Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for June, 2019

Mangala challenges the politics of division

Posted by harimpeiris on June 13, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 10th June 2019)

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who recently celebrated 30 years in public life, is certainly no ordinary politician. He has always, throughout his career, been more of a leader, than a follower and generally challenged conventional political wisdom and done so, mostly successfully. During his youthful beginnings in politics, during the second JVP insurrection, he fought hard for human rights and the cause of the disappeared. When the southern SLFP leadership was toying with boycotting the 1989 general election, he jumped into the fray. As a young freshman SLFP parliamentarian in 1989, he was a key operative in seeking the easing upstairs of the iconic Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the induction of the next generation of leadership under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. As CBK then resolutely swung the SLFP, from the opponent of provincial councils, into an enlightened political party presenting a political package of accommodation and inclusiveness, Mangala Samaraweera was at the forefront of that change through the “Sudu-Nelum” movement.

In more recent times, he was one of the earliest nay-sayers about the Rajapakse regime’s excesses, from its own front benches as Foreign Minister and his critique of its human rights and forecast of its international consequences was almost prophetic in their accuracy and remarkable in its foresight. During the current post 2015 dispensation, Mangala took the leadership on the delivery of national reconciliation as Foreign Minister and now as Finance Minister, he is spearheading the next generation of essential reforms and our tortuously slow economic recovery from the expensive Chinese debt funded, allegedly corrupt, budget busting white elephant projects of the previous era.

Unifying rather than dividing

So, Minister Mangala Samaraweera is a clear opinion leader and a catalyst for change. Recently, especially in the aftermath of the horrendous Easter bomb attacks, he has been articulating a unifying vision of us coming together as a nation to face our common enemy. This is in the context, where the predominant political response, after the initial calm created by the Christian community’s resolute decision to forgive and not retaliate, has been to divide and hate monger. He has also not been reluctant to take on the sacred cows of our religious leaders, when they are engaging in more temporal pursuits such as “fasts unto deaths” and open support for the same.

Sri Lanka is a deeply divided society. We are divided along every possible social fault line imaginable. We are divided along ethnic, religious, linguistic, caste and class lines. Sri Lanka has essentially failed post-independence to forge a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual national identity which over aches our more parochial ethno-religious identities. In fact, our giant neighbour India has done a remarkable job in creating such a national Indian identity from a mosaic of different ethno-linguistic groups. The goal of a Sri Lankan identity remains elusive and the task of reforms towards a Sri Lankan state which accommodates the diversity of her peoples is challenging.

Sri Lankan politics and politicians, and not least allied industries such as media, basically at some level play off on the divisions in our society, to seek leadership. As Mangala wrote in his recent essay of 5th June titled The Cardinal Sin. I quote, “When a political party, media organization or religious leader depends for their survival on one group of Sri Lankans becoming afraid of another, we must be wary of them”.

Identifying the real enemy

Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history has witnessed people fighting. At the outset we disenfranchised the Tamils of Indian decent, then we got rid of the Burghers, then fought along economic class lines under the JVP banner, simultaneously engaging in a near ruinous civil war with the Tamil community and post-war launched an assault on the Muslim community’s business interests under the guise of anti-halal, poisoned toffees and every other imagined paranoia we could come up.

Sri Lanka and specifically the Christian community, in both their Roman Catholic and non-Roman traditions were the victims of a radical Islamic group’s terrorist attack. Mercifully and with full credit to our security forces, no further attacks were allowed and the terror network degraded beyond offensive capability. However, as Mangala Samaraweera so clearly articulates, the response to violent Islamic extremism is not anti-Islamic extremism or Islamophobia. In fact, the wave of anti-Muslim violence has been distracting and diverting the attention of the law enforcement and the security forces. Further violence and discrimination against an entire community for the actions of a few, is a sure recipe for radicalizing the majority. It is the path we trod in the 1980s vis-a-vis Tamil militants and the Tamil community and we must not repeat those mistakes. As the reports from the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the attacks are revealing, we had information on the terror cells developing in Kathankudy from the Muslim community itself. But the state chose to take no action, until an attack took place and have now closed the stable door once the horse has bolted. We are now obsessed with chasing red herrings of sterilizing gynecologists, rather than tracking down any remaining foreign-trained ISIS terrorists and hate mongers and rabble rousers of whatever hue and persuasion.

The real enemy of Sri Lanka, are those that seek to divide us. For united in our diversity we stand and divided we fall.

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De-radicalization of extremists is not achieved through alienating moderates

Posted by harimpeiris on June 6, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 04th June 2019)

(This column was written before Rathana Thera ended his fast)

As this article is being written Member of Parliament and presidential advisor, the Ven. Ratna Thera’s fast in Kandy, has entered its fourth day and consequently resulted in his key demand being met, that of the governors of the Eastern and Western provinces, M.L.A.M Hizbulla and Azath Salley, handing in their resignations to President Sirisena, their appointing authority. It is rather ironic that a presidential advisor, takes up a fast in protest against two of the President’s key Muslim allies. One hopes the Thera, will give up his fast, considering that he has succeeded in having two of his key demands met and not least because as a Member of Parliament and a presidential advisor he has access to the powers that be and can advocate his views in private rather than in public.

Whether the resignation of the two governors would eliminate the tension that had been building up in the Kandy area through the fast and aided by the ultimatum to the President issued by the newly pardoned head of the BBS yesterday, remains to be seen. Memories have not healed and victims not entirely compensated for the damage and destruction in Digana and there are genuine fears among the Muslim community of fresh violence against their properties. Their persons, generally being spared in the new calibrated violence against the community.

Sri Lanka, as indeed many other countries of the world, clearly face the challenge of dealing with a stream of political violence aided by international terror networks and influenced by a particular understanding and interpretation of the Islamic scriptures, finding its origins in Saudi Arabia. This deradicalization endeavor however requires the support of the Muslim community in general, which support they have been providing both before and after the Easter bomb attacks. In fact, with regard to the NTJ ring leader, evidence surfacing through the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the attacks, is that there was ample information of violent attacks made available to the State, but no action was taken. The general response by all senior Muslim community leaders, is that the community itself was giving information and altering the government to the existence and the rise of an extremist, violent small group in their midst, but no action was taken. That no action was taken is fairly self-evident. That information was available, both from domestic Muslim sources and also reportedly from the India authorities is also established. The only argument being as to who knew what and who should shoulder the responsibility for the failure to act. Perhaps we should collectively take responsibility for this failure. After all it was a failure on the part of the state and by state institutions. Ensuring that violent extremism holds little attraction for the Muslim community in general and Muslim youth in particular is certainly not achieved by ostracizing the community, making it impossible for them to engage in their livelihoods, especially trade and other generalized assaults on their community life, schools, mosques, businesses and way of life.

Sri Lanka’s past experience with violent extremism

Sri Lanka’s past experience with violent extremism, is that moderate leadership is the best panacea for mitigating and managing such extremism. When largely Sinhala youth took up arms under the banner of the JVP in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s, it was the lack of support for such views and activities by the vast majority of the Sinhala people, their academics, religious leaders and others, which ensured that the violent expression JVP politics would not gain traction in Sinhala society. Conversely the LTTE, when it sought domination of the Tamil community engaged in killing off all its political opponents ranging from the TULF to the TELO and EPRLF to ensure that they were the last and only one standing to ensure being the “sole representatives” of the Tamil people. Today the re-emergence and leadership of the Tamil community by the staunchly non-violent and moderate Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) under the leadership of the Sambanthan, Senathirajaha and Sumanthiran trinity (no pun intended) is the best bulwark and defense against a reemergence of a violent expression of ethnic Tamil nationalism. Similarly, the moderate political leadership of the Muslim community, led by Minister Rauf Hakeem and the SLMC, is an essential ally in the common endeavour to ensure that the Muslim community continues in the same, socially integrated and politically moderate path they have trod for centuries and certainly in post independent Sri Lanka. Attacking the moderates, the symbols of their community and ordinary Muslims is certainly no recipe for dealing with extremism.

Representing the Sinhala Buddhist voice

The majority Sinhala voice of whom the vast majority are Buddhist, though a significant Sinhala Catholic community exists, need to also examine who and how their interests are represented. It was interestingly after the Digana violence that the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter, famously stated in a barely disguised allusion to the chief suspect perpetrator organization, that there was no need for “Balakayas” in Sri Lanka, because we have a state with adequate armed forces and law enforcement for national security. There is absolutely no need for the law of the jungle or for majoritarian groups to take to calibrated communal violence against a minority.

It is regrettable that as the security situation becomes increasing under control, as confirmed to us by both the Commander-in-Chief and the Army commander, that communal disharmony and tensions continue to boil and simmer. The onset of the election cycle may well mean that political actors are not particularly incentivized to defuse tensions and increase social harmony. Accordingly, it may well then be the responsibility of other social actors-from civil society, religious leaders, opinion makers and business leaders-to seek to defuse tensions and heal the wounds of a yet again polarizing Sri Lankan society.

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