Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • March 2022
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Archive for March, 2022

Divided govt. loses its two-thirds majority

Posted by harimpeiris on March 11, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 10th March 2022)

Last week witnessed the coming to the fore of the deep divisions within the governing alliance as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sacked two Cabinet Ministers, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpilla, and laid bare the internal disquiet and dissent within the Government, which had been brewing for quite a while. Concurrently, the 11other minor political party allies of the government also essentially parted ways, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara stating that he will neither attend cabinet meetings nor go to his ministry and the other parties also vowing that their common political journey with the Rajapaksa and the SLPP is all but over. The government’s intraparty relationships have ruptured and this brief analysis will examine some of the important ensuing political ramifications.

1. Political economy at stake

Watching the current situation unfold from the spectator stands, as it were, one gets a strange sense of deja vu. A populist president, elected with an overwhelming mandate so mismanages the economy that even his own constituency of the majority ethnoreligious community comes to accept that their interests are just not served through the combination of poor governance, weak economic management, but very large doses of ethnonationalism, disguised as patriotism. The classic formulae for regime change are a divided government and a united opposition. When the government splits, the opposition just sniffing political blood makes the extra effort to unite. No, not just in the present but a very similar scenario existed in 2014. Earlier, the departure of the then JHU, from the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first very public rupture in it. In the present administration, the departure of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpilla, signals the same rupture.

2. Rajapaksas rid themselves of majoritarian nationalist spokesmen

Incidentally, during both Rajapaksa administrations, the break came from its right-wing, as Sinhala nationalists, who explored the non-existent political space of being more ethno-nationalist than the ruling Rajapaksas, were forced to make their exit. On both occasions, the exit preceded or coincided with the rise of other non-party political organisations pushing an anti-minority, especially anti-Muslim agenda. In 2011/12, the effort was on the part of the civil society, NGO space and of course in the current dispensation the same personality heading an innoxiously named presidential task force is more clearly positioned within the state. But what this rupture does is quite politically significant. The near-monopoly of the Sinhala nationalist vote and uniting it for a political victory, as President Gotabaya correctly claimed during his presidential victory speech at Anuradhapura has, in less than three years, come apart. Mainstream media claim that the President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister were not unanimous in their decision to sack the duo. While the Rajapakses and the SLPP certainly command more support than Wimal’s NFF and Udaya’s PHU, the duo will cause more political damage as regime dissidents than any assistance they gave as regime supporters. Fighting with your allies is political suicide. Look at Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their infighting and disunity ended their administration and their political careers at the apex.

3. Divided government loses supermajority and causes are economic

The rupture within the Government has also effectively eliminated the Government’s two-thirds majority in Parliament. The number of minority MPs it can buy over are now limited, having effectively emptied the shelves, or rather the benches, right after the general elections, so that option does not compensate for breaking with its allies. Various routine, non-controversial bills may pass with large majorities, but the SLPP administration does not have the political clout or ability to push through its will.

A recent Verite Research poll put the government’s approval rating at about 10%. An entirely believable number, given the complete collapse of public services brought on by purely ruinous policies. Very similar, in fact, to the SLFP’s economic mismanagement of 1970-77, but this is worse and the people’s expectations and aspirations are higher, so the political price to pay and the vengeance of the electorate at the polls will be severe. Governments don’t lose public support over a fuel shortage but bring about a continuous combination of gas, milk powder, diesel, raw materials and foreign exchange shortages and five-to-seven-hours-a-day power cuts, combined with soaring inflation, rising unemployment, declining agricultural yields and collapsing rural incomes due to the government’s fertiliser fiasco, and the SLPP will experience at the polls, what the UNP did in 2020, its effective elimination.

This brings us to the relatively new alternative government of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The SJB has not been quite as inactive as is made out to be, by the same media which downplayed the government’s long-running divisions, till it exploded. The SJB has been doing a series of pocket meeting type gatherings within COVID-19 prevention guidelines, perhaps prompting the Governing party’s Anuradhapura rally and Sajith has been drawing increasing crowds. A recent political cartoon in a leading daily broadsheet was quite telling, it showed a picture of a sinking ship and rats jumping ship, with the faces of the eleven leaders of the political parties, which broke with the Government, superimposed on the rats. The proverbial rats deserting the sinking ship. The issue though is that the ship is sinking. It is necessary to ensure that the country doesn’t go down with them.


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The PTA and Defending the Human Rights of a Sovereign People

Posted by harimpeiris on March 3, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 03rd March 2022)

The onset of the bi-annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in which Sri Lanka features prominently on the agenda through UNHRC Resolution 46/1, contributes to several local activities. It results in an increased public debate about the state of our nation’s human rights situation, witnesses a hand-picked team from the Attorney General’s department enplaning for Geneva as essentially the Government’s defence attorneys and a flurry of activities, currently completely inconsequential, coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to assure the world that the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, is not really as bad as it is made out to be.

This brief commentary seeks to contribute to the public debate about human rights, in the context of one of the entrenched, inalienable features of our republican constitution. Namely that sovereignty lies with and is riposte with the people of Sri Lanka. Article 3 of the 1978 Constitution states “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise”. We will look at the arguments about the inalienable fundamental rights of the people and in practice of persons, in the context where the state and / or elements of the state, rouge or otherwise are alleged to be complicit or instrumental in violating the same.

Firstly, the state faced a protracted decades long civil war, preceded and interspersed with two armed insurrections which led to our nation’s governance for long, being under emergency rule, regulations under which, essentially superseded the constitution. During the conflict period, there was a tacit social compact, understandably so, that the state, facing an armed rebellion required to curtail the personal liberty of citizens. This social compact was aided by the absolute brutality of the armed opponents of the state, even against the very constituency it claimed to represent. The LTTE was most brutal on the Tamil people, their kids conscripted and their old traditional political leaders assassinated, while the JVP in the South, was murderous in their rebellion, their nadir being assaults on the families of military personnel. The real issue then is that post war since 2009, there has been no significant improvement in Sri Lanka’s human rights situation or indeed any meaningful post war reconciliation, say for instance as recommended by the Government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Sri Lankans have not really received a post war peace dividend, either economic, social or political.

Ten years after the war, when the expectations of a peace dividend were increasing, come April 2019 and the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, the answer by the entrenched establishment if not the deep state (Sonic/Sonic), was that we are again under threat, this time from yet another internal enemy, with external connections. How much credibility that claim holds, just two years after it was made, is perhaps best denoted by the fact that His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith is this week at meetings with His Holiness Pope Francis, enroute to Geneva, where in both the Vatican and in Geneva, as a high level representative of the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, Cardinal Ranjith will, internationally articulate what he and Catholic Church spokesmen have decried locally, the absolute lack of progress by the Sri Lankan State authorities in identifying and holding to account the master mind(s) or conspirators of the devastating attacks, given the increasing consensus that the trigger pullers pulverized in their own blasts were clearly not the mastermind(s). On the contrary the State, armed with the PTA, for public safety and security has arrested Attorney Hejaz Hizbulla, Poet Anaf Jazeem, Government medical officer Dr. Shafi Shabdeen, activist Shehan Malaka and attempted the arrest of Harin Fernando and Rev.Fr. Cyril Gamini, in the latter two cases, stopped from doing so, by Sri Lanka’s apex Court. In all honesty, the public security, threat perception from the Harin Fernando and the Rev. Cyril Gamini is rather low and if the argument is that their actions are a violation of the law and the law in question is the PTA, therein lies a serious problem.

The PTA is bad in law and worse in practice. Current Court of Appeal Justice Meneka Wijesundara in a recent judgement noted “…. four decades have past and the PTA has strayed from its historical context. The PTA, if in its application and implementation, creates a vicious cycle of abuse, the very purpose of the statute will be defeated”. The PTA, as it now stands, originally a temporary provision brought in by an arrogant presidency does not conform with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. There is no argument about that. Its most problematic features being the admissibility as evidence of “confessions” made to a police officer and a completely vague definition of terrorism which makes all political dissenters of the government, terrorists. A strange construct in a democratic republic of a sovereign people.

The safety, security and well-being of all Sri Lankans is better served, when the state is required and the judiciary enforces the protection and promotion of our people’s inalienable fundamental rights and freedoms. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s first decade after the end of the war and two years after the deadly Easter Sunday bomb attacks, emerging issues, not just in Geneva but also in Sri Lanka, are, besides the repeal or reform of the PTA, the independence of the Attorney General’s Department, parliamentary oversight of the State’s intelligence services and de-politicization of the nation’s police force.

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