Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for October, 2019

Sajith resets the agenda on Sinhala nationalism

Posted by harimpeiris on October 26, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 26th October 2019)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose an opportune but inappropriate moment to announce his candidacy for the presidential elections, when in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, he announced his intention to contest for the presidency. From even before then the network of the organizations promoting his national politics, namely Viyath Maga and Eliya have been quite open about their agenda, that of national security and economic development, the latter along the Chinese agenda and model with high priced Chinese loans. The subtexts of this discourse have been generally anti-minority rhetoric, especially towards the Muslim community.

The UNP were very late entrants into the presidential elections and consequently into a national political discourse of its own. However, young Sajith Premadasa who finally secured the nomination of that grand old party has launched a campaign which seeks to reset the national political agenda. In doing so, he provides Sri Lanka and her voters, with a real choice, a genuine cross road at which the nation can travel in divergent directions.

No overt challenge to Sinhala nationalist dogma

Recognizing that the Rajapakses have been playing and upping the ante on ethnic Sinhala nationalism, Sajith Premadasa makes no attempt to challenge Sinhala nationalist dogma, but he seeks instead to coopt it and redefine it, in his way and style. This is a serious political attempt on his part through the UNP, similar though not identical, to what Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga attempted and succeeded in through the SLFP / PA twenty-five years ago. CBK however, had one and a half years to do it from the 1993 Southern Provincial Council elections through the 1994 presidential elections, Sajith Premadasa, has just one and a half months to do so. But he is gaining traction.

A Sinhala nationalism which is socially equitable and just

Sajith Premadasa, inspired and clearly grounded in the motivational ideology of his late father, has a driving focus on social democracy, justice and equity. He took to public housing, like a duck to water and has a personally impressive track record of deliverables in the past five years, which lay the foundation for a national economy that seeks to strengthen the social safety net, empower the less fortunate and spur the economic productivity and well being of the lower income segments of our society. An economic growth with equity that enhances and strengthens social justice. Sajith argues that this agenda is a crucial aspect of Sinhala nationalism, that a nationalism devoid of justice, equity and democracy, both social and political, actually weakens the Sinhala people and Sri Lanka. The seeds for this argument were actually laid by President Sirisena in 2015, though articulated differently and it may well be the winning argument in 2019 and beyond.

Along the same lines, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign has some serious credibility issues on its development model. The people of Sri Lanka were clearly not impressed by the post war 2009-2014 economic program of the second Rajapaksa term. The Rajapaksa then and now made two arguments, Sinhala nationalism defined as patriotism, national security and sovereignty and economic development. If one accepts the rather self-evident truth, that Sinhala nationalism is alive and indeed thriving, we have to assume that the Rajapaksa lost the 2015 elections on the basis of economic policy and governance, the absence of a peace dividend in the south, the obvious nepotism and the widespread and credible allegations of corruption. With Gotabaya the people can well suspect they would receive more of the same.

A Sinhala nationalism which is inclusive and tolerant

Sajith Premadasa who unabashedly says he is a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist in all his public meetings and model village openings in the minority dominated Northern and Eastern provinces, defines his Sinhala Buddhist nationalism much more along the lines of the ancient Sinhala kings and kingdoms, who while promoting and developing Buddhism was tolerant and inclusive and created the space for a multi ethno religious society to flourish. It was Sinhala kings who enabled Muslim communities to trade freely and flourish in the Eastern Province and elsewhere, who enabled Joseph Vass to preach Christ in Sinhala villages and strengthen the Roman Catholic Church. Sinhala monarchs and monarchies, which understood then, what is surely even more true today, that no man or nation exists as an island alone, but in community with others, both within and without. This is the type, shape and form of nationalism which Sajith Premadasa seeks to define and articulate. Where after the Easter bombings his Ministry of Housing undertook to rebuild in full, the Tamil Pentecostal Zion church in Batticalo and then also visited all the attacked and damaged mosques in the North Western Province, with rebuilding funds, for those affected by organized pogroms. Terror attacks never justify pogroms against a community, not in July 1983 and not in April 2019. Sajith Premadasa understood and practiced that.

The Sinhala nationalist rhetoric emanating from the SLPP’s Pohotuwa campaigns, sounds sadly like its extremist Tamil counterpart rhetoric emanating from a Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam or the transnational government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE). In fact, in its exclusivist ethnic world view, its exclusion of others, its anti-Muslim tendencies and its polarizing effects, the extreme fringes of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism are eerily similar to each other. It is also similar to the extreme right wing, fascist political movements which gained power in Europe prior to the second world war II and whose political progeny are raising their heads if not making a come-back in some parts of Europe. The pre-war fascism of Francisco Franco in Spain, Benito Mussolini Italy and of course the Nazis in Germany. The results of Fascism were devastating for Europe and indeed for much of the world.

Sri Lanka on November 16th, will decide whether we want as a nation to have our own experiment with extreme right wing ethno-religious governance or traverse a different road of social democracy and economic justice and equity.

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Sajith and Gota – A study in contrasts

Posted by harimpeiris on October 15, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 14th October 2019)

Despite the long presidential ballot paper, the real contest for Sri Lanka’s highest office is between Cabinet Minister, Sajith Premadasa contesting from the UNP led National Democratic Front (NDF), under the swan symbol and his challenger from the opposition, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, contesting from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), under their symbol, the lotus bud. One of these two would be declared as the President elect of Sri Lanka on 17th November and take the oath of office shortly thereafter. The most interesting of the other also rans, is undoubtedly Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the JVP, who can reasonably be expected to get approximately in the region of 5% to 6% of the popular vote, which the JVP has been polling nationally in recent times. The two main rival political camps in Sri Lanka, have produced two significantly different candidates, to harness their very different constituencies.

A young self-made leader vs the heir of a political dynasty

Sajith Premadasa is a self-made leader in many ways. Though the son of a former president, Sajith entered active politics after his late father’s assassination and not by being groomed by a presidential dad. Shortly thereafter the UNP went into a long period in opposition during the Kumaratunga presidency. Sajith eschewed the easy path of nursing his father’s pocket borough and established political base in Colombo city, believing correctly that this will remain with him and instead built from scratch his political base in rural Hambanthota’ s Sinhala villages, to launch the ultimate challenge to the Medamullane dynasty from Hambanthota itself. At the age of fifty-two (52) years, Sajith Premadasa is by Sri Lankan standards, a youthful presidential candidate and stands in contrast to his seventy (70) year old challenger. Clearly, two decades separate them.

Gotabaya by contrast is very much a creation of his brother’s presidency, best exemplified by the fact that he landed in Sri Lanka after, not before Mahinda won the election as President in 2005 and as recently confirmed by the Supreme Court, resumed his Sri Lankan dual citizenship post-election in 2005, under the hand of his presidential sibling. Gotabaya never nursed an electorate as an organizer, never sat in Cabinet with diverse multi ethnic colleagues, never engaged in democratic debate and discourse in Parliament or indeed elsewhere. Just exercised unchecked power in the shadow of a populist presidential sibling, in the context of a brutal civil war. Gotabaya has a serious democratic deficit, in process, practice and experience.

A squeaky-clean image vs a candidate busy defending himself

It was British peer, Lord Acton, who famously stated that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and the results of Gotabaya’s wielding of absolute power, with no democratic accountability, for a decade, can be seen in the vast array of legal cases, charges and investigations, in which he was or is a defendant or an accused. The accusations and cases range from the Avant Garde cases and attendant issues to the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and other human rights abuses, the Wickramatunga case pending in US courts. Gotabaya has a serious job to clear his name, especially on the substantive issues and not on a technicality.

Sajith, on the other hand, has had a squeaky-clean image. There have been neither allegations of corruption or rights abuses directed towards Sajith. Even his grassroots politics in Hambanthota and elsewhere, focus very much on the carrot rather than the stick and in what has been the downfall of many a politician in Sri Lanka, has avoided getting his family, relatives and wider clansmen associated with his political life and official duties. Even his campaign is run professionally by UNF leaders, while Gotabaya’s is very much a family affair on key decisions.

A message of hope as opposed to a message of fear or hate

It is however in the political messaging that the campaigns of Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, diverge and contrast most strongly. Sajith’s is a campaign of forward-looking optimism and hope, that is realistic in its self-criticism of the UNP’s very limited delivery of the past five years. In fact, the main reason why Sajith got the UNP’s presidential nomination ahead of party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, was that the party had to lead its campaign, with somebody not closely related to the past five years track record. The confirmation and affirmation of the role of Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka at Sajith’s inaugural rally, both defined the experience and knowledge which would guide the nation’s national security, in the war ending army commander but also blunted and took away the monopoly on that issue which Gotabaya’s campaign tried to arrogate to themselves. Sajith defines a Sinhala nationalism which is confident of its place in the sun and is generous and accommodative in the traditions of the ancient Sinhala kings and kingdoms, which created the space and opportunity for a multi ethno-religious society to grow and thrive. Gotabaya’s message at its heart though, is one of the Sinhala people being under siege and requiring a strong and perhaps even an undemocratic leadership to protect them from their internal enemies. It is essentially a message which drives us apart, polarizes and creates a deeply divided society.

Economically Sajith’s message of social justice and helping those who need a helping hand, is both more socially democratic and equitable than the protectionist, rent seeking, economic populism of the Chinese model with high priced Chinese loans, which seems to be the model the Rajapaksas favour. Sajith has a short time to share his vision for the country. But as the 60% who did not vote for the SLPP’s Pohotuwa in 2018 or the 52% who voted for the NDF Swan in 2015 looks at the choice before them on November 16th, , the carefully crafted, centrist message of hope and renewal of Sajith Premadasa, stands in stark contrast to the alternative of a militarized, authoritarian Gotabaya rule.

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Sajith unveils a social justice with security platform

Posted by harimpeiris on October 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 03rd October 2019)

Sajith Premadasa finally clinched the governing UNP’s nomination for the presidential election through the formal decision of the UNP’s Working Committee and that decision is to be ratified at their annual convention scheduled for 3rd October. The election itself is only a short six weeks away, the Election Commission having issued the gazette for the date of polling as 16th November 2019.

A UNP younger generation takes over

Soon after clinching the nomination, the basic framework of the political pitch and path of Minister and presidential candidate Premadasa are taking shape and it is fascinating to examine not least because in six weeks’ time, it could probably be government policy. Firstly, it is clear that a new younger generation of UNP leaders have finally come to their own within that grand old party. That much like his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa, succeeded the longtime UNP leadership of President JR Jayawardena, that Sri Lankan history repeats itself thirty years later, when President Jayewardene’s nephew and political heir Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe hands over the baton to Sajith Premadasa, the clear political heir of his late father. While the UNP’s party leadership will remain with Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, presumably for as long as he wants it, it is clear that a new younger generation of leadership has taken over.

Regarding the presidential election contest at barely 52 years of age, Minister Premadasa is almost two decades younger than his 70-year-old opponent from the Rajapakse camp and only the second youngest candidate, where former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in her forties in the early nineteen nineties.

Social Justice with Security

The foundation of Sajith Premadasa’s political program is the path of social justice and social democracy. Like his late father before him, Sajith Premadasa articulates a vision for a future Sri Lanka, where the top two percentiles of the populations do not receive over half the national income, while the lowest two percentiles, languish at around five percent. A policy focus on investment in human capital and social infrastructure, is articulated to ensure economic growth with social justice.

Candidate Premadasa, the political machine around him, the UNF’s allied other parties and of course his own party the UNP, are exuding confidence. They believe that the election is theirs to lose. The rationale is not hard to see. The Rajapaksa’s and their political machine in 2015 lost the presidential and the subsequent parliamentary elections despite high doses of Sinhala nationalism and unabashed abuse of state power and resources. The political formulae of 2015 was Rajapakse verses the rest. Candidate Premadasa recognizes that the opposition and his chief rival Gotabaya Rajapakse is clearly following an electoral strategy of solely targeting the Sinhala Buddhist voter. It would be impossible to eat into Rajapaksa’s voter base by being more Sinhala Buddhist nationalist than the Rajapaksa’s and also simultaneously appeal to other communities. It’s a political tight rope walk requiring a careful political balance and Premadasa seems to relish the challenge. To win candidate Premadasa must wean off a small section of the Rajapakse support base and then unify the rest of the electorate baring the JVP’s 5% of the national vote. The UNP voter base has historically been more ethnically and religiously diverse, than its opponents and the UNP even at its low points was still winning parliamentary representation from Jaffna District in their own right and always electing UNP Muslim members.

A track record to go by

Minister Sajith Premadasa is clearly pitching his track record as a member of Parliament and as a Minister of Housing as an indicator and track record that people can trust. He correctly and clearly claims that his ministry has been run without family bandyism and involving his relatives in his government work, while his housing schemes and ministerial programs have been implemented without fear or favor including large swathes of it in the former conflict areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces. He is also, again rather like his father somewhat of a workaholic and is and has been extremely hard working as a minister. He is likely to be a very hands on president, ably assisted by the team around him.

Politically Candidate Premadasa senses the weaknesses in his principal opponent in terms of the lack of political experience and the negative aspects of his opponent’s track record. The Defense Ministry is not the place where you learn to consult and compromise to reach consensus, an essential feature in a democracy and a trait very visibly lacking in his opponent’s campaign and camp. Most recently it was SLFP stalwart from the Kalutara District Kumara Welgama who again mentioned his fear about the return of the white van culture, while slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter has initiated legal proceedings against Gotabaya Rajapakse in US courts.

The Rajapaksa’s through the SLPP secured about 40% of the national vote in the February 2018 election. But the political sheen and ascendency of the Rajapaksa political machine was clearly severely dented by the failed constitutional coup and the short lived third Mahinda Rajapakse government of 52 days, a prime minster who never once stepped into Parliament and lost the first of several no confidence votes within days of being appointed. So the conventional wisdom would have it, that the election is currently a tie within the statistical margin of error, between the UNP nominee Minister Sajith Premadasa, set to contest under the Swan symbol and banner of the National Democratic Front and the SLPP nominee of the former defense secretary and brother number two Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the election likely to be decided by the large number of uncommitted and undecided voters.

Somehow one gets the feel, that Sajith Premadasa is the centrist and moderate candidate who will be the pick of the currently undecided and uncommitted voters who will be the deciding factor in the November election.

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