Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for August, 2017

When challenges get tougher

Posted by harimpeiris on August 29, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 28th August 2017)

August 2017 marks two years of the National Unity government formed after the general elections of August 2015, which followed the historic presidential elections earlier that year, which ended unceremoniously and two years ahead of schedule the rule and reign of the Rajapaksa clan. Ending Rajapaksa rule, was a remarkable rainbow coalition of practically everyone else but the Rajapaksa’s’ their UPFA, Mahinda Rajapaksa having the unique skill of uniting almost every other political shade of opinion in the country against himself, from the Sinhala nationalist JHU, to the JVP, the UNP, General Fonseka’s Democrats, every Muslim party and the TNA, in a broad rainbow coalition against Rajapaksa rule. The general election which followed essentially witnessed President Sirisena’s political allies win power and confirmed the decline of the Rajapaksa brand, the UPFA’s popular vote declining between January and August that year. Two years on, there seem little nostalgia for a Rajapaksa return, their political organs of the Joint Opposition and the SLPP, blowing hot air and some barely concealed racism but not making much traction either in Parliament or outside.

The Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was elected on a three-fold agenda of greater democratization, economic reform and reconciliation. It is perhaps in the area of democratization that the Government has the most impressive gains to date, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution and the Right to Information Act, the latter with the potential to significantly increase the transparency and accountability of Sri Lankan governance.

In terms of reconciliation the Government co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution on reconciliation in Sri Lanka demonstrating its own commitment to the same, cooperates with UN Special mandate holders and, opened up civil society space in post war rehabilitation, facilitated the smooth functioning of the provincial councils by replacing intransigent retired military governors with civilians in the North and East and released significant amounts of lands occupied by the military during the conflict, including the Mylatti fisheries harbour in the North and Sampoor in the East.

The Tamil Diaspora groups were engaged with, de-proscribing a large number of Diaspora organisations and persons and encouraging them to be partners in rehabilitation and post war reconstruction, while the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act, was also passed. There still remains much to be done in relation to reconciliation, especially making progress on devolution and constitutional reform. Tamil political opinion and actors have chaffed though at the complicated politics and inherent delays in effecting further progress on reconciliation measures.

Economic reforms

It is however in the area of economic reform and development that there has been some disquiet with the voting public expecting a quick “good governance dividend” which it has not seen forthcoming thus far. However, Rome was not built in a day and economic reforms take time to bear fruit. But most importantly Sri Lanka’s economy was set for a hard landing, a correction after the second Rajapaksa terms borrow and spend binge. Government investment on borrowed funds in white elephant projects of dubious utility value, like the Mattala airport and the Hambanthota port, meant that a slowdown from ceasing the borrow and spend binge was inevitable.

One of the best kept secrets in recent times has been the Mahinda Rajapaksa decision to call presidential elections two year before they were due. His astrologers, magicians and soothsays notwithstanding it is quite likely that Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa was well advised that he could not indefinitely borrow and spend on projects that gave no economic returns. The election of January 2015, might well have been his bet to avoid an election in the likely economic pain his policies were bringing and would bite by 2017.

Needless hot air over leasing state assets

A key strategy of the economic reforms of the government has been attracting foreign direct investment and as western commercial capital has been harder to access amidst fierce Asia’s wide competition for the same, the Unity Government has sought to change the policy of borrow at commercial rates adopted by the Rajapaksa regime to a lease and invest equity approach to regional economic giants, both India and China. Now the Rajapaksa Administration ignored India and courted only China, to the detriment of Sri Lanka’s national interest, while the National Unity Government once again rebalanced Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, a return to the status quo ante, of our previous policy of friendly relations and close economic ties with both India, our largest trading partner and China our largest foreign investor.

There has been needless hot air and distortions over the ETCA with India, leasing the oil tank farms to the Indian oil company, the Mattala airport to also to an Indian firm and of course the Hambanthota port deal to a Chinese state owned fame which incidentally cost the former Justice Minister his job for intemperate comments regarding the Government approved US Dollar one billion deal.

The political hot air over leasing public assets to foreign investors, is uncalled for, since leasing is merely a project financing option, which is definitely more beneficial than borrowing for that same public project or asset. In the case of the Hambanthota port or the Mattala airport, sovereign borrowings to build and operate the projects, incidentally at a loss as well, essentially mortgages the country’s future tax revenues to build and operate these projects. The option of leasing is merely a financing option, which is definitely preferable to massive loans at commercial rates of interest.

With regard to strategic assets such as ports and airports Sri Lanka should take into consideration and be mindful of the security interests and concerns of its giant neighbour, again in its own interest, regional cooperation on matters of security, trade and investment being the way forward for Sri Lanka. All the economic growth forecasts for the future predict an increasingly robust growth for the Indian economy which would see its economy outpace even the Chinese one. Sri Lanka must position herself early through smart diplomacy and an enlightened foreign policy to benefit from the regional economic boom, poised to be powered by India.

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An Open Letter to Prof. G.L. Peiris

Posted by harimpeiris on August 15, 2017

(Published in the Daily News of 11th August 2017)

Prof. G.L. Peiris

Leader, SLPP.

 

Dear Professor Peiris,

 

Reconciliation, Sinhala Eelam and a Sinhala National Alliance

 

I thought I must write to you despite your obviously busy schedule, both because you at least nominally lead one aspect of the Rajapakse come back project under the banner of the nascent SLPP and also because you are unarguably, as a former foreign minister, a key advisor to defeated President Rajapakse on matters relating to post war, national reconciliation. I must at the outset explain why I stated that you lead one aspect of the Rajapakse comeback project, because it is never clear to any observer or the public, which brother number two (pardon the pun) Basil or Gotabaya proposes to replace Mahinda as the heir to the attempted Rajapakse dynasty. Would a toss of a coin determine, which Rajapakse becomes the next presidential Rajapakse candidate? But of course, your bets are on Basil, however I think Gotabaya is streets ahead in the inter-Rajapakse primaries to be the next Rajapakse candidate in 2020. Of course, Mahinda believes that this government will fall long before that, then again, his political judgement has been quite suspect of late, after all he thought he would win in 2015 and lost not once but twice.

 

Sinhala Eelam and the Sinhala National Alliance (SNA)

 

I believe it was a friend and mutual colleague from the days of the Kumaratunga presidency, which we both served at one point, who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote the Sinhala equivalent of the narrow ethnic based, exclusionary political vision and extremely violent political program, which Prabhakaran and the LTTE promoted and fought for. The LTTE had a vision, that the North and East of Sri Lanka was mono ethnically Tamil, that there was no space or need to accommodation any others as equal partners and that a strong leader, tolerating no decent was necessary to protect the Tamils from the Sinhala people and one presumes the Muslim people.

 

It is very worrying that the political rhetoric and discourse emanating from the Rajapakse come back project and its political vehicles of the JO and the SLPP, make worryingly Prabhakaran like arguments except this time in relation to the Sinhala people. Again, a distinct territory (whole of Sri Lanka) is the sole preserve of a single ethno-religious group, the Sinhala people need a strong leader to protect them from enemies within and without, which again also includes the poor long-suffering Muslims who got hit from both the Tamil Eelamists and now from the Sinhala Eelamists. We have heard this rhetoric before and it was not pretty and it was also resoundingly defeated at the elections of 2015. Perhaps a rethink might be in order.

 

I have also observed that despite the acrimony and vitriol directed at the governing national alliance and specifically the United National Party (of which you were a front bencher in a previous avatar), the real bogey which the Rajapakse comeback project seems to target is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, who you should recognize for having rather adroitly captured the leadership of the Tamil polity, post the war and considerably moderated the TNA. Now the TNA representing a minority community and steadfastly limiting its political activities and appeal to the North and East is logical given its own Tamil constituency’s demographics in the Northern and Eastern provinces. On the other hand, a responsible national opposition to be a genuine alternative government needs to represent or broaden its appeal to the entire country and it is a feature of the Rajapakse support base, that it is limited to the Sinhala people, that also predominantly of the majority religion and mostly in the Southern part of the country or outside the North and East. Regrettably for Sri Lanka, the Rajapakse come back project should be more aptly titled the “Sinhala National Alliance” (SNA) and is limited to the areas outside the Northern, Eastern and Central Provinces.

 

Reconciliation

 

Dear Professor Peiris, you have impeccable credentials or at least experience in national reconciliation, having first advocated President Kumaratunga’s devolution package from 1994-1999, then catapulting to the front bench of the subsequent UNP Government under Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe from 2001-2004 as well as that Government’s chief peace negotiator with the LTTE and of course since 2005, been a loyalist of the Rajapakse clan.  So, you have the unique distinction of having worked with three of the main political protagonists at the apex of Sri Lanka’s political establishment, namely CBK, Ranil and Mahinda. If you had read the roll of the electoral dice correctly in 2015, you may even now have been advising President Sirisena, then your political journey would have been truly unique.

 

However, despite this extensive experience in reconciliation and peace processes it is quite concerning and somewhat disappointing to witness what can only be termed fear mongering and narrow exclusionary politics in terms of the recent responses to first the OMP and more recently to the enabling domestic legislation for the international convention against enforced disappearances. You should no doubt recognize that defeated President Rajapakse committed Sri Lanka to accountability in the joint communique with then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2009 and significantly failed to create the basis for non-reoccurrence and a durable peace. It would be extremely desirable if in the national, as opposed to a partisan interest, if defeated President Rajapakse supported his successor in office, in the arduous but necessary task of national reconciliation or “sanhidiyawa”.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Harim Peiris

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