Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • February 2022
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Archive for February, 2022

Catholic Church Demands Justice From The State

Posted by harimpeiris on February 17, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 17th February 2022)

The latest drama in the long running saga of the Easter Sunday bombings was the sudden arrest by the CID and subsequent release by the Magistrate’s Court of social activist and Easter Sunday attack justice advocacy activist, Shehan Malaka. This was even as the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, backed fully by the Vatican in Rome, has been relentless in pressing the state to seek out the truth regarding the horrific coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in 2019.

At a media conference Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, said “A course of action is being organized by the Sri Lankan Catholic Church together with the Vatican but we will not divulge anything about it now. It is the government which has to be responsible for the consequences which Sri Lanka has to undergo, if the church seeks international assistance to mete out justice for those who were affected by the Easter Sunday mayhem”.

That the attacks had political ramifications is obvious. As Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has stated plainly, the current SLPP administration and its then presidential candidate chose the immediate aftermath of the bomb attack to announce his presidential candidacy, an unusual occasion to say the least, for a political announcement. The rationale however for the announcement was very clear once the campaign for the presidency commenced shortly thereafter. The issues were national security, preventing terrorism and generally saving the country’s majority community from real and perceived enemies within. Once the election results rolled in though, both in November 2019 and again in August 2020, it wasn’t entirely clear as to what carried the day. Was it the nationalistic security rhetoric or the political hara-kiri or self-destruction in which the Yahapalanaya administration engaged in through constant infighting between its two chief constituent parts, the President and Prime Minister and their respective parties, ostensibly in a governing alliance?

Seeking answers

The Catholic vote in the Western Province, mostly Sinhala, in the Colombo and especially the Gampaha districts are important in national elections though it is not really a fixed block vote; it moves with the political winds of the day. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was able to capture that vote on a pro-peace platform, Mahinda was able to capture it for a more nationalist agenda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to capture it on national security rhetoric or less charitably termed as fear mongering. The issue that now comes to haunt him is that there is a widespread perception that has not been delivery on that or any other score. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has some very salient points that cause him to take issue with the administration, chief among them has been the failure of the state to identify the conspirators or chief mastermind(s) behind the attack and not just the trigger pullers who were pulverized in their own blasts. There is widespread interest regarding the alleged role, if any, played by sections of the state intelligence. The code name Sonic is today a household name in Sri Lanka. Harassment by law enforcement of activists ranging from Father Cyril Gamini to Shehan Malaka and other civil society actors demanding and working for justice for the victims doesn’t do the state any good in making the argument that there is nothing to cover up.

US President Richard Nixon resigned on the eve of an impeachment vote in Congress when it became clear he would lose the vote and be impeached after the Watergate saga and attempts to cover it up led directly to the White House. There is a particular loss of popular and political legitimacy that comes from being associated with something considered a national atrocity. The Easter Sunday attacks were just such an atrocity. The Catholic church on behalf of the victims is demanding justice. The association of any political actors with that atrocity would be politically fatal for them. It is unwise for powerful state actors to lend credence to that belief.

UNHRC and an international probe

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution and process on Sri Lanka has internationalized our human rights weaknesses and issues. Seeking to wrest back the initiative and argue for purely domestic remedies has been a bi-partisan consensus on Sri Lanka; even the previous government’s co-sponsored UNHRC resolution clearly stating that the remedial measures would be a domestic process, albeit with the participation of non-nationals. On an aside, a significant feature of the 20th Amendment was to allow dual citizens to be members of parliament and ministers of the government. A key feature of the domestic process consensus is that our justice system delivers justice. That argument, while accepted in Sri Lanka where the judiciary is mercifully held in high esteem – merciful because trust in the efficacy of the judiciary is essential for social order, is challenged internationally where well documented research exists on the culture of impunity and the paucity of legal remedies that exists with regard to the violation of human rights, especially by actors associated with the state.

The Catholic church hierarchy has been vocal and public that it has not received justice and does not believe that victims will receive justice in Sri Lanka, at least at the investigation stage, and is calling for an international investigation that can provide the evidence for local judicial remedies. Cooperation among law enforcement, whether through the structure of Interpol or other bi lateral arrangements exists, so this is not impossible. But what it does do is create for the first time a strong domestic lobby and constituency in the Sinhala south demanding an international investigation.

To add insult to injury for the Catholic church was the tragi-comedy of the grenade at the All-Saints Church Borella and the rather public exchange of words between the Inspector General of Police and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Politicians calling the police biased and a political tool of the government of the day is common but what is new is when religious leaders with significant sway over their faithful and with a worldwide network of sympathetic fellow faithful basically call out the state law enforcement and security structures on their actions and inactions – something we have not seen before is happening and the genie is not going back inside the bottle.

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Crafting an alternative to a failing Government

Posted by harimpeiris on February 2, 2022


By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 02nd February 2022)

A nation was promised “vistas of prosperity and splendor” and about 6.9 million voters, opted for it, subsequently providing a two third parliamentary majority to implement the same. A little over two years later, the reality is experienced by everyone. Shortages of everything, from cooking gas to milk powder, from foreign exchange to crude oil and now the resulting power cuts.

There is little need to expound at length, the economic, social and daily pain that the populace is experiencing. It is a daily experience, which will speak the loudest at the ballot box, when the government musters up the courage to face the polls, be they the delayed local or provincial elections.

This is a government running scared of facing the electorate. Covid is hardly an excuse, we had elections in August 2020 at the height of the first wave and after a long lockdown. We are since, vaccinated, masked and learning to live life with a virus, dengue and a shortage of everything.

What is more useful, is to study the colossal policy and political failures of the SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration, so that perhaps the Government can learn from its mistakes and make a course correction and that a future SJB Administration can avoid the colossal blunders of this Government’s current tenure.

1. Majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism has it limits

It is Samuel Johnson, who in 1745 is credited with the saying “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Then as now, what Johnson and other political theorists argued was that it is very easy to play identity politics or ethno-religious nationalism to mask self-interest and ignore sound public policies and prudent governance. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, post war the Administrations of 2010-2014 and 2019 to date, has heightened divisiveness and polarisation in society for political power.

In the discourse on Sri Lanka’s national question, there is often the claim, not without merit, that the British colonial administration practiced “divide and rule” in the then Ceylon as well as in other colonies. In reality, we don’t need to go that far back in history to see divide and rule politics in Sri Lanka. But what the elections of 2015 demonstrated and future elections will demonstrate, is that there is a limit to economic pain and bad governance, that a majority in society will tolerate, notwithstanding the most strident and ardent ethno-religious nationalism. Lesson no 1; Ardent ethno-religious nationalism is not a substitute for sound policy and prudent governance.

2. The Military is not there to run the country

The Sri Lankan military is one of the best in the world and until skepticism set in about our domestic human rights enforcement and safeguards, widely desired for UN peacekeeping roles, as one of the few militaries with actual combat experience.

However, a military like any other state institution and structure has a role and purpose. To pervert that role and purpose is to do a disservice to society and also to weaken the institution concerned. The Sri Lankan military’s latest mandate from this Administration has become “green agriculture”. The Government’s epic failure of overnight denying to both farmers and planters, non-organic fertiliser. One wonders how the light infantry or the heavy artillery, is to be deployed effectively for organic farming.

The government has become heavy on presidential taskforces, the latest one being headed by an ex-convict, that almost prompted the Justice Minister to throw in the towel. The governance of Sri Lanka’s oldest democracy requires as President Premadasa famously stated “consultation, compromise and consensus”. A process and skill, which the governing party, the ruling family and the powerful generals and admirals running the country seemingly have in short supply, if at all. Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions of governance must be allowed to function freely, robustly and independently. That is not really the case today. We do not need a Hitler; we need a Mandela. Lesson no 2; The military is not an answer to every problem.

3. Policy not politics should drive governance decisions

At the heart of Sri Lanka’s current economic woes are two key political decisions of the Administration and not a Sars virus named Covid-19 and its mutations. The first and most negative decision the Government took in December 2019, was to slash and roll back the tax increases which had been painfully introduced by its predecessor Administration. This in a country which has an extremely narrow tax base and a very low tax revenue to GDP ratio, compared with peer nations. We are today going hat in hand to Bangladesh for foreign currency and swap arrangements. The failures of the government’s fiscal policy are not just on full display, its resultant monetary policy implications are now felt in the pain of everyday living as shortages of all imports essential to daily life, from fuel, milk power, medicines, cooking gas and basic food items mount and continue with no end in sight. The second policy blunder, effected last year, was to overnight ban non-organic fertiliser.

The resultant decline in agricultural yields, farmer incomes and increase in food prices, combine to create severe hardship to both rural farmers and urban consumers. Both these decisions ignored the advice of economists, policy experts and community leaders.

For an Administration, which promised technocracy driven sound policy, we have ended up with quite the opposite. A small elite, listening to an echo of its own words.

Lesson no 3. Rome was not built in a day. We do not need shock therapy, that is all shock and no therapy.

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