Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • March 2021
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Some Trump Administration Foreign Policy Legacies for Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on December 11, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 11th December 2020)

The politics of any nation, attracts attention beyond its own borders and especially so in the case of global and regional powers. As the outgoing Trump Administration makes little headway in its legal challenges to the various election results in different states of the US, which together comprise their federal presidential election, it will be the Obama Administration’s former vice president and current president elect, Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as the new president of the United States on 20th January 2021. However, the Trump Administration has profoundly impacted the politics of our world and will have implications for Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy, going forward.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy interests and focus is gradually changing and should change from its singular focus of the decades of the civil war era, to the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 realities of the world we live in. Post the war, Sri Lanka’s interests broaden and deepen primarily towards her economic and social interests. Foreign relations deeply impact our nation and her society. Sri Lanka is an island nation, embedded in and an integral part, of the global economy, especially regionally and in some very specific ways. Sri Lanka’s highest net foreign exchange earner is our expatriate work force, mostly in West Asia (Middle East), our highest volume and value of exports, both apparel and tea, both head mostly to the global North (western world), mostly the US and the EU. As our law enforcement focuses on drugs related crime, the origin of most illegal drugs is probably regional, in the Northern parts of our South Asian neighborhood. Pre and post Covid-19, foreign tourism is a key employment generator in our economy.

The Americans in their most recent and generous foreign policy initiative has approved a grant (not a loan) of US Dollars half a million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Rajapaksa administration and the SLPP’s China-instigated rejection of the same has been unwise and looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the contrary we have swallowed high priced Chinese loans with never a whimper. A key aspect in recent Sri Lankan foreign policy, has been the China factor, as Sri Lanka under the previous and present Rajapaksa administrations, play a key role in China’s belt and road initiative. China’s expensive debt driven network of ports, airports and land developments, of which we have our own disproportionate share.

1. Containing China

The US -China relationship is relatively new, in the post second world war era, with formal diplomatic ties being established only in 1979. The more recent China policy of the US, actually begun by the Obama Administration, but sharply escalated by the Trump Administration has been the attempt to curb Chinese influence, internationally and especially in the global south, including in Sri Lanka. The US attempt to curb Chinese influence has also been in tandem with China playing a much more assertive role internationally and especially in the Asia Pacific region. Chief among them have been significant tensions in the South China sea, the inability to contain North Korean nuclear adventurism and other local and regional tensions by proxy. China as a single party, non democratic political system, doesn’t fully understand either democracy or open societies and so has internationally often backed despotic leaders, whose sudden fall from power has caught them by surprise. The US even under a new Biden Administration, will continue with a policy of seeking to contain China and Sri Lanka will need to navigate carefully the competing interests of the US, China and India.

2. Switching Middle Eastern politics from Palestine to Iran

The Trump Administration has during its four-year term, profoundly changed the politics of the Middle East and Arab nationalism from its post second world war focus on Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the issue of containing the rise of Shia Iran at the expense of the largely Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. Containing the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran is the key strategic objective now for both Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. The architect of much of this change was President Trump’s son in law and Middle East policy czar Jared Kushner, a young property businessman and savvy political operator. The Trump Administration shifted the US Embassy in Israel from the internationally recognized capital of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and worked hard to normalize relations between several key Arab nations and Israel. Successfully so with both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, both two key Saudi Arabian allies. The Saudi’s though not establishing formal diplomatic relations have relaxed restrictions including airspace for commercial flights and other cooperation. Sri Lanka with key diplomatic and economic relations with all these countries, namely Israel, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Kuwait and Bahrain including trade, especially tea and oil and expatriate workers would need to navigate the changing politics of the West Asian, Persian Gulf region.

3. Sanctioning General Shavendra Silva

The US has in the past decade, both under President Obama and under President Trump and likely continuing with the incoming Biden Administration, wielded its domestic powers of sanctions against individuals for violations of humanitarian and international law and targeted people ranging from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, sanctioned after the brutal crackdown on pro democracy protestors and Hong Kong’s new draconian national security law, to Russian businessmen, high officials in the Iranian Government and others. Sri Lanka was also not excluded from this list and current Army Commander General Shavendra Silva has been sanctioned by the United States. The usual implication of a single person sanctioned in a country is that others may follow. When paradoxically the SJB Opposition rather than the government raised this during the late October visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the answer was that it was a judicial rather than a political measure. An answer we ourselves use frequently in Sri Lanka. But the implications are clear. The Trump Administration, as it relinquishes office next month, has made its mark on the world stage and its policies will continue to shape the world we live in, for years to come.

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A Year into Rajapakse Presidency Amidst Covid-19 Pandemic

Posted by harimpeiris on December 3, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 30th November 2020)

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

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A Tribute to My Mother-in-Law

Posted by harimpeiris on November 26, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 25th November 2020)

My mother-in-law, Mandrani Gunasekera, nee Malwatta, passed away peacefully in our home a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements were complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation, and the resultant weekend curfew in Colombo.

It is a privilege for me to reflect on my mother-in-law and her role in our lives. Vocationally, she was a practitioner of one of the noblest professions on earth, that of being a teacher, with the responsibility of educating and molding young lives. First in the public-school system, then overseas, and finally in Colombo’s leading international schools. As someone who topped her batch at the Peradeniya University, teaching was an unusual and perhaps unglamourous choice, but it demonstrated her commitment to the service of others.

In private life, she, was a mother to two daughters, one of whom is my wife, and their strength of character are a tribute to her. Her four grandchildren, including my two sons, are, I am sure, left in no doubt, that their mothers were raised in the home of a teacher, with a strong commitment to both education and discipline. I saw first-hand, that my mum-in- law, was an enabler and facilitator, guiding and molding her family. Her eldest grand-daughter, Thisuni Welihinde’s wedding late last year, was a milestone for her and we were never sure who was more excited, the bride or her grandmother.

To me, she was always “Ammi” and having lost my own mother when I was very young, I was determined to treat my wife’s mother, as I would my own. After my father- in- law’s death, a decade ago, it was a joy to care for my mother-in- law, in our home. Ammi was retired and lived a life of leisure. Which was a good counter balance to our own lives, which always seemed to be so hectic and rushed. I also learned from my mother -in-law, that being effective did not come from being prominent.

Ammi was also regular at Church, every Sunday, and was also an active member of a mid-week ladies Bible study, and prayer group, who were also her group of friends. They always ended their meetings, with brunch if not lunch. It was special joy that we were able to celebrate her 80th birthday with a “surprise party” at home, with her friends, about six weeks before her passing.

Ammi enjoyed the simple joys of life, and of our home, whether it was meal times, the constant chatter and boisterous behaviour of her two teenage grandsons, our weekend activities or family vacations to most of which she accompanied us. She was also an avid rugby fan, especially of Royal College rugby, since her brother had captained Royal and now her grandson was playing. In fact, she used to attend many matches and the 75th Bradby encounter last year, held in the shadow of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, was her last, to witness her brother honoured on the field with other past captains and her grandson take the field, as a junior player.

This strange Covid-19 pandemic year, and its unprecedented lockdown ,enabled us to spend lots of time together, as family. Our lockdown daily routine, which included lots of sleep and rest, was centered on the daily family lunch, either preceded, or followed by family prayer. Ammi became the most committed and enthusiastic participant in our family mid-day gatherings. It was a great blessing, in disguise, that enabled us to spend the last few months, with noting much else to do, but enjoy each other’s company. While we miss her, we have the hope that she is with our Lord Jesus Christ. Her favourite Bible scripture in Psalm 91, states “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty …. and with long life I will satisfy him and show him, My salvation”.

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Mike Pompeo Seeks to Stop Sri Lanka’s Slide to China

Posted by harimpeiris on November 5, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 03rd November 2020)

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in Sri Lanka last week as part of his Asian tour that included regional power India as well as the Maldives. Coincidently his visit came not too long after one by former Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to Colombo. It was also on the eve of the November 3 presidential elections in the US, which will determine if the Trump Administration is re-elected for a second term or if the Democrats take the White House under Joe Biden, President Obama’s former Vice President.

Regarding Sri Lanka the American diplomats, never known for their subtlety, were unusually blunt even by their own standards. Days before departing for their Asian tour, delegation member Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson, stated that the US would “urge Sri Lanka to make the difficult but necessary choices” on its economic and development partners. Although not mentioning China by name, the inference was clear. Goaded, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, proving that beneath the benign smiles and frequent bowing of its diplomats lay very thin Asian skins, had the audacity to issue a statement that declared, among other reasons, that because Sri Lanka was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we really shouldn’t be troubled at this time with a visit by the US delegation. So much for poor Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the ostensible host of the visit.

The US is the world’s largest economy and is Sri Lanka’s single largest export market. The EU is larger but that is made up of many nations. Over the past many decades, the US has provided more than US$ 2 billion in aid through various USAID projects while the multilateral institutions it effectively controls, such as the World Bank, have provided much more. Our export driven economy is quite dependent on its key export markets and we ignore their concerns at our own economic peril.

The focus of the US visit, being firmly fixed on Sri Lanka’s growing dependence and indebtedness to China, had largely to do with the Rajapaksa Administration’s foreign policy, which is viewed in global capitals and certainly in both Washington D.C. as well as New Delhi, as being solely and overly reliant on Beijing. This is a major departure from decades of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy that has always been a balanced neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, which was principled as well as pragmatic. Perhaps the best articulator of that policy in recent years was former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and, in an earlier era, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who cultivated a personal friendship with the Gandhi family in India but also succeeded in having the Chinese gift Sri Lanka the BMICH that enabled us to host the 5th Non-Aligned Nations Summit in 1976. A truly neutral non-aligned policy that served Sri Lanka well.

The world is changing from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a more multi polar world in which the Chinese, as well as other powers such as India and Russia, have real interests, strategic and economic as well as security, outside their own borders. Sri Lanka as a small nation and hence a threat to none but blessed with a strategic location and a highly literate population can, in our post-civil conflict era, well benefit from the various economic opportunities that arise thereby. However, this does mean that we must have a balanced foreign policy, as indeed we have had for much of our post-independence period.

Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy during our 30-year civil war was a very simple, single issue foreign policy; developing and maintaining international support and political space for the prosecution of a long drawn out conflict and indeed, in that context, we were successful. Sri Lanka won its war with no domestic armaments industry to talk of, with entirely imported weapons systems ranging from Israeli Kfir jets, American Bell Helicopters and Czech multi barrel rocket launches, among many others. Most importantly perhaps, the US led efforts to put an international squeeze on the LTTE’s money laundering and financing of terrorism efforts while Indian intelligence sharing and security cooperation were crucial in the interception and sinking of the LTTE’s rearmament ships in international waters by our Navy in 2009 that ensured the war ended.

However, post war, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has much broader strategic interests as well as strategic challenges. In terms of interests economic diplomacy, seeking to attract and increase foreign direct investment still at abysmal levels compared to regional peers and expand trade as well as access to new export markets, must surely rank first among our key interests while managing the challenges of an emerging multi polar world and its hot issues in our region, such as maritime security. In that context, it was very unwise for the former Rajapaksa Administration to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock twice in the Colombo port in 2014. A similar Chinese request in 2017 was turned down by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration.

The post war Rajapaksa Administration of 2010 to 2015 performed very disappointingly. It abandoned Sri Lanka’s traditionally neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, despite paying lip service to it, and took us firmly into a debt trap, notwithstanding protestations to the contrary by the Government, from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves. Sri Lanka’s project financing from China is not concessionary and is very expensive, even more expensive than what we source competitively in international capital markets for budgetary support. Project financing needs to be much cheaper. The debt for equity swap that the former government effected with regard to the Hambanthota port was inevitable and bought us some time and space to pay off our other loans. Although President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just after his election, wanted to review the agreement, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the face of Chinese protests, declined. It is surprising that the critics and pandits who decry the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s grant (not a loan) of half a billion dollars, that is, free money that does not need to repaid, are totally silent about the expensive loans for the white elephant projects – a port with no ships, an airport with no flights and reclaimed land from the sea for more apartments and hotels, as if we are short of either in Colombo.

Before its departure the visiting US delegation took pains to point out its commitment to our shared values as a democratic society and also reiterated support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post war undertakings to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of accountability, justice and reconciliation. Time will tell if the SLPP Administration will recalibrate its foreign policy to a more balanced and neutral one. Early indications are to the contrary.

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The Continuing October Revolutions in Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on October 19, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 19th October 2020)

“October Revolution” is a term that used to gladden the hearts of Communist stalwarts the world over, our own left parties included. It was the occasion, more than a century ago, when of the Russian monarchy and the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for over three hundred years was violently overthrown and succeeded by the Communist Soviet Union, which itself came to an end in more recent times with the finish of the Cold War.

However, Sri Lanka has also, during the last several years, experienced our own momentous October revolutions, defining moments in our national and political life. It was six years ago in September/October of 2014 that the then governing UPFA narrowly won but recorded a significant decrease in its popular vote in the Uva Provincial Council elections and through ensuing political events three months later, the second Rajapaksa Administration was defeated at the presidential election of January 2015.

After a relatively quiet three years, October 2018 witnessed President Maithripala Sirisena sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Earlier in the year,  in February, at the  local government elections the SLPP won but with about forty percent of the national vote. Perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s greatest political periods was October to December 2018, which demonstrated the resilience of our democratic institutions and the robustness of her processes, when subsequent to Parliament passing several no confidence motions against the usurpation of power by a constitutional coup and based on both Appellate and Supreme Court decisions, the status quo ante was achieved.

Time in politics does not stand still and the complete absence of any political course correction by UNP leader for life, Ranil Wickremesinghe, meant that an year later by October 2019, he had the presidential election nomination wrested from him by the desertion of all the UNP’s political allies to his deputy and current Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. Shortly thereafter, the Rajapaksas regained political power, democratically this time, by winning the presidential election of 2019.

The October 2020 revolution of the 20th Amendment

October 2020 is no exception to the recent patten of momentous October political events and the newly elected SLPP Administration is seeking nothing short of a complete overhaul of the Sri Lankan State, through its proposed 20thAmendment to the Constitution. The 20thAmendment seeks essentially to establish an elected absolute ruler, where the President will appoint everybody to all state positions as he sees fit, including the higher judiciary and the independent commissions, including the Election Commission, which would thereby no longer be independent, as well as autocratically control everything and be beyond the reach of the law. The proposed amendment does not just seek to revert Sri Lanka to a pre-19thAmendment era but rather goes beyond it. It is a considerable political over reach in that it moves beyond the consensus that exists within political society and the governing elites.

It is exactly that over reach that has resulted in both internal dissent within the governing alliance and from staunchly apolitical sections of civil society. Religious leaders ranging from the Sanga Sabawas of both the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Christian Council, all came out strongly against the 20thAmendment, calling it a retrograde step that should not be proceeded with. Even some of the more political monks, generally both hawkish and nationalist, who had actively supported the politics and policies of the SLPP and contributed to the Rajapaksa election victory, expressed their disquiet and disagreement with the proposed amendment leading to significant parts of the SLPP Alliance, including the National Freedom Front calling for significant changes, if not the wholesale abandonment of the Administration’s first signature political initiative. Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Vidura Wickramanayake and Wijeydasa Rajapakshe are all staunch Sinhala nationalists and regime stalwarts. Their critique of the 20th Amendment arises not from the 20th Amendment’s rather obvious challenges to an inclusive, tolerance of diversity and pluralistic Sri Lankan state but from a governance standpoint. Their vision of a Sinhala nationalist state is that it be efficient, technocratic and to some extent accountable. Accordingly, the abrogation of the Audit Commission and the exemption of the President’s and Prime Minister’s Office from Independent State audit seems, correctly, absurd to them from an accountability and governance standpoint.

The more recent construct of Sinhala nationalism has been insular, inward looking and anti-Western. It has been an article of faith that the world in general and the West in particular is seeking to dislodge Sri Lanka from its exceptional place in the sun. Accordingly, the provision in the 20th Amendment allowing dual citizens to hold high political office runs against the grain of their ardent beliefs and potentially opens the door for Tamil diaspora activists to engage in politics in Sri Lanka. Hence the internal dissent regarding the amendment. The Government has exactly 150 votes in Parliament, including the casting vote of the Speaker. It is precisely because of the vacillation of a few Government members that overtures, both carrots to Hakeem’s Muslim Congress and the stick to Bathiudeen’s People’s Congress, has been in the works during the past few weeks.

It was a very irate Malcom Cardinal Ranjith who went on record accusing the Government of a deal with Bathiudeen regarding the 20th Amendment – since denied by the Government – subsequent to the release of Bathiudeen’s brother from detention by the CID. As if to buttress the denial, or on the contrary to increase pressure and leverage on the People’s Congress, Rishard Bathiudeen himself was arrested by the CID after the Fort Magistrate refused to issue a warrant for his arrest and while Appellate Court proceedings to prevent his arrest are pending. There is a strong strand of opinion among Muslim political leaders to be not seen as obstructing the Sinhala people if they want to elect an absolute ruler.

Before the end of October 2020 we will know if our own October revolution has succeeded, not like in Russia a hundred years ago in the overthrow of an autocratic absolute ruler and dynasty, but in the establishment of one.

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