Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • February 2019
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Archive for February, 2019

Sinhala nationalist critique of democracy – a mistake

Posted by harimpeiris on February 21, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 19th February 2019)

The undeclared front runner for the Rajapaksa clan / SLPP / JO nomination is undoubtedly former Defence Secretary. So his views and vision for Sri Lanka, which he is now periodically presenting as his undeclared presidential candidacy commences, merit serious attention. A democracy requires that there be debate and dialogue on policies and decisions affecting national life and, in that respect, the military is the last institution one wants to learn democratic norms from. The military personnel are trained are over a lifetime to obey lawful orders without question and have orders carried out without question.

Accordingly, in recent times, opinion leaders in support of a Gotabaya candidacy and Mr. Rajapaksa himself have been making comments that indicate that within the new Sinhala nationalist political project, which is what the Gotabaya candidacy is about, there is a general disdain for democracy and a belief in what might be termed a faith in a strongman. A well-intentioned dictator or an enlightened despot, as renaissance era political thinkers may have termed it. First there was a call, a couple of months back, by a very senior religious prelate for a military government like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The attempt to backtrack on the comments or give it a benign spin was not successful with the unforgiving video records on social media. Just last week, a retired Navy commander, now involved with other military officers around the former Defence Secretary has gone on record saying that countries should not emphasize democracy and human rights. He reportedly further stated that democracy had, only brought ethnic division and strife to the country. Then, there is Mr. Rajapaksa himself stressing the need for guaranteeing economic and social rights and not civil and political rights. It is clear that Mr. Rajapaksa and the retired generals around him are seeking to run the country in much the same way as they ran the military and defence ministry, and preparing the people to accept, under their potential rule, vastly reduced democratic and human rights.

A flawed democracy should be strengthened not further weakened

There is one thing on which the new Sinhala nationalist project and all others can agree on, and that is that Sri Lanka’s democracy is flawed and weak. This, of course, is contrary to what we argue in international fora, but that contradiction is another story. That criticism is clearly made by Mr. Rajapaksa and those around him. Others such as Tamil nationalists, make the same criticism for entirely different reasons, but come to the same conclusion, a correct one, that Sri Lankan democracy has not really served them or indeed anyone.

It was State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne, who during the abortive 52-day Rajapaksa regime late last year, stated that the current political set up served only the rulers and not the governed. He was speaking to a group of professionals and was arguing for taking governance from populists to professionals. This same argument was the basic rallying cry of the rainbow coalition of 2015, which built a socio- political movement on good governance and consequently challenged and overthrew the president who ended the war.

There is little doubt that Sri Lankan democracy, or our institutions of governance, has not in the past delivered for our people. We have been unable to manage the political debate, make the compromises and achieve the minimum consensus required to have a cohesive and integrated society within our democratic institutions.

That failure resulted in political and communal violence. The failure was not just on ethnic relations. The two JVP insurrections of the 1970s and 1980s clearly demonstrated that even with regard the economic and socio-political aspirations of the Sinhala community our institutions of governance were unable to deliver.

But the answer to that must be, as declared in January 2015 by the rainbow coalition, is for democracy to be strengthened and for good governance to be established. Towards this end, this dream and political vision, 6.2 million Sri Lankans, comprising a majority of the voting public gave their mandate. The 19th Amendment was a step in this direction; the Constitutional Council was a step in the same direction––small steps but definitely the right direction. Four years on, the criticisms of these by the Rajapaksa’s and their acolytes are a clear indication of their desire to roll back the clock. When democracy is weak, the solution is not to kill it but strengthen it.

A Rainbow coalition must come back

The assault, during this election year 2019, on the democratic institutions of the Constitutional Council, the 19th Amendment, the Human Rights Commission are all indicators of what a Rajapaksa return would entail for Sri Lanka. An elected dictatorship, benign to its supporters and brutal with its opponents; an unmitigated disaster for a post war, pluralist society like ours. The last time, when the fascist experiment of one folk, one Fuhrer and one fatherland was attempted in Europe, it resulted in both a holocaust and a world war. What is needed is to strengthen Sri Lankan democracy not truncate it.

The answer to this, of course, is a repeat of the politics of 2014/15, five years later. The actors would be different. Instead of the term limit barred Mahinda, or the age-limit-barred Namal, the candidate may be Gota and heading a rainbow coalition; the candidate may be the UNP leader, or his current or former deputy. But irrespective of the candidates the basic political formulae of the Rajapaksa clan verses the rest, would still pose a significant political challenge to the Rajapaksa come-back project, and the resultant diminution of Sri Lanka’s democratic, civil and political rights.


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The 19th Amendment is the Sirisena Administration’s achievement – It must be defended

Posted by harimpeiris on February 15, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 13th February 2019)


In January 2015, 6.2 million Sri Lankans voted for a new Sri Lanka, giving a mandate for far reaching reforms, even as a rainbow coalition of disparate opposition parties and civil society organizations backed a common candidate for the presidency and Maithripala Sirisena, who had defected from the Rajapakse Administration shortly before and launched a blistering criticism of his erstwhile boss, defeated a deeply entrenched and populist president who sought to leverage his war ending legacy into an unprecedented 18thamendment enabled third term.

The signature achievement of the Sirisena Administration during its second 100 or so days in office, was the 19th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which essentially reversed the 18th amendment and reduced the sole discretionary executive powers of the presidency, established independent commissions and strengthened the role of the Constitutional Council in key state appointments. This has in fact led to a renewed Sri Lanka, where senior police officers are institutionally independent of politicians now in their professional work and careers, the judiciary has recovered from the low point of the sacking of Chief Justice Shiranie Bandaranaike, a collective decision making on senior state appointments through the Constitutional Council and the establishment of key independent Commissions including the National Human Rights Commission has occurred. This was and is important progress and crucial state reform for Sri Lanka. President Sirisena throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017 praised the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and he was right. That legacy must be protected and nurtured.

In recent times, clearly President Sirisena has done a political volte farce, a complete turnaround from having campaigned against the policies of the Rajapakse Administration to now seeking to hitch his own political fortunes and future to a Rajapakse return. This of necessity makes him advocate against his own legacy of reforms and change, as he seeks to champion or be associated with a different political agenda and culture going forward. That is the President’s political right, though the wisdom of the move may be doubtful. But the merits of the 2015 reforms, mandated by a majority of Sri Lankan requires a defense, as the politics of the impending year end presidential elections, overshadows the public policy debate.

The Collective of the Constitutional Council

 The Constitutional Council embodies that essential principle of key state appointments being independently vetted and approved by a collective leadership. Now in Sri Lanka, these are the appointments to the higher judiciary and the members of the independent commissions, which are by design meant to be independent of the executive arm of government. They are regulatory and oversight in nature, be it the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission or the Anti-Bribery Commission to name a few.

Sri Lanka needs to make a transition from being a nation governed by populist strongmen (or women) to being governed by institutions, policies and laws and a government that is accountable and a governance that is transparent to the sovereign people of Sri Lanka. Through mechanisms and processes that move beyond periodic elections. It is in furtherance of this objective, that collective decision making on appointments to key judicial and regulatory bodies is being made by the Constitutional Council. The United States for instance, in which the SLPP front runner for the presidency is a citizen, requires most key state appointments to be confirmed by the US Senate. The adage, “I etat c’est moi” or “I am the state” of King Louis XIV, surely ended with the period of absolute monarchies.

This analysis does not seek to engage inappropriately in the merits or demerits of specific and particular appointments high level appointments. Merely to make the point that it surely boggles the mind and is inconceivable that a collective of ten members of the Constitutional Council, comprising ex officio the Speaker, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, their nominees and three eminent non-partisan persons, can make a bigger mistake and be allegedly partisan, than a single individual, as would be the case of the executive president. As recent events have indicated, the presidency of Sri Lanka, is hardly removed from the partisan democratic contestation for political power and the criticism of the Constitutional Council is coming from one direction only, that of the political allies of the Rajapakses. This must also be viewed in the context of the remarkable events of November and December 2018, when the actions of the President and the short lived SLPP / UPFA Government were found to be ultra vires the constitution and relevant laws. It no doubt escapes the extreme Sinhala nationalist members of the JO, that attacking the appointment of Sri Lanka’s superior judiciary is surely counter-productive to insisting and arguing with the international community, for the efficacy of Sri Lanka’s judicial system.

In Defense of the National Human Rights Commission 

 Sri Lanka has had a long-term problem with the protection and safeguarding of human rights. At one time we were quite high on the list of countries where extra judicial executions took place. Generally, Sri Lankan society was willing to acquiesce in making human rights subservient to the security interests of our long running civil war, believing as Cicero argued in the Roman Senate, that “in the fight of good against evil, the laws are silent”. But post war, we must change. It is a credit to the reforms of post 2015, that the human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka were strengthened and the attempt to rule in peacetime as in wartime was defeated at the polls.

We cannot, as President Sirisena himself pledged, allow the white van culture, the killing of editors, journalists and ruggerites on the streets of our cities to reoccur again with impunity. The work of independent commissions is a must. A society’s strength is not measured by the extent of its defense of the powerful but in its defense of the weak. As Human Rights Commission Chairman Dr. Deepika Udugama, so eloquently stated in her dignified but sterling defense of the Commission’s excellent work “an independent commission protects the rights of all groups of citizens in the country, this includes even groups of people who have been marginalized and rejected from society, since the fundamental mark of a democratic and civilized society is guaranteeing humanity”.

The governance reforms of the 19th amendment have demonstrated a resilience and a robustness that strengthened Sri Lankan democracy. It must be defended by the 6.2 million who voted for that change in 2015, even if its champions and architects change course.

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Moving beyond identity politics on constitutional reforms

Posted by harimpeiris on February 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 6th February 2019)

 The two largest parties in Parliament, the United National Party (UNP) in Government and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in opposition, the latter in both its SLFP and SLPP forms and factions are entirely preoccupied with the politics, personalities and their prospects at the forthcoming presidential election, constitutionally mandated and due at the end of this year. Hence their focus and activity has been almost entirely on the various machinations required for that exercise. The minor allies of these two parties have also been similarly preoccupied.

On the contrary, the third and fourth largest parties in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) respectively, have been rather doggedly pursuing the issue of constitutional reform, the latter championing the abolition of the executive presidency through a proposed 20th Amendment and the former is seeking to inject some life and momentum into the Constitutional Assembly’s constitution making process. The two major parties show very little interest now in the constitutional reforms process and to the extent that any political entity speaks about it, the sole objective seems to be, to use the process to score political points, ratchet up racial rhetoric which borders on bigotry and is dismally focused on parochial interest driven by identity politics. The Joint Opposition (JO) / SLPP combine have been entirely negative on the proposed constitutional draft report, with the criticism led by the NFF, on the basis that it will lead to secession by the Tamil community. Their comments are couched in language that is hardly designed to be inviting to the Tamil community to be an integrated part of a multi-cultural Sri Lanka. Joining the SLPP in being a nay-sayer, albeit from the side of the Tamil polity, has been the TNA constituent TELO, breaking ranks with its TNA allies.

However, it would be worth exploring the real issues behind the, originally near unanimous decision of Parliament in 2015 to vote, 224 to 1, to constitute themselves as a Constitutional Assembly to deliberate on constitutional changes and reforms.

The executive presidency and a democratic deficit

 The crucial driver for constitutional reforms requires a broad based, acceptance of what would be deemed as or constitute the core political problem in Sri Lanka. Currently and pre-war, this was defined by Sinhala nationalists as the problem of a restive, difficult and unreasonable Tamil minority bent on secession or separation and by Tamil nationalists as the problem of a permanent Sinhala majority and a Sinhala state which was structurally discriminatory of Tamil minority interests, concerns and welfare. Such an “us verses them” definition of the problem, unresolved and allowed to fester could only lead to armed conflict, which it did for near three long decades. While both the secessionist tendency of Tamil nationalism as well as the mono ethnic nature of the Sri Lankan State has been long evidenced, it is a result rather than a casual factor. The underlying cause is that the democratic and fundamental freedoms of all Sri Lankans, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgers are weak, vulnerable and does not deliver solutions.

In 2015, the rainbow coalition, for which the election winning majority was delivered by the voters of the North and East, its then common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, interestingly defined Sri Lanka’s problem as a problem of democracy. Hence the emphasis on governance, reforms and abolishing the executive presidency. That the structural discrimination against the poor, the disposed and the vulnerable, was systematic, that Sri Lankans were badly served by the governance structures irrespective of whether they were Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim was articulated and a coalition formed around governance reforms.  Hence the problem was defined as a problem of democracy and a problem of governance.  That Sri Lanka’s political system did not produce public governance that was equitable, just, efficient or accountable (transparent). Accordingly, the rainbow coalition defined Sri Lanka’s problem as a democracy deficit, a centralization of power, which had led to its abuse and misuse, using the example of the Rajapakse presidency, even with its populism, which did not serve the interest of Sri Lanka’s people, irrespective of their race, caste or creed. Some, especially ethnic and religious minorities may well have been worse off than others, but everyone except the privileged few were ill served. It was to address this need for reforms of the Sri Lankan state, that the Constitutional Assembly was established by Parliament.

This thesis is not new and drew its inspiration from several decades earlier, when then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga laid the political ground work for her “devolution package” by relentlessly attacking the 1978 republican constitution as a monstrosity. The Sinhala term “bahubutha viyawasthawa” or a cursed constitution, being her favorite terminology to create the public acceptance of the need for constitutional reform. Her government of 1994 having only a single seat majority in the legislature prevented the success of the eventual August 2000, draft constitution. That President CBK’s efforts at constitutional reform garnered as much support as it did at that time, probably owes much to this broader definition of the problem, of aligning the interests of all communities in a reformed and democratic Sri Lanka. In a sense, by implication if not explicitly, the political alliance of the National Democratic Front which won the January 2015 presidency, saw and defined the problem in this manner.

The argument that Sri Lanka perennially needs a strong leader, a dictator to use the terminology and political ideology of the Roman Empire in its decline, which created the office of the ever-powerful Emperor, is a paranoid perspective which only sees Sri Lanka as eternally under threat from within, pitting Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, denying the reality of a shared future. It ignores the real priorities of addressing the social challenges and economic opportunities in the post war era, long neglected and made secondary during the war years. It is interestingly Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP and MA Sumanthiran of the TNA, who are seeking to keep alive the reform agenda in Sri Lanka, which is ultimately necessary for us to have a government that works for and serves the economic, social and cultural needs of all Sri Lanka’s diverse peoples.

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