Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Mangala Samaraweera, thirty years in public life – A reflection

Posted by harimpeiris on March 6, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 6th March 2019)

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera is the man of the moment, as the first budget of the UNF government, sans its UPFA partner is presented as the basic policy framework of the UNP and its allies before the decisive year end presidential elections come upon us. Last week, Minister Samaraweera celebrated thirty years in public life, with a series of events, the highlight of which was a lecture by the former Obama Administration cabinet rank Ambassador Samantha Power. In a welcome development and maturity of Sri Lanka’s political ethos, the event was bi partisan with high level participation with President Sirisena and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse attending along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and UNF front liners. This was similar to the wedding celebration of the youngest Rajapakse offspring recently which was also a celebration sans political difference and partisan divides.

My earliest encounters with Minister Mangala Samaraweera was when he was then, the newly appointed Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Media in the CBK Administration of 1994 and I, a consultant in the Public Enterprise Reform Commission (PERC) tasked with implementing state sector reforms, including telecommunications of which Mangala Samaraweera was minister. The Minster had inherited a telecommunications sector, which was at that time, still a government owned monopoly of Sri Lanka Telecom, where getting a land or fixed phone line was still considered a political favor, with a waiting list of over two hundred thousand. Mangala took on the huge task of reforming Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications sector, which required implementing a regulatory framework of the TRC, attracting a foreign investor in Japan’s Nippon telco NTT and most importantly perhaps as a left of center government, handling the Telecom unions, which were adamantly opposed to the privatization. Mangala handled this all with great skill, both politically and professionally and the results are evident today where Sri Lanka has 21 million people and 22 million phone connections.  If Sri Lanka has South Asia’s most advanced telecoms infrastructure, the credit must then surely go to Mangala.

Mangala first entered Parliament in 1989, at a youthful thirty-three years, when the country was in the throes of the second JVP insurrection. Fortune favored his bravery, in that the then SLFP strongman in Matara, Ariya Bullegoda succumbed to JVP threats and intimidation to boycott the 1989 general elections and did not contest, keeping the SLFP field more open for the relatively new youthful human rights activist. When Mangala Samaraweera launched his first parliamentary election campaign, it was the old-fashioned way with his mother carrying the posters and Mangala the bucket of paste to publicize his preference number in the first parliamentary elections to be held under the proportional representation system. Mangala’s commitment to human rights and pluralism was born in the crucible of Sri Lanka’s brutal second JVP uprising of that period and has remained consistent and steadfast, even at a personal and political price.

Mangala has always been a great believer in political alliances and coalitions. Elected an opposition MP in 1989 and despite being a newcomer to parliament, politics and the party and he threw himself in to what might have been thought of as the near impossible task of modernizing the SLFP after its abysmal defeat of 1977. This required among other things, an easing upstairs of the iconic Madam Sirimavo and enabling a younger, more dynamic and fresh thinking leadership to takeover. Mangala was arguably one of the most influential in persuading the widowed and single parent Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to return to Sri Lanka and take over the reigns of the SLFP.

Mangala was instrumental in the formation of the People’s Alliance (PA), that alliance of the SLFP and the traditional left parties which swept the polls in 1994, beginning in fact with the SLFP’s shock win in the Southern Provincial Council elections in 1993. Interestingly Mangala’s father Mahanama Samaraweera who was also MP for Matara was first elected from the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the Communist Party’s only electoral base in Sri Lanka even today, sufficient for parliamentary representation, continues to be in Matara, with MP Chandasiri Gajadeera, flying the CP’s sole insignia in Parliament from Matara, in tribute to Mahanama Samaraweera’s groundwork for the CP in the South.

However, in keeping with the times, Mangala was then and now, a political centrist and modernist. His favorite political author and theorist has been neither Karl Marx nor the neo liberal Friedrich Hayek but rather the Anthony Giddens and his arguments for a third way. A radical center, which was reformist and pragmatic.

Mangala Samaraweera together with the late Lakshman Kadirgama were the two Ministers who were the then President Kumaratunga’s brain trust on national reconciliation, together with GL Peiris.  It was Mangala who organized both the “Sudu Nelum movement” and the thavalama street dramas which took the message of conflict transformation and reconciliation to the village level, in the form of drama and open forums. Consequently, by even the year 2000, opinion polls and surveys showed a clear and significant majority in favor of a political accommodation and reforms to ensure that the Sri Lankan state reflected the real diversity of her society.

In recent times and especially post war, as a front bencher of the UNF, to which he now belonged, having previously crossed over in principled opposition to Rajapakse rule, Mangala has been a strong advocate of both reconciliation and economic development. I was privileged to have served as Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, during Mangala’s tenure as Foreign Minister. Unlike many in public life Mangala is not ego centric and certainly not insecure. He can distil professional advice, accepting the good, while ignoring the bad and is inclusive and consultative in his decision making and policy formulation.

Minister Samaraweera was responsible for bringing Sri Lanka back from the brink of near pariah status to which we had almost descended during the disastrous China centric, no post war reconciliation policies of the Rajapakse second term. It was he who rebalanced and repaired Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and led Sri Lanka in the UN to commit to her own domestic accountability and reconciliation process, believing and arguing what the Rajapakse era LLRC Commission Report had clearly spelt out, that every nation engaged in a brutal civil war needed healing through addressing the effects, causes and conduct of the conflict to ensure non-reoccurrence.

As the 2019 election season moves into high gear, Mangala Samaraweera, together with his deputy Eran Wickramaratne has the enormous task of laying out the economic framework that would lay the foundation for the re-election of the centrist and pluralist political forces in the country. Somehow one feels, that as significant as Mangala’s past thirty years in public life has been, it is only set to increase post 2019. Khema’s boy has done her proud and, in the process, served the people of his native Matara and indeed the whole of Sri Lanka well.

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Sinhala nationalist critique of democracy – a mistake

Posted by harimpeiris on February 21, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 19th February 2019)

The undeclared front runner for the Rajapaksa clan / SLPP / JO nomination is undoubtedly former Defence Secretary. So his views and vision for Sri Lanka, which he is now periodically presenting as his undeclared presidential candidacy commences, merit serious attention. A democracy requires that there be debate and dialogue on policies and decisions affecting national life and, in that respect, the military is the last institution one wants to learn democratic norms from. The military personnel are trained are over a lifetime to obey lawful orders without question and have orders carried out without question.

Accordingly, in recent times, opinion leaders in support of a Gotabaya candidacy and Mr. Rajapaksa himself have been making comments that indicate that within the new Sinhala nationalist political project, which is what the Gotabaya candidacy is about, there is a general disdain for democracy and a belief in what might be termed a faith in a strongman. A well-intentioned dictator or an enlightened despot, as renaissance era political thinkers may have termed it. First there was a call, a couple of months back, by a very senior religious prelate for a military government like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The attempt to backtrack on the comments or give it a benign spin was not successful with the unforgiving video records on social media. Just last week, a retired Navy commander, now involved with other military officers around the former Defence Secretary has gone on record saying that countries should not emphasize democracy and human rights. He reportedly further stated that democracy had, only brought ethnic division and strife to the country. Then, there is Mr. Rajapaksa himself stressing the need for guaranteeing economic and social rights and not civil and political rights. It is clear that Mr. Rajapaksa and the retired generals around him are seeking to run the country in much the same way as they ran the military and defence ministry, and preparing the people to accept, under their potential rule, vastly reduced democratic and human rights.

A flawed democracy should be strengthened not further weakened

There is one thing on which the new Sinhala nationalist project and all others can agree on, and that is that Sri Lanka’s democracy is flawed and weak. This, of course, is contrary to what we argue in international fora, but that contradiction is another story. That criticism is clearly made by Mr. Rajapaksa and those around him. Others such as Tamil nationalists, make the same criticism for entirely different reasons, but come to the same conclusion, a correct one, that Sri Lankan democracy has not really served them or indeed anyone.

It was State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne, who during the abortive 52-day Rajapaksa regime late last year, stated that the current political set up served only the rulers and not the governed. He was speaking to a group of professionals and was arguing for taking governance from populists to professionals. This same argument was the basic rallying cry of the rainbow coalition of 2015, which built a socio- political movement on good governance and consequently challenged and overthrew the president who ended the war.

There is little doubt that Sri Lankan democracy, or our institutions of governance, has not in the past delivered for our people. We have been unable to manage the political debate, make the compromises and achieve the minimum consensus required to have a cohesive and integrated society within our democratic institutions.

That failure resulted in political and communal violence. The failure was not just on ethnic relations. The two JVP insurrections of the 1970s and 1980s clearly demonstrated that even with regard the economic and socio-political aspirations of the Sinhala community our institutions of governance were unable to deliver.

But the answer to that must be, as declared in January 2015 by the rainbow coalition, is for democracy to be strengthened and for good governance to be established. Towards this end, this dream and political vision, 6.2 million Sri Lankans, comprising a majority of the voting public gave their mandate. The 19th Amendment was a step in this direction; the Constitutional Council was a step in the same direction––small steps but definitely the right direction. Four years on, the criticisms of these by the Rajapaksa’s and their acolytes are a clear indication of their desire to roll back the clock. When democracy is weak, the solution is not to kill it but strengthen it.

A Rainbow coalition must come back

The assault, during this election year 2019, on the democratic institutions of the Constitutional Council, the 19th Amendment, the Human Rights Commission are all indicators of what a Rajapaksa return would entail for Sri Lanka. An elected dictatorship, benign to its supporters and brutal with its opponents; an unmitigated disaster for a post war, pluralist society like ours. The last time, when the fascist experiment of one folk, one Fuhrer and one fatherland was attempted in Europe, it resulted in both a holocaust and a world war. What is needed is to strengthen Sri Lankan democracy not truncate it.

The answer to this, of course, is a repeat of the politics of 2014/15, five years later. The actors would be different. Instead of the term limit barred Mahinda, or the age-limit-barred Namal, the candidate may be Gota and heading a rainbow coalition; the candidate may be the UNP leader, or his current or former deputy. But irrespective of the candidates the basic political formulae of the Rajapaksa clan verses the rest, would still pose a significant political challenge to the Rajapaksa come-back project, and the resultant diminution of Sri Lanka’s democratic, civil and political rights.

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The 19th Amendment is the Sirisena Administration’s achievement – It must be defended

Posted by harimpeiris on February 15, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 13th February 2019)

 

In January 2015, 6.2 million Sri Lankans voted for a new Sri Lanka, giving a mandate for far reaching reforms, even as a rainbow coalition of disparate opposition parties and civil society organizations backed a common candidate for the presidency and Maithripala Sirisena, who had defected from the Rajapakse Administration shortly before and launched a blistering criticism of his erstwhile boss, defeated a deeply entrenched and populist president who sought to leverage his war ending legacy into an unprecedented 18thamendment enabled third term.

The signature achievement of the Sirisena Administration during its second 100 or so days in office, was the 19th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which essentially reversed the 18th amendment and reduced the sole discretionary executive powers of the presidency, established independent commissions and strengthened the role of the Constitutional Council in key state appointments. This has in fact led to a renewed Sri Lanka, where senior police officers are institutionally independent of politicians now in their professional work and careers, the judiciary has recovered from the low point of the sacking of Chief Justice Shiranie Bandaranaike, a collective decision making on senior state appointments through the Constitutional Council and the establishment of key independent Commissions including the National Human Rights Commission has occurred. This was and is important progress and crucial state reform for Sri Lanka. President Sirisena throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017 praised the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and he was right. That legacy must be protected and nurtured.

In recent times, clearly President Sirisena has done a political volte farce, a complete turnaround from having campaigned against the policies of the Rajapakse Administration to now seeking to hitch his own political fortunes and future to a Rajapakse return. This of necessity makes him advocate against his own legacy of reforms and change, as he seeks to champion or be associated with a different political agenda and culture going forward. That is the President’s political right, though the wisdom of the move may be doubtful. But the merits of the 2015 reforms, mandated by a majority of Sri Lankan requires a defense, as the politics of the impending year end presidential elections, overshadows the public policy debate.

The Collective of the Constitutional Council

 The Constitutional Council embodies that essential principle of key state appointments being independently vetted and approved by a collective leadership. Now in Sri Lanka, these are the appointments to the higher judiciary and the members of the independent commissions, which are by design meant to be independent of the executive arm of government. They are regulatory and oversight in nature, be it the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission or the Anti-Bribery Commission to name a few.

Sri Lanka needs to make a transition from being a nation governed by populist strongmen (or women) to being governed by institutions, policies and laws and a government that is accountable and a governance that is transparent to the sovereign people of Sri Lanka. Through mechanisms and processes that move beyond periodic elections. It is in furtherance of this objective, that collective decision making on appointments to key judicial and regulatory bodies is being made by the Constitutional Council. The United States for instance, in which the SLPP front runner for the presidency is a citizen, requires most key state appointments to be confirmed by the US Senate. The adage, “I etat c’est moi” or “I am the state” of King Louis XIV, surely ended with the period of absolute monarchies.

This analysis does not seek to engage inappropriately in the merits or demerits of specific and particular appointments high level appointments. Merely to make the point that it surely boggles the mind and is inconceivable that a collective of ten members of the Constitutional Council, comprising ex officio the Speaker, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, their nominees and three eminent non-partisan persons, can make a bigger mistake and be allegedly partisan, than a single individual, as would be the case of the executive president. As recent events have indicated, the presidency of Sri Lanka, is hardly removed from the partisan democratic contestation for political power and the criticism of the Constitutional Council is coming from one direction only, that of the political allies of the Rajapakses. This must also be viewed in the context of the remarkable events of November and December 2018, when the actions of the President and the short lived SLPP / UPFA Government were found to be ultra vires the constitution and relevant laws. It no doubt escapes the extreme Sinhala nationalist members of the JO, that attacking the appointment of Sri Lanka’s superior judiciary is surely counter-productive to insisting and arguing with the international community, for the efficacy of Sri Lanka’s judicial system.

In Defense of the National Human Rights Commission 

 Sri Lanka has had a long-term problem with the protection and safeguarding of human rights. At one time we were quite high on the list of countries where extra judicial executions took place. Generally, Sri Lankan society was willing to acquiesce in making human rights subservient to the security interests of our long running civil war, believing as Cicero argued in the Roman Senate, that “in the fight of good against evil, the laws are silent”. But post war, we must change. It is a credit to the reforms of post 2015, that the human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka were strengthened and the attempt to rule in peacetime as in wartime was defeated at the polls.

We cannot, as President Sirisena himself pledged, allow the white van culture, the killing of editors, journalists and ruggerites on the streets of our cities to reoccur again with impunity. The work of independent commissions is a must. A society’s strength is not measured by the extent of its defense of the powerful but in its defense of the weak. As Human Rights Commission Chairman Dr. Deepika Udugama, so eloquently stated in her dignified but sterling defense of the Commission’s excellent work “an independent commission protects the rights of all groups of citizens in the country, this includes even groups of people who have been marginalized and rejected from society, since the fundamental mark of a democratic and civilized society is guaranteeing humanity”.

The governance reforms of the 19th amendment have demonstrated a resilience and a robustness that strengthened Sri Lankan democracy. It must be defended by the 6.2 million who voted for that change in 2015, even if its champions and architects change course.

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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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