Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • October 2021
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SJB Charts a Clear Alternative National Security Policy

Posted by harimpeiris on April 1, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 01st April 2021)

Subsequent to the recent release of the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks and after the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva had passed a resolution highly critical of Sri Lanka’s current human rights situation, Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa, speaking in Parliament has, on behalf of his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), articulated a clear national security and external affairs policy that offers a stinging critique of the ideologically driven and unsuccessful practices of the current administration and lays out a well thought out and centrist alternative on this important area of national life. The policy is noteworthy in that it is essentially a political counter offensive, taking on the Rajapakses in an area which they consider as their strong suit – that of national security and its counterpart, external affairs.

The foreign policy failures of the Rajapakse SLPP

Opposition Leader Premadasa clinically lays out the failures of the current administration. Firstly, he correctly points out that the UN High Commissioner’s report that created the basis for the HRC’s resolution focuses mostly on the current developments in Sri Lanka’s human rights situation after the November 2019 presidential election and much less on developments during war era. The report is not as much about the past as it is about the present. The focus and concern of the international community and the articulation of its responsibility towards conflict prevention is based on and focuses on the failure of Sri Lanka to create a just peace, rather than a critique of a justified war.

Looking at the voting patten in Geneva, where the SLPP Government’s position received just 11 votes, it was an all-time low for country specific resolutions on Sri Lanka. The lack of support was in large part due to the abstentions of Sri Lanka’s traditional friends in the international community, including India and the Muslim nations.

The centralization of state power through the 20th Amendment and the resultant weakening of state institutions that are required to be independent, together with the steady militarization of governance and the erosion of democratic space and freedoms, are all policy and political failures of the current Government. Sajith Premadasa forcefully and convincingly argued in parliament that these developments are not in the interests of either the majority community or for that matter even the minority communities in our diverse country.

The failures of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks

The Leader of the Opposition was stinging in his critique of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks and its report. Drawing comparisons with the US Commission of Inquiry on the 9/11 attacks, he pointed out that despite a period of nearly two years, the Sri Lankan Commission had failed to identify who were the masterminds or the key conspirators behind the attack. The informal nature of the crucial National Security Council (NSC), which is not a statutory body, was also criticized by Mr. Premadasa who proposed that the NSC be formalized through an enabling Act of Parliament and that a single coordinating center for the diverse security and intelligence agencies be created. He promised bipartisan support for any genuine national endeavors while criticizing the politicizing of security issues through ideologically driven unilateral actions followed by blaming regime opponents, as opposed to implementing genuine remedial measures.

Internal strife as a weakening of national security

Sajith Premadasa articulated a truism, widely recognized globally but completely ignored by this Government, that national security is multifaceted and not just based on military or defense policy alone. He argued on the need for economic security. But most importantly, the SJB leader argued forcefully that internal divisions, ethnic polarizations and communal strife cause a significant weakening of national security by alienating huge swathes of society from affinity to, identification with and loyalty towards, the Sri Lankan State. A state that is non inclusive and exclusionary weakens itself. Surely one of the biggest and most objectionable aspects of the LTTE, which we fought for decades to defeat, was its vision and desire for a mono ethnic Tamil state; one in which even Muslims were excluded. Surely having defeated the effort to create a mono ethnic Tamil state, we should hardly be moving in the direction of creating a mono ethnic Sinhala state in which Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities are excluded.

Making a commitment to both devolution and accountability

The opposition and SJB Leader was bold in breaking away from the new dogma of the current Government, which is that even the currently constitutionally existing devolution of power to the provinces under the 13th Amendment is unwise and unnecessary and that there is no need for any accountability with regards to human rights. The SJB leader committed unequivocally to the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution. A commitment to constitutional governance which would not be newsworthy or surprising except that the Government has repeatedly disavowed the same. Further, in recognition of the international and domestic requirement for accountability with regards to human rights violations, the Opposition Leader committed to an internationally credible domestic process of accountability with foreign observers and the required foreign technical assistance as well as the implementation in good faith of the recommendations of both Sri Lanka’s own LLRC and the Paranagama Commission reports. The significance of this policy, a relatively very centrist position, is a platform to create broad domestic and international consensus on the issues. On the contrary, as internationally observed and carefully documented by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the current Rajapakse Administration has shown zero interest in either post war reconciliation, accountability, the protection of human rights or the promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms.

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Changing the Human Rights Discourse

Posted by harimpeiris on March 18, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 18th March 2021)

As the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) winds its way in Geneva, it is now almost certain that the country specific resolution on Sri Lanka, presented by the UK led Core Group on Sri Lanka, will be passed by the Council. The world is looking at Sri Lanka’s human rights track record and trajectory. The occasion has opened up a renewed debate and discourse domestically including an examination of key principles of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Human rights are universal

The key argument put forward by the Government, its political allies and sympathizers is essentially that human rights is an exclusively domestic concern and bases the same on the argument of state sovereignty.  However, there is an insufficient appreciation within that argument for the well-established principle of the universality of human rights. Both state sovereignty and the universality of human rights flow from that same body of knowledge which we broadly refer to as international law and custom, which has become increasingly more clearly defined and developed in the last twenty to thirty years. The establishment of the UN and its different agencies, in the post second word war era, sought to establish a rules based international order among the community of nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted unanimously by the UN in 1948, the Rome Statute of 1998 establishing the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the 2005 UN World Summit Declaration, among other treaties and international covenants, all further defined and codified the body of international law on human rights, as well as in other areas. To argue for the supremacy of one principal of international law, that of state sovereignty, outside the context of and in resolute opposition to a faster developing body of international law, that of human rights, is not really in keeping with the developments in the global arena and in international diplomacy in the past few decades.

Whose rights are being protected or violated?

An oxymoron or contradiction in terms of the human rights discourse in Sri Lanka is to refer to a resolution on Sri Lanka at the HRC as a resolution “against” Sri Lanka. It is a resolution on Sri Lanka. Depending on what you believe are the merits and demerits of the content of the resolution, you could deem it pro or against Sri Lanka, in this case that continuing human rights violations are good or bad for a country and her people. But it clearly a particular view point, to claim that a resolution that calls for the protection of human rights, reforms of the PTA in keeping with international best practice, implementation of the constitutional provisions for provincial administration, allowing the global practice of final funeral rites to be in accordance with the wishes and religious beliefs of the families concerned and the protection of democratic space and freedoms among other things, to be a resolution “against” the country. It is hardly in the interests of a country or her people when rights are systematically violated with impunity, especially during peace time.

Take for instance the issue of slain editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter Ahimsa’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post and her call for international intervention for justice for her late father’s assassination. The Government spokesman claimed she was trying to destroy Sri Lanka. It could instead be argued that murdering editors in broad daylight in your capital city and having absolute impunity for it (no one has been arrested or charged) is in fact a more nation destroying action than seeking international justice for it when it is denied domestically. A similar position has been adopted by the leadership of the Roman Catholic church in relation to the investigation of the Easter Sunday attacks when it expressed dissatisfaction with the inquiry Commission’s inability to trace and identify those responsible for the outrage – not the trigger puller suicide killers who perished in the blast but the masterminds, their financiers, support network and handlers.

As many analysts have pointed out, there is also a significant difference between a period of war and a post war period of peace. Sri Lanka is now in its second post war decade and the world is watching to see if we are establishing a just peace to follow our just or justified war. A war is not a unilateral exercise. There are always at least two parties to an armed conflict. But post war, the onus is much greater on the state because it is now the sole authority in respect of human rights and in dealings with its own citizens in a free society.

The difficult question of accountability

Then we come to the most difficult and vexatious issue of accountability for possible war crimes and/or violations of international humanitarian law or “past atrocities” as US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated in his address to the HRC’s current session. Sri Lanka’s position has been clear, in that it has always argued for a domestic process. However, the calls for international intervention or processes have been made because for over a decade we have not demonstrated any forward movement in the domestic protection of human rights, not in just the most difficult areas of the war theatre during the “fog of war”, but anywhere. Even in cases of abductions and rights violations that happened way outside the war theatre, the rhetoric, especially of the current government, has been that while civil servants are subject to the law, the military service is possibly exempt and perhaps above even its own law. The best case in point is that of Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was first arrested by the Army’s own military police for, among other things, slitting the throat of a five-year old child, was convicted in a fair trial and finally had his conviction upheld by the Supreme Court. Today he walks the streets a free man, courtesy of an executive political decision. That might well be against the interests of the people of Sri Lanka; slitting the throat of a child and a murderer walking free.

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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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Unwise double standards on East Container Terminal

Posted by harimpeiris on February 5, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 05th February 2021)

Earlier this week, the Government officially announced that it would not proceed with the proposal to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port, as a joint venture between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Adani Group of India. The announcement by the government, through the Prime Minister no less, raises important questions marks and doubts over the vistas of prosperity and the claims of technocratic policy making and efficient governance, we were all promised by the Government at preceding elections.

Private investment into the Colombo Port

Firstly, a quick look at the Colombo Port would demonstrate that we already have the private sector operating terminals in the Colombo Port, namely the South Asian Gateways Terminals (SAGT), a John Keells Holdings investment and more recently, under the previous Rajapaksa Administration the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), a venture with the China Merchants Port Holdings. In both SAGT and CICT, the stake of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SAGT) is only fifteen percent (15%). In contrast the proposed joint venture for the ECT with the India’s Adani Group, was to have a majority (51%) Sri Lankan stake, through the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Adani group and other project managers, the balance minority stake only.

Further in the case of the CICT, the China Merchants Port Holdings, is a Chinese Government entity and so the investor is not a foreign private investor, but a foreign sovereign entity. The same Chinese Government entity, the China Merchants Port Holdings (China Merchants) also owns 85% of the Hambantota Port. So, the principal of private sector and foreign investor participation in Sri Lankan ports, is a clearly established Sri Lankan State policy, going back over twenty years, the SAGT having commenced operations in 1999.

Policy clarity and efficient governance

Foreign direct investment (FDI) is the name of the game for Sri Lanka, to both see significant foreign exchange inflows into Sri Lanka and also to significantly improve our infrastructure which will directly contribute to increased growth in our GDP. Both of these are areas where Sri Lanka lags behind our peer group in South and East Asia. Sri Lanka’s GDP growth of the past eight years or so, have been lower than our war era GDP growth and shipping, especially transshipments is a significant potential growth area, for which port capacity and operating efficiency are crucial.

Regarding foreign direct investment (FDI) as well, Sri Lanka lags behind her peer group, especially through equity investments. Further FDI into infrastructure, is harder to attract, than say service industry investments, because infrastructure investments are not only significantly larger, in hundreds of millions of dollars, but also because the projects are long term in nature. Accordingly, the investment by the Adani group would have been a huge foreign direct investment by a private (not government) Indian company and a precursor and confidence booster for other Indian investments. Sri Lanka, geographically positioned as we are, should endeavour to benefit ourselves from the economic growth and success story next door.

A crucial and essential feature of both public policy and governance is that there be both clarity and certainty. In that respect, honouring commitments and especially written agreements become crucial in the conduct of both international relations and commercial activity. The adherence to contracts and agreements is an essential feature of international, local and every common law tradition in the world.

It is in that context, that the previous Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration though extremely critical of the Port City and other grandiose projects of dubious utility value, honoured those contracts and proceeded with the projects because of binding nature of the agreements. It was therefore entirely predictable, the immediate Indian Government response to the Government’s announcement, through its High Commission in Colombo, when it announced that the Indian Government expects adherence and implementation of the tripartite Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) signed between Sri Lanka, India and Japan, our largest bilateral donor by far, for the development of the ECT.

Reneging on contracts, tearing up the rule book and thumbing our nose at our closest (and giant) neighbour India, together with offending our largest bi lateral donor by far, Japan is very unwise and hardly likely to lead us to vistas of prosperity. Not only has Japan been a firm and reliable friend of Sri Lanka for over half a century, they have been Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral donor. The Japanese also have considerable sway over the Asian Development Bank, which has been one of the largest, long term concessionary lenders for infrastructure to Sri Lanka. Their proposed loan for the ECT was at a half percent compared with the hefty premium to Libor that all the Chinese loans came at. Compare half percent to say, four or five percent for a half a billion dollars. The math does not add up. This is also after the government unilaterally cancelled the Japanese light rail project, which was meant to address the rather obvious need for mass rapid transit in the Colombo district, beyond our colonial era railways.

The Government position seems very strange. We have declined foreign direct investment and torn up an agreement with our largest neighbour India and our largest donor Japan. We find the East Terminal in the Colombo Port strategic but not the Western terminal, or the SAGT or the CICT or even the Hambantota port, just the East Terminal. We can forgive those who suspect a hidden hand and it is not too hard to see from where. Monopolistic or oligopolistic behaviour is rational for the monopolist or the oligarch. The problem is when the Government is subject to their pressure.

In contrast to the Government, the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, has very wisely taken a well-balanced position on the ECT, saying a public private partnership is the best way forward.

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From Jaffna library to university – politics of identity

Posted by harimpeiris on January 21, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 20th January 2021)

A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.

Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.

Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.

Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.

Memorialising and remembering the dead

Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.

Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.

It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.

Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.

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