Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for May 15th, 2018

An emphasis on reconciliation in the President’s throne speech

Posted by harimpeiris on May 15, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 14th May 2018)

 

President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent throne speech on the occasion of the commencement of the second session of the 8thParliament of Sri Lanka witnessed the President laying out essentially the road map for the remaining two years of the current national unity government’s term of office. It is clear that the emphasis and rightly so, for the remainder of the term would be to revive an economy, yet to recover from a serious overdose of expensive foreign, mostly Chinese loans, obtained by the prior regime for projects of questionable utility value and a lack of serious post war economic reforms. If the Rajapakse Administration got one approach wrong during its second term, that was trying to run the country, post war, as if the war still existed. This was true of not only national security policies but all policy including economic policies.

However, the issue of post war reconciliation or “sanhindiyawa” is also an essential component of Sri Lanka’s post war policy requirements and consequently was also a key part of the policy platform of both the common candidate and the national unity government. Reconciliation requires a democratic and free society. Community and collective rights can only be achieved where individual and personal freedoms are recognized, justiciable and protected. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit needs to be eliminated and with it the creation of a new social compact which recognizes and accommodates the full diversity of Sri Lanka’s peoples. It was towards this end that the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka voted unanimously to turn itself into a Constitutional Assembly which would begin the hard work of seeking to establish that consensus. In a political environment where sections of the opposition question the need for national reconciliation or believe that ending the war was the conclusion of an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, President Sirisena was emphatic on the views and policy direction of the National Government in this regard.

In his address to Parliament, the President stated thus “Honorable Speaker! Whatever the opposition, it is essential to enter into a political program with the consensus and agreement of the people to find a permanent solution to the issue of unrest of the people in the North and East. Although we defeated the terrorists physically, we have not succeeded in defeating their ideology completely”. He goes on to state that “at the time we assumed duty as the government, there was a delay of several years to find solutions to these challenges and the task of facing the challenges have become further difficult”.

In spelling out the broad program of the government, the President clearly articulated the issues as follows. “Recognize the equal rights-based aspirations of the Tamil people, ensure the wellbeing and social-cultural needs of the Muslim Community. He further committed to “empower the upcountry Tamil community socially and economically and strengthen the indigenous identity, by strengthening the cultural identity of the Sinhala people”.  What is noteworthy in the President’s policy statement on reconciliation is its explicit recognition of the various requirements of Sri Lanka’s different communities and the need for the Sri Lankan State to accommodate the full diversity of her different people groups.

During the presidential election campaign of late 2014 and since then, rarely if ever can President Sirisena be faulted for what he has said. His speeches, always delivered in measured Sinhala is nuanced and very carefully crafted, so that he can rarely if ever, be faulted for his public pronouncements. The challenge for his administration in the past and indeed in the future will continue to be to deliver on its good intentions and well-articulated policies. The mid term rebuke at the polls for the two political parties partnering in the national unity coalition government was probably the public’s response to the perception of non-delivery on the extraordinary expectations created by the twin mandates of 2015.

Interestingly the President calls for a more matured political culture which seeks out common ground and consensus in policy implementation and also requests that the political competition between the political partners in government should cease. This is indeed a timely call and the animated political debate on the 2020 elections is surely premature, at no other point in Sri Lanka’s recent political history was a government so focused on an election several years before its due. While a focus on the path or process of a return to power may not be unreasonable for a political opposition, it is foolhardy for a government. A focus instead on what needs to be delivered for the mandate the it has already received may well be the better option for the government.

The other side of the coin, are the smaller political parties which backed Maithripala Sirisena as the then common opposition candidate for president, the TNA, the Muslim parties and the JVP. The TNA especially as the third largest party in parliament has an important role to play as the government’s key interlocutor on reconciliation. Recognizing that it has executive authority in the North and East through the Northern and indeed the Eastern Provincial Council, the TNA should seek to deliver practical solutions to the real life needs of its constituency. Mirroring the electoral rebuke for the government parties in the South was the set back for the TNA in the North. That the TNA mostly lost votes, not to the more Tamil nationalist elements but to the EPDP, the TMVP, Rishard Bathurdeen’s Party and the EPDP breakaway independent group of Chandra Kumar demonstrates that the Tamil people had also wearied of a perceived non-delivery of a “peace dividend or indeed a good governance dividend” and held the TNA and its provincial administrations in the North and East, responsible for the non-delivery. Leading up to 2020, fulfilling the mandate of 2015, may be the best politics for the  rainbow alliance of political parties which contributed to the same.

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