Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • April 2017
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Archive for April, 2017

Open letter to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – Rebuilding a divided nation

Posted by harimpeiris on April 23, 2017

                                  (Published in the Daily News of 20th April 2017)


President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga

Chairperson Office of National Unity and Reconciliation

Office of the Former President



Dear Madam,


Fulfilling the promise of a new Sri Lanka


I thought I must write to you regarding the current political situation, as the government deals with the unenviable task of rebuilding and stabilizing an economy dragged down by the predecessor Rajapakse Administration through a combination of corruption, mismanagement, declining government revenue and excessively large doses of external debt utilized on mostly white elephant projects of dubious utility value, including the failed Mihin Lanka, the world’s most expensive express ways per kilo meter, an unused airport in the middle of nowhere and a grossly underutilized port.


The mandates of 2015


My reason to address this letter to you is due to the fact, that a little over two years ago, you were instrumental in doing what was then thought to be impossible, that of uniting a divided and fractious opposition into a common political front, the rainbow coalition that brought President Sirisena to power on a promise of good governance and state reforms. At that time, the Rajapakse Administration was deeply entrenched in power and many political analysts, especially those aligned with the Rajapaksa’s dismissed the possibility of good governance and democratic reforms as a mass mobilizing factor. However, the elections of January and indeed August 2015, was to prove otherwise. It should be a cause of some satisfaction that a majority of Sri Lankans opted for a democratic and compassionate (inclusive, tolerant & pluralistic) state, rather than a populist and authoritarian one. It is in that context rather puzzling how some in the Joint Opposition claim rather disingenuously that there was no mandate for a national government, when it is clear that there are twin mandates of January and August 2015 concurrently in force and that both of these are for a politically united approach to state reforms, both economic and political. It is imperative that these reforms be implemented in the interest of a new Sri Lanka, which moves away from the social conflict and economic malaise from which we have suffered for much of our recent history.


A disunited Rajapakse Joint Opposition


It is a matter of some regret, that the Joint Opposition backing defeated President Rajapakse seems intent on obstructing every single attempt at reform, from economic reforms, reconciliation and the constitutional reform process. However, it should be noted that the same fault lines which brought an unexpected and unlamented early end to the Rajapaksa Administration, still continue to persist and encircle the Rajapakse come back project. First among them is the raging internal debate as to which Rajapaksa, should succeed Mahinda, Basil, Gotabaya or even the young man in a hurry, Namal, poor Chamal and Sashindra, not really ever either aspirants or contenders for being brother number one (pun entirely unintended). It is eminently clear from the close supporters of both Gotabaya and Basil that neither is willing to play second fiddle to the other, in the event of next time around. Sri Lanka’s tortured pre-colonial monarchial history is dominated by royal families which lost power due to an inability to sort out internally and within themselves their succession battles and one observes that the attempted Rajapaksa dynasty suffers from the same fatal flaw.


This internal familial contest for power also extends to political tactics and approaches, where Basil Rajapakse has adopted a decidedly confrontational approach, launching a new political party, trying to organize rallies, protest marches and public shows of political muscle while the Gotabaya Rajapakse approach is decidedly different, using interlocutors and intermediaries to try and bring about a political alliance between the defeated Rajapaksa’s’ and the incumbent Sirisena presidency, rather incredibly to try and overturn the people’s mandate through a political alliance, the logic and rationale for which has never quite been made clear or politically articulated.


A premature focus on 2020


Dear Madam, you hold the respected post of SLFP Patron and unlike the SLFP’s other former president, retired from office gracefully due to democratic term limits and with plenty of political capital at your disposal, which was on rather evident and public display in the formation and victory of the Yahapalanaya administration in 2015.  With the honeymoon period of the government decidedly now over, the hard work of the mid-term period beckons. In that context, it is crucial that the SLFP as the party founded and led in the past by your late esteemed father and mother and indeed by you, now under the leadership of President Sirisena, effectively contributes to implementing the much needs reforms, including the reconciliation process, entrusted to your leadership.


It was renowned political scientist John Paul Lederach, who wrote and articulated the concept of the moral imagination, the ability of political actors and formations, to see positive possibilities, opportunities and outcomes through change and reform. I am a little concerned that some leading lights of the SLFP, who mostly backed the wrong horse in January 2015, are failing to seize this historic window of opportunity for Sri Lanka to effect reforms which will ensure that the Sri Lankan state reflects the full diversity of our society. That we eliminate what LTTE suicide bombing victim late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam so succinctly described as the anomaly of having imposed a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity. Some sections of the SLFP going by their public statements, seem already quite focused on the next elections due in 2020.  In the alternate I would respectfully submit that it is more important, at least to the sovereign people of Sri Lanka, what is actually delivered and achieved from 2015 to 2020, rather than the contours of the next election due only about three years hence.


The Rajapaksa regime was ended because a section of the SLFP and the UNP together with others came together. They must now work together. JHU leader and articulate Rajapaksa critic, Minister Champika Ranawaka recently made an interesting observation, that the SLFP and the UNP can contest separately but then govern together, in a nation building exercise. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the context of the SAITM debate stated that toppling a government was no option, when there is no viable, attractive or acceptable alternative. The best response to political extremists in both the North and the South, is for the National Unity administration to work together to deliver the next round of the democratic, political and economic reforms which the people mandated two years ago.


With highest regards,

Harim Peiris


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Anandasangari and Premachandran take on Sambanthan

Posted by harimpeiris on April 6, 2017


By Harim Peiris
 (Published in The Island of 5th April 2017)

In Sri Lanka’s ethnically polarized political society, the political discourse of both the Sinhala and Tamil polity, is sadly limited and largely restricted to being within their own respective communities, with occasional broadsides against each other. There is insufficient dialogue and engagement between the different political views, especially on the issues of reconciliation. Within that context, it was interesting to note recently the call by two former Members of Parliament for the Jaffna District, V. Anandasangaree and Suresh Premachandra, for TNA and Opposition Leader R. Sambanthan resign as Leader of the Opposition. They accused him of using the Opposition Leader’s position to defend the government and the reconciliation process, which they claim has not addressed the needs of the Tamil community.

1. The call echoes that of the Joint Opposition (JO)

The call by the two former Jaffna District MPs from the TULF and the EPRLF, both now leading their respective minor parties, the former without Parliamentary representation and the latter with a single member in Vanni District MP, Shivashakthi Anandan elected on the TNA / ITAK ticket, are no doubt aware that their call echoes that of various Joint Opposition(JO)  leaders, who have at various times been repeatedly calling upon Mr. Sambanthan to resign and hand over the opposition leader position to the JO. When Tamil leaders find that their tactical moves are converging with that of the JO, who have diametrically opposite views regarding the reconciliation process, it should make them pause and reflect on the wisdom of their tactics.

2. Mr. Sambanthan’s leadership post the end of the war

It is worth noting the significant leadership which Mr. Sambanthan, has given the Tamil community and consequently made them partners in a reconciliation process after the end of the war. The destruction of the LTTE in 2009, created a political power vacuum in the Tamil community, which the veteran democratic leader quickly and adroitly filled, bringing the traditional leaders of the Tamil community back into control of the community, through the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) led TNA. This was no small feat, since there were many “wanna be” successors to Prabhakaran from the now surrendered KP, to the Diaspora based Nediyavan or Rudrakumara of TGTE and the ITAK’s old bete noire and historic opponents, the Ponnambalam family scion Gajendrakumar led All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC).  Even the war era, “sole alternative to the sole representative” as Douglas Devananda of the EPDP liked to style himself, tried to fill the power vacuum from the other side of the spectrum aligning himself with the Rajapakse regime and trying to get the UPFA / EPDP to power in the North and East. However, in election after election, beginning from the local government elections in 2010, the Eastern Provincial Council elections thereafter, which the TNA came quite close to winning, the Northern Provincial Council election which it did win and the General Elections of both 2010 and 2015, the TNA swept the polls in the North and baring Ampara District even the East, capturing way over eight five percent (85%) of the Tamil vote and delivering a consistent and stunning political rebuke to its internal critics and challengers. While the situations are not comparable, Mr. Sambanthan and the TNA has had a lock and monopoly on Tamil support at over 85%, which even President Rajapaksa at the zenith of his power, in the 2010 elections never had on the Sinhala electorate. The TNA’s high levels of support by their constituency has held steady from post the end of the war in 2009 through the present.

3. Removing the LTTE from Tamil electoral politics and the TNA

Under Mr. Sambanthan’s leadership the TNA post war made some significant moves, all the time carrying the support of the Tamil people. Firstly, the TNA, eschewed inducting former LTTE leaders and members into its ranks. There was a temptation for the TNA, to glorify and seek to run on a platform of sympathy for and empathy from the defeated LTTE. From Daya Master to KP, to various other LTTE political and military wing survivors, there were many who wished to get into active politics. However, the TNA eschewed this temptation and harked back to a former prewar era, drawing inspiration from the non-violent struggle and political life of SJV Chelvanayagam, rather than encouraging a nostalgia for the LTTE. While doing so, Sambanthan pulled off the near impossible, in deftly moving away from the famous Vaddukodai resolution on separatism, by repeatedly, publicly and categorically committing to seeking power sharing within a united, indivisible and undivided Sri Lanka. That all this was done, in the ashes of the LTTE’s defeat and in the context of significant nostalgia for the LTTE within the Tamil community, especially in the Vanni, speaks volumes for Mr. Sambanthan’s political sagacity and skills.

4. Engaging the South as a partner in reconciliation

It is however in the engagement with the South, that Mr. Sambanthan has played his best game yet. Within a space of a few years, he turned Tamil politics from a near three decades long armed confrontation with the Sri Lankan State, to becoming a political ally and partner in the rainbow coalition which swept the seemingly undefeatable Mahinda Rajapaksa from power. Mr. Sambanthan’s logic was simple enough. Everybody’s rights, including that of the Tamil community is best secured by a robust liberal democratic society and not in a populist authoritarian one.

Furthermore, while progress on reconciliation has been slow, at times even painfully so, the direction has changed post the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration. Some private land and houses occupied by the military in the North was released to their owners, NGOs and the volunteer sector were given the space to meet the needs of the vulnerable, some PTA detainees were released, the TNA were included in a coalition Administration in the Eastern Province together with the national parties and the SLMC to complement its provincial administration in the North, Governors for the North and East, who were partners in peace and development replaced the former military background appointees and a process of constitutional reform was begun. While none of these outcomes may have met all needs at the present time and the processes may not have proceeded as fast as Mr. Anandasangaree and Mr. Premachandran desires, to ignore the change of direction and the real gains made, albeit at a slow pace, is to miss significant and noteworthy progress and movement in the right direction, which did not happen by accident, but largely due to the quiet and dignified political leadership of Rajavarothian Sambanthan. The TNA may have its faults, but Sri Lanka as a whole is blessed that the leadership of the Tamil community moved away from Prabhakaran to Sambanthan.

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