Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Moving beyond identity politics on constitutional reforms

Posted by harimpeiris on February 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 6th February 2019)

 The two largest parties in Parliament, the United National Party (UNP) in Government and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in opposition, the latter in both its SLFP and SLPP forms and factions are entirely preoccupied with the politics, personalities and their prospects at the forthcoming presidential election, constitutionally mandated and due at the end of this year. Hence their focus and activity has been almost entirely on the various machinations required for that exercise. The minor allies of these two parties have also been similarly preoccupied.

On the contrary, the third and fourth largest parties in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) respectively, have been rather doggedly pursuing the issue of constitutional reform, the latter championing the abolition of the executive presidency through a proposed 20th Amendment and the former is seeking to inject some life and momentum into the Constitutional Assembly’s constitution making process. The two major parties show very little interest now in the constitutional reforms process and to the extent that any political entity speaks about it, the sole objective seems to be, to use the process to score political points, ratchet up racial rhetoric which borders on bigotry and is dismally focused on parochial interest driven by identity politics. The Joint Opposition (JO) / SLPP combine have been entirely negative on the proposed constitutional draft report, with the criticism led by the NFF, on the basis that it will lead to secession by the Tamil community. Their comments are couched in language that is hardly designed to be inviting to the Tamil community to be an integrated part of a multi-cultural Sri Lanka. Joining the SLPP in being a nay-sayer, albeit from the side of the Tamil polity, has been the TNA constituent TELO, breaking ranks with its TNA allies.

However, it would be worth exploring the real issues behind the, originally near unanimous decision of Parliament in 2015 to vote, 224 to 1, to constitute themselves as a Constitutional Assembly to deliberate on constitutional changes and reforms.

The executive presidency and a democratic deficit

 The crucial driver for constitutional reforms requires a broad based, acceptance of what would be deemed as or constitute the core political problem in Sri Lanka. Currently and pre-war, this was defined by Sinhala nationalists as the problem of a restive, difficult and unreasonable Tamil minority bent on secession or separation and by Tamil nationalists as the problem of a permanent Sinhala majority and a Sinhala state which was structurally discriminatory of Tamil minority interests, concerns and welfare. Such an “us verses them” definition of the problem, unresolved and allowed to fester could only lead to armed conflict, which it did for near three long decades. While both the secessionist tendency of Tamil nationalism as well as the mono ethnic nature of the Sri Lankan State has been long evidenced, it is a result rather than a casual factor. The underlying cause is that the democratic and fundamental freedoms of all Sri Lankans, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgers are weak, vulnerable and does not deliver solutions.

In 2015, the rainbow coalition, for which the election winning majority was delivered by the voters of the North and East, its then common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, interestingly defined Sri Lanka’s problem as a problem of democracy. Hence the emphasis on governance, reforms and abolishing the executive presidency. That the structural discrimination against the poor, the disposed and the vulnerable, was systematic, that Sri Lankans were badly served by the governance structures irrespective of whether they were Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim was articulated and a coalition formed around governance reforms.  Hence the problem was defined as a problem of democracy and a problem of governance.  That Sri Lanka’s political system did not produce public governance that was equitable, just, efficient or accountable (transparent). Accordingly, the rainbow coalition defined Sri Lanka’s problem as a democracy deficit, a centralization of power, which had led to its abuse and misuse, using the example of the Rajapakse presidency, even with its populism, which did not serve the interest of Sri Lanka’s people, irrespective of their race, caste or creed. Some, especially ethnic and religious minorities may well have been worse off than others, but everyone except the privileged few were ill served. It was to address this need for reforms of the Sri Lankan state, that the Constitutional Assembly was established by Parliament.

This thesis is not new and drew its inspiration from several decades earlier, when then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga laid the political ground work for her “devolution package” by relentlessly attacking the 1978 republican constitution as a monstrosity. The Sinhala term “bahubutha viyawasthawa” or a cursed constitution, being her favorite terminology to create the public acceptance of the need for constitutional reform. Her government of 1994 having only a single seat majority in the legislature prevented the success of the eventual August 2000, draft constitution. That President CBK’s efforts at constitutional reform garnered as much support as it did at that time, probably owes much to this broader definition of the problem, of aligning the interests of all communities in a reformed and democratic Sri Lanka. In a sense, by implication if not explicitly, the political alliance of the National Democratic Front which won the January 2015 presidency, saw and defined the problem in this manner.

The argument that Sri Lanka perennially needs a strong leader, a dictator to use the terminology and political ideology of the Roman Empire in its decline, which created the office of the ever-powerful Emperor, is a paranoid perspective which only sees Sri Lanka as eternally under threat from within, pitting Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, denying the reality of a shared future. It ignores the real priorities of addressing the social challenges and economic opportunities in the post war era, long neglected and made secondary during the war years. It is interestingly Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP and MA Sumanthiran of the TNA, who are seeking to keep alive the reform agenda in Sri Lanka, which is ultimately necessary for us to have a government that works for and serves the economic, social and cultural needs of all Sri Lanka’s diverse peoples.


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Mayor Kamzy and a Diaspora gender intervention

Posted by harimpeiris on January 24, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 24th January 2019)

Meeting President Maithripala Sirisena, earlier this month, for a courtesy call, which lasted longer than originally anticipated, was Jaffna born, Deputy Mayor of the Norwegian capital city of Oslo, Kamzy Gunaratnam. Born in Jaffna, to parents who both hailed from the peninsular, her parents took their young family and fled the fighting up North and the country as refugees, when she was three years old and eventually ended up in Norway.

A little over a decade later, Kamzy as a teenager got actively involved in the youth movement of the left of center Labor party and rose up the ranks of its youth movement. As a politically conscious teenager, she was also active in the Tamil Diaspora politics. She sang and danced at the Maveer Naal remembrances for those who died fighting for the LTTE.  In 2011, she was an organizer of a summer political youth camp by her party when the camp was attacked by a single Norwegian right-wing extremist, Anders Breivik, who shot and killed sixty-nine young people on the Island. Kamzy herself had to swim in the sea to escape, as Breivik shot at her and other young campers. It was the worst violence on Norwegian soil since the end of the second world war.

Ten years ago, then still a teenager, at just nineteen years of age, she was elected from the Labor Party as a Municipal Councilor, in Norway’s biggest city and capital of Oslo, setting a record as one of the youngest councilors ever elected. Re-elected, at twenty-five she became Oslo’s youngest every Deputy Mayor. Now at the age of twenty-nine, she is a firm favorite to become the next Mayor of Oslo in elections due in September this year. A remarkable journey for a young woman, from Jaffna to the pinnacles of Oslo City Hall, from refugee to mayor.

Mayor Kamzy in Sri Lanka

As a deputy Mayor of Oslo, Kamzy received and hosted at Oslo City Hall, many delegations and politicians from Sri Lanka visiting Oslo at various times and finally decided to accede to their numerous requests that she visit the land of her birth and early childhood. Earlier this year, Mayor Kamzy did just that. Received by their Worships the Mayors of Colombo, Jaffna and Batticalo, Kamzy visited her counterparts and exchanged experiences, ideas and knowledge. In Colombo she dialogued with Mayor Rosy Senanayake on early kindergarten facilities to enable city women to move back into the workforce after childbirth. In Batticalo she engaged with Mayor Sarvanapavan on initiatives to have a city safe for women and in Jaffna with Mayor Arnold on the issues of solid waste disposal and potable water. In Colombo she gave a well-received lecture on women’s issues to the policy think tank circuit and in Jaffna, Batticalo and Mullaitivu she met, listened and learned from women, war widows, single mothers, the maimed, orphans, female ex combatants and the families of the missing, all of whom had been affected by the war as indeed her own family had been. The tragedy surely, is that ten years later, post war these women are still struggling for sustainable solutions to their vulnerability. Mayor Kamzy joined a new breed or rather adopted a fresh approach of some Tamil Diaspora leaders, who like the GTF’s Chairman Rev. Father Emmanuel, who has relocated and based himself in Jaffna, to directly engage with the post war situation on the ground in Sri Lanka and address the myriad of issues facing the Tamil community, democratically and through discourse, practical solutions as well as political dialogue.

Gender issues in post war reconciliation

There is one lesson, which Mayor Kamzy’s life and decade of electoral politics in Norway’s center left movements and the Labor Party, stands testament to and that is the multi-cultural values and ethos which the cosmopolitan city life of Oslo engenders. Kamzy’s electoral constituency is not limited to Norway’s relatively small Tamil Diaspora community, but she draws support on the basis of her social democratic policies and politics, which includes strong commitments on women and youth empowerment and environmental protection, the latter a common passion she shares with President Sirisena, who is also our Minister of Environment. Her political life in Norway, is an interesting experience in multi-culturalism and is it impossible to envisage that Sri Lankan society would also move beyond identity politics sufficiently so that our politics is driven by policies and diverse views on the merits of the issues of public welfare rather than based on ethnicity, caste or creed.

Deputy Mayor Kamzy and indeed her Labor Party, are strong advocates of quotas or affirmative action for women in public life and she was very interested in Sri Lanka’s recent twenty five percent quota reservation introduced into the local government and provincial council election legislation to increase the participation of women in politics. For the former conflict areas in Sri Lanka in general and the Tamil community in particular, now having a large number of women headed households, the empowerment of these women in their own society through their voices being heard and as economic actors in their communities is crucial. Mayor Kamzy addressed these and other issues courageously if rather bluntly and without the deference to the traditions of an age gone by. In all this, she did not veer away from the orthodoxies of Tamil Diaspora politics but pragmatically claimed that first the Tamil people, (half of whom are women) must be empowered in their communities and then they can engage meaningfully on their political issues, a position which finds its origins (and defense) actually in Tamil politics, in late LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, who always argued on behalf of the LTTE, that first the humanitarian needs of the Tamil people must be addressed to enable them to meaningfully engage in political processes. An interesting intervention, a fresh approach and new thinking by a remarkable young woman from Jaffna.

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The TNA’s role as the real opposition in national politics

Posted by harimpeiris on January 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 3rd January 2019)

It has to be back to the drawing boards for the SLPP and the Joint Opposition (JO) after their roller coaster ride (no pun intended) of a very brief spell as a Government which never commanded the confidence of Parliament during its very short tenure. Consequently, they were forced to accept the status quo ante which existed before their assumption of office on the 26th October 2018. The significant political change which has occurred since then of course, is that President Sirisena, if not the entirety of the UPFA / SLFP he leads has decided to throw in its lot with former President Rajapakse. However, this formal political divorce of the UNP and the SLFP partners of the supremely badly named “unity” government, was a long time in the making. A strained political partnership for quite a while now, the estrangement may well have had its origins as early as late 2015 itself.

So, there is a clear political gain for former President Rajapakse, in that he has now secured a partnership with the executive president, who almost unbelievably ousted him from office four years ago. How much of the SLFP’s remaining support base of twelve (12%) will shift to Rajapakse due to the president’s actions remain questionable, as does the appetite of some of its other key leaders and members of Parliament, who believe they have no political future with another Rajapakse led dispensation. However, former President Rajapakse and the Joint Opposition (JO), it is a serious downgrade that their leader, after struggling for the premiership for several weeks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, now finds himself in a tussle for the much less exalted position of Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. It is also ironic because in the past, the pun of being an eternal opposition leader and quite comfortable in that government paid and supported post was made by UPFA / SLFP activists about Premier Wickramasinghe due to his very long spell in that office. They now find their new ally struggling for this same position in Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition appointed after the August 2015 General Elections, veteran politician Rajavarothian Sambanthan has not just rolled over made way. He has through ITAK Spokesman MA Sumanthiran, made an appeal to the Speaker of Parliament, that Mahinda Rajapakse having joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, very publicly after the now nullified dissolution of Parliament by the president has vacated and lost his seat in that august assembly by virtue of Article 99 (13) (a) of the Constitution, which stipulates that a Member of Parliament ceases to be a member of the party from which he or she was elected, he ceases to be a member of Parliament. Further the TNA contends, that President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the UPFA, opting to retain the Ministries of Mahaweli Development and Environment, besides the mandatory ministry of Defense, makes it impossible for the UPFA to both have the Head of Government and Head of Cabinet through its leader, President Sirisena and the leader of the opposition to also a UPFA member of Parliament. The merits of these claims are asked to be decided through a select committee of parliament and a motion to convene such a select committee has already been tabled. This analysis though will look at the role as a national opposition which the TNA has played.

TNA as a national opposition

The TNA is clearly boxing way above its weight class in national politics. The Sri Lankan State system, by accident or design may well have inflicted injustices on the Tamil people, but political representation in the center is not one of them. By virtue of the concentration of its support base within several districts of the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, the TNA with a popular support base of about half a million voters, elected sixteen members to Parliament at the last election. This was following up on the decisive role which it played in the January 2015 election, where voting as almost a monolithic bloc, together with the Muslim voters within their constituencies, the TNA vote bank was largely the difference between the winner and the looser at the last presidential election. This dynamic will largely hold true for even the next presidential elections which is why the “three S troika” of Sambanthan, Sumanthiran and Senathirajah are important players in national politics today.

However, the TNA genuinely acts as a real opposition in Sri Lankan politics in several ways. Firstly, it genuinely acts as a check and balance on the raw abuse of state power by governments of the day. It is the TNA which can claim credit for its principled opposition to the Divi Neguma Bill under the Rajapakse Government in 2013 through the Eastern Provincial Council and subsequently launching the legal challenge to the said Bill, which when upheld by the Shiranie Bandaranaike Supreme Court, eventually led the then CJ to face impeachment charges by an overconfident and overbearing Rajapakse Administration, which may have won that battle but lost its war for reelection. In the most recent constitutional crisis drama, it was the TNA which played a significant role discretely and behind the scenes to ensure that democratic practices and principles were upheld and democratic institutions held sway.

There are many internal critics of the TNA and this is both natural and healthy in democratic politics. Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran are no dictators to assassinate their opponents, even politically let alone with any physical violence or brutality. None of them have a tradition of militancy or armed rebellion against the state as many of their detractors do and generally box by the Queensbury rules in a more genteel kind of politics which is perhaps the perfect antidote to the extreme violence which was Tamil politics during the years of the armed conflict. Tamil politics in Sri Lanka has come a full circle, ten years after the end of the war, democratic, diverse and now increasingly nationally quite decisive.

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An agenda for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 5th Term as Prime Minister

Posted by harimpeiris on December 19, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 18th December 2018)

It is unlikely that any Sri Lankan politician anytime soon, would beat the record of the UNP’s long-time leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, who last Sunday was sworn in for his fifth term of office as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. If some of his terms have been quite short, such as his six-month third term from January to August 2015, the record for the shortest term of office as Prime Minister, must surely go to Mahinda Rajapakse for his ill-fated government of several weeks, exactly how many weeks depending on whether one is inclined to accepts the passage of the no confidence motions in Parliament as the end of his government or his “resignation” last Saturday.

Sri Lanka is back from the brink and not of a constitutional collapse, because our state institutions, especially the judiciary stood tall above the political turmoil and ultimately was instrumental in resolving the crisis, while our military, the 24th largest armed forces in the world, stayed out of the fray, due to both the staunchly apolitical tradition and strong professionalism of Sri Lanka’s military and a resolute Army commander in General Mahesh Senanayake, a war-hero who was forced out of service under the previous Rajapakse Administration.

Saved from a Rajapakse return

 Many times, since 2015, in conversation with key leaders of the rainbow coalition which brought him into office, President Sirisena had reiterated again and again, that their common major political objective should be in preventing a return of Rajapakse rule in Sri Lanka.  With the swearing in of Ranil Wickramasinghe and the restoration of the status quo ante the catastrophe from which Sri Lanka was saved, was a restoration of unreformed Rajapakse rule. Rajapakse rule since end October 2018, would have been wrong for at least two reasons. Firstly, a key aspect of the mandate of 2015 was to end Rajapakse rule, the mismanagement and corruption alleged during the 2015 campaign was serious and ending that rule, was a key aspect of the public mandate. Secondly, the other aspect of that and indeed any mandate is timing. A public mandate is given for a time period, a term of office. A politically motivated premature end to the Wickramasinghe national government was against the mandate of August 2015, which is quite distinct from President Sirisena’s presidential mandate. With the concurrent exercise of two distinct mandates, the 19th amendment to the constitution codifies the safeguarding of the legislative mandate from executive manipulation. The Supreme Court has clearly articulated this in its landmark unanimous judgement by a seven-judge bench.

Heed the people’s verdict of the LG Elections

 The political turmoil of the past six weeks or so, should not detract from the reality, that the UNF was resolutely defeated at the Local Government polls earlier this year. The LG election was not even close, it was a rout for the government. That election was the clearest indicator and indisputable popular verdict, that the public was dissatisfied with the performance of the UNP led national government. Clearly the people did not feel that they had received a good governance dividend. This absence of results was not merely in the economic sense, though that likely dominated. It was non-delivery on many fronts, including the non-prosecution of the large-scale corruption and abuse of power cases alleged during the election. At least with regard to the bond scandal a presidential commission had been appointed and had produced a report. Several commissions of inquiry into the numerous other issues raised on public platform and in the mass media, would have at least have found all the facts and held those responsible to account.

Address the alienation of minorities

A key player in safeguarding democracy in Sri Lanka, through dogged determination, principled politics and an insistence on the rule of law has been the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its key leaders, the triple S (no pun intended) of Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran. Early on in this saga the TNA leadership correctly became convinced that indeed everybody’s including Tamil rights were best protected, promoted and advanced in and through a democratic polity rather than an authoritarian and populist political leadership.  Accordingly, they set out to play the honest broker, the middle men who could potentially mediate between the UNF and President Sirisena, both of whom they had worked together with, in 2015 and persuaded their constituents in droves to support the then common candidate Sirisena. In fact, the overwhelming support for Sirisena in the North and East, was the margin of victory for him.

The TNA, has fourteen votes in Parliament. Actually, there are sixteen, but only fourteen in the parliamentary group because Vanni MP Shivashakthi Anandan from the EPRLF refuses to adhere to the TNA whip and Mahinda Rajapakse succeeded in persuading Batticalo District TNA MP Viyalanderen to cross over to the SLPP, that gentleman clearly deciding, allegedly for a price, that he would rather support the Rajapakse’s and then retire than continue in active politics beyond the 2020 elections. Both President Sirisena and the UNF sought the TNA’s support because the numbers game in parliament made clear, that whom the TNA supported had the majority. This was a point made by Mahinda Rajapakse in the course of his resignation speech last Saturday, where he used the term, the “remote control” to indicate the casting vote or deciding factor of the TNA in Parliament. While the minority party leaders, not just of the TNA, but also the SLMC and the Peoples Congress played a constructive role in restoring constitutional governance and the rule of law, their constituencies themselves, the Tamil and Muslim communities were generally much less interested in the power struggle at the center. This alienation of minorities from the democratic policy debate and processes is not desirable for a socially cohesive and integrated Sri Lanka. National integration and reconciliation should not just be a subject assigned to a Cabinet minister, but a concrete part of the program of the government.

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Political options for President Sirisena, Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse

Posted by harimpeiris on December 13, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 12th December 2018)

As this article is being penned, the nation awaits the decision of the Supreme Court on the legal validity or lack thereof of the presidential gazette dissolving Parliament. With the traditional year end court vacations scheduled for December 14th, many are expecting that Court would give its judgement before the vacation. However, Court is not bound to give its judgement before its vacation. Setting a date after vacations for its decision would in the interim period, again allow the political actors in the drama, the opportunities to work out their out of court settlement as it were and inform court that all parties have come to an agreement. Eminent counsel has made their arguments both against and for the dissolution and this article does not seek to rehash the legal arguments which have been published elsewhere but to explore the options for the three principal political actors in this drama, President Sirisena, Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse. All three sides in this political drama are on record that they are awaiting the decision of the court, to decide their next course of action.

The concrete political change which took place in end October, was President Sirisena deciding to end his lately rather tortured relationship with his erstwhile political allies of the UNF and hitch his political bandwagon and future to the Mahinda Rajapakse political project. This decision, confirmed at party level when the UPFA formally chose to exit the government, did create a shift in political forces in the country. The complication of course was that the President’s advisors deemed it fit to seek to immediately translate a political change into a government change. Changing a democratically elected government in a civilized society and we are an ancient civilization, has to be done in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions and the issue before the Supreme Court, is indeed whether this was the case.

In the scenario that the court holds that the dissolution of Parliament is invalid, or even prior to the Court’s decision, President Sirisena can explore a compromise, where he restores the status quo ante, or the UNF to Government, but with an undertaking for an earlier dissolution of Parliament with the consent of Parliament. It is clear from UNF circles that they are prepared to compromise but not on the core issue of a Ranil Wickramasinghe premiership, the thinking being that the office of Prime Minister, should be safeguarded within the context of the will of Parliament. i.e. the time-honored tradition and indeed legal principal that the head of state, appoints as Prime Minister a member of Parliament who commands the confidence of that august assembly.

The real political ambiguity which is creating the space for dissent from the President’s political initiatives or plenary prerogatives as the AG’s Department likes to call it, is that the marriage between the SLFP and the SLPP or between President Sirisena and all three Rajapakse brothers has not been cemented and is not ironclad. It is neither concrete tactically nor in terms of shared political interest between Sirisena and the three Rajapakse brothers. Political insiders, minority party leaders, civil society and even government officials see and recognize this ambiguity. This is the political problem which President Sirisena has to address to ensure that his political switch of end October is at least concretized for the immediate future.

The slightly more medium-term challenges which Sirisena and Rajapakse face as they seek to work together with each other are also complex. Technically in the event that the Court holds the President can sack governments at will, then there is always the possibility that he can always also sack a Mahinda Rajapakse Government in the future as well and insist that the SLPP appoints someone else he prefers from that Party, like the current initiatives to get the UNP to nominate another Prime Minister, other than its long serving leader. There is also the JVP which is raising the issue of impeachment of the President for alleged violation of the constitution. The issue is not just legal. After all we had Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike booted out the Supreme Court under Rajapakse. A Mahinda Rajapakse, victorious at a general election may find the option of an impeachment with the support of the UNF, an attractive political proposition. The political machinations going on are rather similar to the palace intrigues of Sri Lanka’s bloody monarchial past, where the majority of our kings ascended the throne, killing their predecessor, who was often their father, brother, uncle or other close relative.

In the event that the Court allows the dissolution of Parliament, the respite granted would still be temporary because then essentially the President can keep sacking and replacing Prime Ministers at will. Further the tensions between the SLFP and the SLPP also rose rather quickly to the surface, in the context of their short few weeks together in government office. Most likely, a general election will witness a result reversal of the general elections of 2015, with the UNP getting some ninety something seats and the SLPP eclipsing the UPFA / SLFP, even in an alliance and becoming the largest party in Parliament, but still well short of the one hundred and thirteen seats required for a majority. The alternate route of a presidential election may more likely provide a fresh mandate and a clear path for Sri Lanka’s future progress and the prosperity of her diverse peoples.

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