Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January, 2019

Mayor Kamzy and a Diaspora gender intervention

Posted by harimpeiris on January 24, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 24th January 2019)

Meeting President Maithripala Sirisena, earlier this month, for a courtesy call, which lasted longer than originally anticipated, was Jaffna born, Deputy Mayor of the Norwegian capital city of Oslo, Kamzy Gunaratnam. Born in Jaffna, to parents who both hailed from the peninsular, her parents took their young family and fled the fighting up North and the country as refugees, when she was three years old and eventually ended up in Norway.

A little over a decade later, Kamzy as a teenager got actively involved in the youth movement of the left of center Labor party and rose up the ranks of its youth movement. As a politically conscious teenager, she was also active in the Tamil Diaspora politics. She sang and danced at the Maveer Naal remembrances for those who died fighting for the LTTE.  In 2011, she was an organizer of a summer political youth camp by her party when the camp was attacked by a single Norwegian right-wing extremist, Anders Breivik, who shot and killed sixty-nine young people on the Island. Kamzy herself had to swim in the sea to escape, as Breivik shot at her and other young campers. It was the worst violence on Norwegian soil since the end of the second world war.

Ten years ago, then still a teenager, at just nineteen years of age, she was elected from the Labor Party as a Municipal Councilor, in Norway’s biggest city and capital of Oslo, setting a record as one of the youngest councilors ever elected. Re-elected, at twenty-five she became Oslo’s youngest every Deputy Mayor. Now at the age of twenty-nine, she is a firm favorite to become the next Mayor of Oslo in elections due in September this year. A remarkable journey for a young woman, from Jaffna to the pinnacles of Oslo City Hall, from refugee to mayor.

Mayor Kamzy in Sri Lanka

As a deputy Mayor of Oslo, Kamzy received and hosted at Oslo City Hall, many delegations and politicians from Sri Lanka visiting Oslo at various times and finally decided to accede to their numerous requests that she visit the land of her birth and early childhood. Earlier this year, Mayor Kamzy did just that. Received by their Worships the Mayors of Colombo, Jaffna and Batticalo, Kamzy visited her counterparts and exchanged experiences, ideas and knowledge. In Colombo she dialogued with Mayor Rosy Senanayake on early kindergarten facilities to enable city women to move back into the workforce after childbirth. In Batticalo she engaged with Mayor Sarvanapavan on initiatives to have a city safe for women and in Jaffna with Mayor Arnold on the issues of solid waste disposal and potable water. In Colombo she gave a well-received lecture on women’s issues to the policy think tank circuit and in Jaffna, Batticalo and Mullaitivu she met, listened and learned from women, war widows, single mothers, the maimed, orphans, female ex combatants and the families of the missing, all of whom had been affected by the war as indeed her own family had been. The tragedy surely, is that ten years later, post war these women are still struggling for sustainable solutions to their vulnerability. Mayor Kamzy joined a new breed or rather adopted a fresh approach of some Tamil Diaspora leaders, who like the GTF’s Chairman Rev. Father Emmanuel, who has relocated and based himself in Jaffna, to directly engage with the post war situation on the ground in Sri Lanka and address the myriad of issues facing the Tamil community, democratically and through discourse, practical solutions as well as political dialogue.

Gender issues in post war reconciliation

There is one lesson, which Mayor Kamzy’s life and decade of electoral politics in Norway’s center left movements and the Labor Party, stands testament to and that is the multi-cultural values and ethos which the cosmopolitan city life of Oslo engenders. Kamzy’s electoral constituency is not limited to Norway’s relatively small Tamil Diaspora community, but she draws support on the basis of her social democratic policies and politics, which includes strong commitments on women and youth empowerment and environmental protection, the latter a common passion she shares with President Sirisena, who is also our Minister of Environment. Her political life in Norway, is an interesting experience in multi-culturalism and is it impossible to envisage that Sri Lankan society would also move beyond identity politics sufficiently so that our politics is driven by policies and diverse views on the merits of the issues of public welfare rather than based on ethnicity, caste or creed.

Deputy Mayor Kamzy and indeed her Labor Party, are strong advocates of quotas or affirmative action for women in public life and she was very interested in Sri Lanka’s recent twenty five percent quota reservation introduced into the local government and provincial council election legislation to increase the participation of women in politics. For the former conflict areas in Sri Lanka in general and the Tamil community in particular, now having a large number of women headed households, the empowerment of these women in their own society through their voices being heard and as economic actors in their communities is crucial. Mayor Kamzy addressed these and other issues courageously if rather bluntly and without the deference to the traditions of an age gone by. In all this, she did not veer away from the orthodoxies of Tamil Diaspora politics but pragmatically claimed that first the Tamil people, (half of whom are women) must be empowered in their communities and then they can engage meaningfully on their political issues, a position which finds its origins (and defense) actually in Tamil politics, in late LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, who always argued on behalf of the LTTE, that first the humanitarian needs of the Tamil people must be addressed to enable them to meaningfully engage in political processes. An interesting intervention, a fresh approach and new thinking by a remarkable young woman from Jaffna.

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The TNA’s role as the real opposition in national politics

Posted by harimpeiris on January 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 3rd January 2019)

It has to be back to the drawing boards for the SLPP and the Joint Opposition (JO) after their roller coaster ride (no pun intended) of a very brief spell as a Government which never commanded the confidence of Parliament during its very short tenure. Consequently, they were forced to accept the status quo ante which existed before their assumption of office on the 26th October 2018. The significant political change which has occurred since then of course, is that President Sirisena, if not the entirety of the UPFA / SLFP he leads has decided to throw in its lot with former President Rajapakse. However, this formal political divorce of the UNP and the SLFP partners of the supremely badly named “unity” government, was a long time in the making. A strained political partnership for quite a while now, the estrangement may well have had its origins as early as late 2015 itself.

So, there is a clear political gain for former President Rajapakse, in that he has now secured a partnership with the executive president, who almost unbelievably ousted him from office four years ago. How much of the SLFP’s remaining support base of twelve (12%) will shift to Rajapakse due to the president’s actions remain questionable, as does the appetite of some of its other key leaders and members of Parliament, who believe they have no political future with another Rajapakse led dispensation. However, former President Rajapakse and the Joint Opposition (JO), it is a serious downgrade that their leader, after struggling for the premiership for several weeks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, now finds himself in a tussle for the much less exalted position of Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. It is also ironic because in the past, the pun of being an eternal opposition leader and quite comfortable in that government paid and supported post was made by UPFA / SLFP activists about Premier Wickramasinghe due to his very long spell in that office. They now find their new ally struggling for this same position in Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition appointed after the August 2015 General Elections, veteran politician Rajavarothian Sambanthan has not just rolled over made way. He has through ITAK Spokesman MA Sumanthiran, made an appeal to the Speaker of Parliament, that Mahinda Rajapakse having joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, very publicly after the now nullified dissolution of Parliament by the president has vacated and lost his seat in that august assembly by virtue of Article 99 (13) (a) of the Constitution, which stipulates that a Member of Parliament ceases to be a member of the party from which he or she was elected, he ceases to be a member of Parliament. Further the TNA contends, that President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the UPFA, opting to retain the Ministries of Mahaweli Development and Environment, besides the mandatory ministry of Defense, makes it impossible for the UPFA to both have the Head of Government and Head of Cabinet through its leader, President Sirisena and the leader of the opposition to also a UPFA member of Parliament. The merits of these claims are asked to be decided through a select committee of parliament and a motion to convene such a select committee has already been tabled. This analysis though will look at the role as a national opposition which the TNA has played.

TNA as a national opposition

The TNA is clearly boxing way above its weight class in national politics. The Sri Lankan State system, by accident or design may well have inflicted injustices on the Tamil people, but political representation in the center is not one of them. By virtue of the concentration of its support base within several districts of the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, the TNA with a popular support base of about half a million voters, elected sixteen members to Parliament at the last election. This was following up on the decisive role which it played in the January 2015 election, where voting as almost a monolithic bloc, together with the Muslim voters within their constituencies, the TNA vote bank was largely the difference between the winner and the looser at the last presidential election. This dynamic will largely hold true for even the next presidential elections which is why the “three S troika” of Sambanthan, Sumanthiran and Senathirajah are important players in national politics today.

However, the TNA genuinely acts as a real opposition in Sri Lankan politics in several ways. Firstly, it genuinely acts as a check and balance on the raw abuse of state power by governments of the day. It is the TNA which can claim credit for its principled opposition to the Divi Neguma Bill under the Rajapakse Government in 2013 through the Eastern Provincial Council and subsequently launching the legal challenge to the said Bill, which when upheld by the Shiranie Bandaranaike Supreme Court, eventually led the then CJ to face impeachment charges by an overconfident and overbearing Rajapakse Administration, which may have won that battle but lost its war for reelection. In the most recent constitutional crisis drama, it was the TNA which played a significant role discretely and behind the scenes to ensure that democratic practices and principles were upheld and democratic institutions held sway.

There are many internal critics of the TNA and this is both natural and healthy in democratic politics. Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran are no dictators to assassinate their opponents, even politically let alone with any physical violence or brutality. None of them have a tradition of militancy or armed rebellion against the state as many of their detractors do and generally box by the Queensbury rules in a more genteel kind of politics which is perhaps the perfect antidote to the extreme violence which was Tamil politics during the years of the armed conflict. Tamil politics in Sri Lanka has come a full circle, ten years after the end of the war, democratic, diverse and now increasingly nationally quite decisive.

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