Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for February 22nd, 2021

A not entirely united government opts to be hard line

Posted by harimpeiris on February 22, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 17th February 2021)

It is quite a feat for a powerful government to insult its own Prime Minster and party leader, but that is precisely what the SLPP succeeded in doing last week, when a carefully orchestrated measure to ease up the pressure on the Government through bringing Sri Lanka in line with the rest of the world on Covid-19 burials, went awry. The Prime Minister’s assurance to Parliament, to allow the burial of the Covid-19 dead, was welcomed in a tweet by the soon to visit, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan. However, this was not implemented and instead was contradicted by junior state ministers of the Government. Since the forced cremation of the Covid-19 dead, against the wishes and religious beliefs of the bereaved families, is a uniquely Sri Lankan practice, in non-conformity with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the issue is being closely watched and monitored not just locally but also globally. Accordingly, the Prime Minister’s assurance was widely welcomed. But clearly, he could not carry the day. It certainly seems the Prime Minister is not totally in charge of the government; shades of the previous Ranil Wickremesinghe premiership.

However, in the context of Sri Lanka’s system of government, this is only to be expected because especially post the 20th Amendment to our Constitution, the governing authority has been totally centralized in the hands of the executive President. Accordingly, one might reasonably expect that the president’s slightest wish is government writ. Therefore, it was quite surprising to note, a few weeks ago, when the nearly half a billion-dollar, foreign investment by India’s Adani Group in the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port was to go ahead, this in a country that is starved of foreign exchange, that the President was seemingly very much on board. The President, quite correctly observed, at various fora, that international obligations cannot be unilaterally abrogated and more importantly that his government had negotiated terms where the Sri Lankan Government through the Sri Lanka Ports Authority would retain a majority stake and accordingly what was occurring was an investment into a minority stake in the ECT. This in the context of other such foreign investments with majority stakes, namely the Chinese Government’s CICT and the SAGT. However, quite surprisingly the President’s wishes to bring in the Indian private sector foreign investment did not quite carry the day inside the Government.

To cap quite a tumultuous first quarter for the Government, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a leader of a minor political appendage of the ruling alliance, namely the National Freedom Front (NFF), stirred up a hornet’s nest in political circles, when he called for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be given the leadership of the ruling party, rather than its current incumbent, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The public call by Minister Weerawansa was met with the immediate demand by the ruling SLPP’s General Secretary, that the Minister both withdraw his statement and apologize for the same. Neither has happened and to the contrary the Minister has reiterated his stand. The call for a leadership change and that too between the president and the prime minister, was quite surprising because there was no reason for Minister Weerawansa to either be so public about a possible leadership role change in the Government or to be out of place by commenting on the affairs of a party he does not belong to. Leading as he does, his breakaway wing of the JVP, styled the National Freedom Front (NFF), a party which has the distinction of never yet having ever contested an election on its own but always in alliance with the Rajapaksa political party, first the UPFA and now its successor the SLPP.

A Government opting to be hardline

Next week the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), based in Geneva, will hold its 46th session, mostly in a virtual or online format and a country specific resolution on Sri Lanka, taking the government to task on our deteriorating human rights situation, will most likely pass. The Government is losing friends like India and alienating allies, like the 57 member nation, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). As political analysts have pointed out, the report by Human Rights High Commissioner and former two-term President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet focuses more on the new hardline policy being adopted since the election of November 2019. Policies, pronouncements and practices, which seemingly indicate a complete unwillingness to accommodate plurality, recognize diversity and defend democratic gains. The High Commissioner reports worrying signs of a government becoming increasingly authoritarian and militarized. The UNHRC report on Sri Lanka, namely A/HRC/46/20 in section 19, page 7 states “(i) militarization of civilian government functions, (ii) reversal of constitutional safeguards, (iii) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, (iv) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric (v) surveillance and obstruction of civil society and shrinking democratic space and (vi) new and exacerbated human rights concerns”. As if in a great hurry to confirm the above contentions by its actions, the Government having earlier rejected the report in toto, the Minister of Public Security withdrew the Special Task Force (STF) guard provided to TNA spokesman and leader in waiting, MA Sumanthiran for his participation and support to a massive anti-government march styled (P2P), from Pottuvil in the Eastern Province to Polligandy in the Northern Province, a not too subtle reference to the “responsibility to protect (R2P), the global political commitment adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 to prevent or hold accountable for war crimes, prevent genocide, ethnic cleaning and crimes against humanity. The rationale given by the Minister was that MP Sumanthiran, a President’s Counsel, had violated court orders, which he denies doing. When the matter was raised by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, many speakers pointed out that alleged violations of court orders should be met with prosecutions in court and not the withdrawal of security. Now we await the Hon. Speaker’s ruling whether it is the threat assessment against the MP, which the Minister himself readily conceded or political servility to the wishes of the government, which determines state security for minority and opposition MPs. The world meantime from Geneva is watching.

As the government domestically disregards plurality, tolerance of democratic dissent and accommodation of diversity and isolates itself internationally, with severe repercussions for our export driven, tourism, foreign investment and worker remittance dependent, globally integrated economy, the possibility of seeing a course correction by the SLPP’s Rajapakse Administration, is rather remote. This does however position Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa and his SJB, as the sole alternative to the government’s ideology, of being the sole representatives of the Sinhala people.

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