Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January 11th, 2017

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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