, witnessing the re-election of Mahinda Rajapakse. The most charitable understatement which can be said about the Rajapakse second term, is that it was a wasted opportunity, which took Sri Lanka rapidly down the wrong path and mercifully for reasons as yet undisclosed, four years into a six-year term, Mahinda Rajapakse called an election, which ended his rule and attendant dynastic ambitions.


Maithripala Sirisena and his allies within the rainbow coalition styled the Democratic National Front, a special purpose political vehicle acquired for the presidential election, campaigned on a platform of the three pillars of good governance, sustainable economic development and national reconciliation. To achieve this, they promised a national government and an entirely new political approach and policy framework. Contrary to joint opposition claims, the national government does have a popular mandate, not once but twice.


As we commemorate the second anniversary of the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, it is worth contemplating the political miracle which was wrought two years ago. In 2014, Mahinda Rajapakse seemed unassailable, funding massive projects with rather expensive Chinese loans, booking no dissent by jailing his presidential election opponent, sacking Sri Lanka’s first female Chief Justice, governing inefficiently and corruptly while openly promoting his family and relatives in government positions. The Rajapakse political project was deeply entrenched in power and seemed good for decades more to come. The snap presidential election called for January 2015 was planned to be a Rajapakse verses the West campaign, painting Rajapakse opponents as Western world lackeys, foreign funded NGO’s, Tamil Diaspora, Muslim extremists and non-patriotic traitors. It is a tribute to the political skill and sagacity of the matriarch of the founding family of the SLFP, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, that the most remarkable political coalition of all times, comprising remarkably Sinhala nationalists and Tamil nationalists, Marxists and neo-Liberals, all parts of the feuding Muslim polity, the then  General Fonseka, civil society and professional groups all came together around a single common presidential candidate in Maithripala Sirisena, the genial, affable and soft spoken General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The election campaign of January 2015, transformed itself to a Rajapakse and his miniscule allies of the UPFA verses the rest, a political dynamic which still holds true and the result, was the election of Maithripala Sirisena as the sixth executive president of Sri Lanka. With the formation of the National Government comprising both the UNP and the SLFP in 2015, the second conflict in Sri Lanka, or the political contest between the UNP and the SLFP has been halted for a term, to bring about through consensus and a unity government, the urgent state reforms, both political and economic, which Sri Lanka needs. The consequence of the 2015 elections is that Sri Lanka’s moderate political center, in both the North and the South, expanded and is in power, unlike at any time in the past three decades. Creating a real opportunity for genuine change, which albeit does come slowly.


The year 2017, will be the critical year for the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration. The foundation for a new Sri Lanka is the work of the Constitutional Assembly, established to design a new constitution for Sri Lanka. On the occasion of the second anniversary of the Sirisena presidency, the Parliament as the constitutional assembly would be debating and deciding how to proceed with the steering committee report on the proposed new constitution. There is a consensus emerging through the constitutional assembly process.


There is political drama, on the sidelines. Defeated president Mahinda Rajapakse recently told the respected Indian journal “The Hindu” that he would topple the government in 2017. There has been some controversy amidst joint opposition hopes on a nation-wide local government election. But the real game changer, the substantive and sustainable basis for a new Sri Lanka is state reform, through constitutional reform. Sri Lanka needs a new constitution, which will strengthen democracy and through devolution of power, ensure that the Sri Lankan state, reflects and accommodates the full diversity of her society. It was LTTE suicide bombing victim, late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam who described this need best, as “rectifying the anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. Sri Lanka has experienced through both the 1972 and the 1978 constitutions a democratic deficit, caused by weak institutional checks and balances which significantly limited individual and human rights, resulting in internal rebellion and organized political violence. We need to rectify that situation.  Beyond any other gains of the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration, this foundational reform, a new compact between the government and the governed, may be its most lasting legacy to Sri Lanka and her peoples.


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


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An attempted Rajapakse return and a new constitution

Posted by harimpeiris on January 4, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 28th Dec 2016)

The soft launch of a new political party nominal headed by former Minister G.L. Peiris, but substantively the Rajapakse political vehicle, styled the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has created a new buzz in political circles about the Rajapakse comeback project. A project that really began, in the small hours of the morning of 9th January last year, when it became apparent that the people had rejected Mahinda Rajapakse for an unprecedented third term. The first proposed comeback, an alleged coup by deploying the Gajaba regiment, to nullify the election results, has had a formal complaint to the CID by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the strange mid night meetings at Temple Trees by the judicial usurper Mohan Peiris and the then Attorney General, military commanders etc. had all the makings of midnight plotting of anti-constitutional measures as alleged by Minister Samaraweera in his formal complaint.

However, the possible return of the Rajapakse face several fundamental political obstacles, that the Rajapakse political project has failed to address. The first obstacles in a Rajapakse return is that the fundamental political dynamics that formed the foundation of Rajapakse defeat, still holds true. What the Rajapaksa’s faced in 2015, is what they face today, which is that with regards the political elites or key leaders, it is pretty much Rajapakse verses the rest. Rajapakse allies being the miniscule non SLFP parties of the UPFA, the same coalition which lost in 2015. In fact, since the defeat of 2015, Rajapakse has further lost control of the SLFP party machinery, a necessary vehicle for political mobilization, hence the SLPP.

Further neither Rajapakse nor his allies can begin to accept the failures of their governance and hence offer a real alternative vision to the National Unity Government, for the future. Most political projects after defeat, do look inward somewhat and seek a political course correction, not so the Rajapakses’. They and their allies continue to insist, if by implication that it was the voters who made a mistake in 2015 and the voter will change their mind, very quickly. Further the Rajapakse message seems to be geared to and not extending beyond a section of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the country, a political base and message two narrow to bring the project back to power. If the Rajapakse political comeback project is to succeed, two key changes need to take place, there must be an honest assessment of the failures of their governance, in all areas including economic, foreign, public sector management and social reconciliation policies and consequently seek to design a policy message and political outreach that is more pluralistic, tolerant and democratic.

Now, the factor that excites the die-hard minority of Rajapakse supporters in the political establishment is the constitutional making process that is currently ongoing through the Parliament as a constitutional assembly. The Rajapakse political calculation is that the potential divisiveness of constitutional reform and its consequential political and social change would permit the divisive identity politics and its attendant fear and hate mongering, which is Rajapaksa’s greatest political asset but also his greatest political liability.

With the presentation to Parliament of the interim reports of the six sub committees of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly and its scheduled debate in the House on 9th and 10th of January 2016, the opponents of the constitutional reform are slowly waking up to the fact, that there is a consensus building up in Parliament regarding the contours of a new basic law for Sri Lanka, a new social compact between the governed and the government. Almost four decades since the 1978 constitution was adopted for Sri Lanka, the empirical evidence we have is that our current constitutional arrangement and its overbearing executive presidency, reduced democratic space and centralized political power, consequently leading to poor public governance, weakened democratic institutions, led to armed conflicts in both the South and the North and reduced individual freedoms and human rights. The vast majority of the near forty-year period since 1978 to the present, Sri Lanka has been governed under emergency rule, which says it all about our failures as a polity.

The end of the war in 2009, removed armed conflict from the political equation and hence opens up a historic window of opportunity to address the democracy deficiency we have in Sri Lanka and effect state reform through a new constitution which ensures that the Sri Lankan State becomes more tolerant and pluralistic accommodating the full diversity of her society. There are opponents of such reform among the more extremist elements in both the North and the Southern polity. In the North, the opposition to the current approach of consultations, compromise and consensus, seems to be led by the Tamil Peoples Forum (TPF), led by a collection of defeated politicians, whose common feature seems to be their inability to be elected to Parliament by the Tamil people but having the patronage of Northern Chief Minister Justice CV Wigneswaren, whose endorsement of them nonetheless at the last general election failed to sway the voter, the Tamil Congress led political alliance of nay-sayers, collecting a paltry five thousand votes in the Jaffna District, even less than the SLFP’s modest support of seventeen thousand.

In the South, the opponents of state reform and a return to the past, has a more formidable champion in Mahinda Rajapakse, but the reality is that the more extreme politics ruled in Sri Lanka, until the recent past and are now relegated to the peripheries. The Tamil political leadership moved from Prabakaran and Pottu Amman to Sambanthan and Sumanthiran in 2009 and political leadership in the Southern polity moved from Mahinda and Gotabaya to Sirisena and Wickramasinghe. The political center has never been as dominant in Sri Lankan politics, in the recent past, as it is at present. Political change will always have its detractors, but the detractors having lost the last elections are on the periphery, providing a possible path and a foreseeable future for a new Sri Lanka.

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