Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for May, 2020

The Challenge of the Second Decade of Post War Reconciliation

Posted by harimpeiris on May 27, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 27th May 2020)

May 19th 2020, marked the eleventh year of the end of the fighting in Sri Lanka’s civil war. A protracted long drawn out conflict, which when it ended in 2009 was the world’s second longest running civil conflict after Lebanon’s. As a nation as we enter the second decade after the end of the war, there is a need to continue the process of reconciliation, which made slow progress during the first decade after the war. There is a continuing need to address both the effects and the causes of the war, to ensure a durable and just peace as well as heal the ethnic polarizations in our society.

The effects of the conflict are still around and visible, mostly in the Northern Province and the Vanni, much more than in the Eastern province. Especially in the districts of Killinochchi and Mullaitivu which bore the brunt of the fighting and the scene of the final existential battles of the LTTE. In the first decade after the war, the former Rajapaksa Government, rapidly rebuilt the physical infrastructure, especially the roads and government administrative buildings and structures, while its successor, the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration followed up with land release, smaller scale community infrastructure and perhaps most importantly opening up and creating the space for civil society and the non-governmental sector to address the needs of the conflict affected. Especially those of the most vulnerable sectors of those communities, women and children, the war widows, the orphans and the injured, including many suffering from post-traumatic stress and other mental distress. A generous Indian housing project, granting as aid not loans, fifty thousand housing units, ensured that housing stock in the North and East was also rebuilt. However, as yet an unaddressed and continuing post war need, is the sustainable livelihoods for women headed households as well as rehabilitated ex-combatants.

The challenge of reconciliation under the SLPP

The election of the first Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) administration in November last year and the foregone conclusion of a comfortable victory for the SLPP, in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, once the Covid-19 threat in epidemic proportions is over, means that reconciliation for the next five years is going to be under the policy framework of the SLPP. While there has been no clear articulation of a reconciliation policy by the administration, the statements by the Foreign Minister at the UNHRC at the end of February, the appointment of ideological hardliners to key positions in the Administration among other insights into thinking demonstrate at the minimum, that the Government elected solely on the votes of the majority ethno-religious community, is disinclined at best to move forward a process of reconciliation or the famous home grown solutions it refers to with international audiences.

This absence of a drive for reconciliation, at the high levels of the new government means that reconciliation would need to be advanced through other actors and stakeholders, including minority political leaders, provincial and local government institutions, community leaders and civil society. Where ever Sri Lanka has done well, be it in the apparel or IT industry or cricket, we have done well with minimum government involvement and progress has generally stalled once politicians got involved. It is also useful to learn of reconciliation processes of non-western and non-European experiences, particularly from Africa like Rwanda and South Africa and even from South America, like in Colombia, all countries which suffered political violence, loss of life and property and collective community trauma.

In that context, the abysmal non performance of the first TNA controlled Northern Provincial Council was both a disappointment and complete let down for the Tamil people of the Northern Province. Led by former supreme court Justice CV Wigneswaran, his administration seemed inept and incompetent. In it’s first year, it even had to return money sent from the center for projects due to non-completion and subsequently only refrained from doing so, by diverting the funds elsewhere in a manner which stretched Government financial regulations. It ended its term in internecine squabbles, where the ITAK resigned from his administration and the Chief Minister ended up in court over his provincial ministerial appointments.  On the contrary, the performance of the SLMC-TNA Coalition Administration in the Eastern Province under an SLMC business minded chief minister, performed much better. The provincial administration, assisted in resettlement, worked in harmony with the center and generally managed the delicate Tamil-Muslim relations in the East in a manner which makes another joint SLMC-TNA provincial administration in that province, a distinct possibility.

Having a go at M.A. Sumanthiran  

With parliamentary elections called and the date pending a Supreme Court determination, the preference vote battle in the Jaffna District heated up and distinctly discarded the Queensbury rules, when the political competitors of the former Jaffna District Parliamentarian, president’s counsel and TNA Spokesman, MA Sumanthiran launched an unprecedented personal and political attack against him. Their weapon of choice was comments Sumanthiran had made in a Sinhala language interview, “Truth with Chamuditha” and specifically his reiteration that he never accepted or condoned armed struggle as a political project. An overarching well known pacifist philosophy, he subscribes to, is best known by its global champion from our region, India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, after whom it is named, as Gandhian non violence philosophy.

There were strange comments in social media, that Sumanthiran and the TNA had achieved nothing through eleven years of democratic politics. This from clear LTTE sympathizers, who are never willing to honestly explore what exactly the Tamil people achieved through twenty-five years of the armed struggle. An armed struggle whose self-harm to the Tamil community included, the conscription of their children as child soldiers, universally accepted as an international war crime and the political murders of Tamil democratic political leaders like Alfred Duraiappa, Appaapilai Amirthalingam, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sam Thambimutthu and Joseph Pararajasingham, who never actually opposed the LTTE, but either did not dance to their tune or were competitors for political power. Certainly, the Tamil community had made no strategic gains, when the LTTE’s armed struggle ended. Indeed, the LTTE were left with few friends internationally and banned in most countries of the world.

Suren Surendiran, the de facto head and articulate spokesman for the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), best sums up a most rationale and principled approach in this manner. Writing to the Colombo Telegraph on May 26th, he states “More than a decade has passed since the war ended, and the Tamil community must embark upon honest self- reflection and learn valuable lessons from its successes and failures of the past. In this journey inclusivity of different political viewpoints is fundamental”. Surendiran begins his essay with the observation that resolving the issues of the Tamil people, requires engagement with the Sinhala and Muslim communities and endorses Sumanthiran thus “We always found Sumanthiran highly knowledgeable, articulate, hard working and honest and we reiterate our utmost confidence in him”.

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The fight against Covid-19 should not weaken the rule of law

Posted by harimpeiris on May 13, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 13th May 2020)

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant shutdown of social and community life has meant that the political debate and dialogue in Sri Lanka, has moved from more traditional forms of communications, to exclusively electronic and especially social media platforms. Of these, the electronic media’s reach is universal in Sri Lanka, with almost every one of Sri Lanka’s four million households either owning a TV set or having ready access to one, though not entirely being news and current affairs TV junkies. However, phone penetration in Sri Lanka is also nearly universal, our twenty million people accounting for more than twenty-one million phone connections and the resultant internet penetration through mobile devises is also likely to be quite high, at least for the use of basic data applications like Whatsapp. The effectiveness of electronic and social media exclusively for the nation’s political dialogue has been tested during the past two months and has shown some ability to communicate ideas with political traction within society.

This is unsurprising because social media provide very effective in both the 2015 and the 2019 presidential elections. In the 2015 election, the unsuccessful Mahinda Rajapakse campaign dominated every form of media space and coverage except for social media, which was the only level playing field by its very nature and which was largely supportive of the ultimately successful Maithripala Sirisena challenge to the then Rajapakse Administration. Similarly, in the run up to the 2019 presidential election, social media was dominated by sentiments supportive of the successful candidacy of the ultimate winner in that election. More recently though with Parliament dissolved on March 2nd 2020, the opposition has had to rely solely on electronic and social media and to their credit, despite the obvious and natural national pre-occupation with preventing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic within the country, socio-political issues have been raised in the electronic and social media and effectively championed.

The most obvious and dominant issue is unsurprisingly, regarding the now dissolved parliament, the re-summoning of which, the Opposition has championed entirely via the electronic and social media. That this pressure was being felt at the highest levels, was demonstrated by the fact that the President felt obliged to do a media interview and explain his reasons for not doing so. The Prime Minister followed with his own concession in that regard, by summoning all two hundred and twenty five members of the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka for a meeting at Temple Trees, which olive leaf was only grasped by the Tamil National Alliance, its parliamentarians coming from all parts of the North and East for the meeting and following up the same at the PM’s request with another meeting later the same day at his residence. The other political parties, including the main opposition SJB, the UNP and the JVP all boycotted the meeting.

The corollary of that issue has been the date of holding, parliamentary elections, the opposition claiming with considerable merit, that a free and fair election is not currently possible under Covid-19 preventive social distancing measures. Moreover, the period of not having a functioning legislature is exceeding the maximum period of three months and is, prima facie a violation of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The constitutional arguments are due to be argued in the most appropriate and effective forum for the same, the Supreme Court of the Republic, with leave to proceed granted to petitioners, including Mr. Ranjith Maduma Bandara, General Secretary of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa and former Ministers Patali Champika Ranawaka and Kumara Welgama, the latter two filing a joint petition. Support for the petitions and oral arguments are scheduled to be made next week on the 18th and 19th of May. In an interesting development, in recognition of the independence of the Election Commission and its own conflict of interests, the Attorney General has informed the Supreme Court, that the AG’s Department cannot appear for the Election Commission in the said case, resulting in the Commission having to retain private counsel. This also highlights the inherent conflict of interests which arises from the Attorney General (AG) being simultaneously the chief law officer of the State and the chief legal advisor to the Government, often interpreted and practiced by AGs, as being the chief legal advisor to the executive. It is pertinent to note that during the October 2018 constitutional crisis when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya wrote to the then Attorney General seeking his views on the legality of the President’s actions in dissolving parliament before four and a half years of its five year term had been completed, that the then Attorney General declined to advise the Speaker. Similarly, it is quite likely that in Court, the Attorney General on behalf of the Head of Government and the Election Commission may take divergent positions regarding the issues.

The rule of law argument for Sri Lanka is quite simple. We are politically, a functioning if somewhat challenged democratic society. Our democratic norms and freedoms are important to who we are as a nation state. The fight against Covid-19 cannot and indeed should not be permitted to be a rationale for a weakening of our democratic norms and freedoms. The most successful fights against the spread of the Corona virus has been by democratic states and its opposite, namely authoritarianism, lack of transparency and limited government accountability, such as in China has actually exacerbated the crisis. The Sri Lankan State needs all the three arms of the state, namely the executive, the judiciary and the legislature functioning to ensure that we are a society governed by law or a civilized nation under the rule of law.  The executive arm of government, in any nation always finds being held accountable to a legislature to be somewhat of an irritant but it is a staple in any civilized society, except in absolute monarchies of which there are now, only a handful in the world.

It is rather obvious that the election to the ninth Parliament of Sri Lanka, also needs to be held in a manner that does not endanger the public health. The constitutional and legal arguments in that regard would be made and heard in the apex court of Sri Lanka next week. But Sri Lanka in its fight against the spread of Covid-19 cannot and should not weaken the rule of law and / or its democratic rights and freedoms. It is unnecessary and very unwise to do so.

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