Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Rainbow coalition intact with defeat of no-faith motion

Posted by harimpeiris on July 17, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 14th July 2019)

The No-Confidence motion (NCM) against the government, presented by the JVP was defeated in Parliament a few days back, by one hundred and nineteen (119) votes to ninety-two (92) or by a majority of twenty-seven (27) votes. Voting in favor of the motion were three of the main opposition parties, the SLPP and the SLFP sitting in Parliament as the UPFA and the JVP. Opposing the same and having a comfortable margin above the threshold of one hundred and thirteen (113) members required for a simple majority of the House, was the UNP and the TNA.

The politics of whether the government should stand or fall provides some useful insights into the political alliances and coalitions that currently exist, and are an indicator of the balance of political and social forces, for the much-anticipated year end presidential election.

Firstly, the hard core of the rainbow coalition which ended Rajapaksa rule in 2015 was the UNF together with its allies of the Muslim parties and the Tamil National Alliance. They were supported independently by the JVP. The UPFA at the January 2015 election was solidly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the politics of Rajapaksa verses the rest, meant that the rest or a rainbow coalition defeated the deeply entrenched and seemingly invincible Rajapaksa political machine. The breakup of the UPFA post the presidential election, into the Rajapaksa SLPP and the Sirisena SLFP is again coalescing politically, though the talks to do so institutionally are still progressing very slowly.

For both Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who cannot contest another presidential election due to being term barred, and President Maithripala Sirisena, who is extremely unlikely to receive presidential election nomination from either the UNP or the SLPP, a general election consequent to a successful no confidence motion against the government is to their advantage. Mahinda Rajapaksa can lead his party in a general election in which he is eligible for candidature, and President Sirisena can conduct such a campaign for his party, with all the trappings of his office and state power. Even for the JVP, a general election before a presidential election would be more favorable, since as a third force in national politics, it is not seriously in the game of the two horse presidential race. So, the votes in Parliament for the NCM demonstrated just that; as UPFA and JVP supported the NCM, while the UNP and the TNA opposed the same, leading to a resounding defeat for the NCM. The politics of the NCM, last week, demonstrated that at least in parliament the remnant of the rainbow coalition was holding, in much the same way it held together late last year, to defeat the constitutional coup premiership of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Implications for the presidential election

The presidential election politics of 2015 was a rather simple formula, the Rajapaksas vs the rest. The rest, a rainbow coalition prevailed against all odds. The 2019 presidential election will in a sense be a re-run of that same election, but with different actors. Instead of Mahinda, another Rajapaksa will be candidate, most likely Gota; and instead of Maithripala Sirisena, another consensus candidate would be required who is a unifier of a disparate coalition, while simultaneously being attractive to a more diverse constituency, including at least about two fifths of the Sinhala constituency. The reality of the 2015 election is that Maithripala Sirisena did not win the popular vote outside the North and East, losing the other seven provinces combined by three hundred thousand votes, but winning big in the North and East with a combined majority of seven hundred and fifty thousand votes, leading to his national victory margin of almost half a million votes.

The big difference this time around, is that the UNP and its UNF partners have been in Government for the past five years and are likely seen, at least by the floating voter and definitely by those in the North and East, to have not fully delivered on their expectations. Expectations created in no small part by the coalition’s own rhetoric of good governance and sweeping reforms. The real issue is would many voters switch back to the Rajapaksa candidate as a repudiation of the one term of UNP rule, and would people vote along ethno-religious identity blocks or base their votes on governance track record and policies? In all likelihood, votes are garnered on a combination of these factors. But for a Rajapaksa candidate to win, he (or indeed she) would have to do better and improve on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own electoral performance among Sinhala Buddhist voters in 2015 and his appeal to them.

Even as things stand now, the rhetoric and messaging of Gotabaya’s Eliya and Viyath Maga organizations and their fellow travelers is certainly more strident and nationalistic, than Mahinda Rajapaksa ever was or has been. The real issue is whether the votes that slipped away from the Rajapaksa’s in 2015, essentially all minorities and the more liberal minded, urban, sub-urban and youthful first time Sinhala voters, can be won back with ever higher doses of nationalism and stridency or a move back to a more moderate center? Neither in November – December last year nor six months later, have the Rajapaksa’s secured or demonstrated any new political allies, they didn’t have in January 2015. Whether they have done so with the voting public at large, we will know through the next presidential election, due before the year end.


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Moratorium on Death Penalty should be continued

Posted by harimpeiris on July 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 05th July 2019)

The year 2019 for Sri Lanka should have been a year of renewed hope. Looking ahead to the second decade after the end of the war, a chance to elect (or much less likely re-elect) the president of the republic for a five-year term and move forward resolutely and build on the small but significant gains in nation building which we had achieved during the past five years. These gains include the democracy enhancing measures of the 19th amendment, the consequent robust independent institutions for human rights, anti-corruption and policing among other commissions thus created, the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), private land releases and resettlement of the internally displaced in the North and East, among other gains. The Rajapakse presidency is not without its own high-water marks and achievements.
Instead however, in 2019, Sri Lanka witnessed the horrors of murderous violence against Christian worshipers and tourists on Easter Sunday in April, the equal horrors of anti-Muslim violence by opportunist communal and political elements thereafter, a loss of hope in a new Sri Lanka by many, not least foreign and local investors and tourists and into this sorry litany of retrograde steps backwards, we now have the prospect of the end of Sri Lanka’s near half century long moratorium on judicial executions.
Sri Lanka’s last judicial execution was in 1976, forty-three long years ago. The resumption of the death penalty is facing multiple legal challenges before Sri Lanka’s superior courts and the lawyers will doubt make the legal case, according to their briefs. However, this article seeks to examine the public policy, socio-political and national interests’ aspects of resuming judicial executions in Sri Lanka.

The lack of due process and adequate dialogue on the issue

Firstly, there has been inadequate dialogue, political debate and discussion on such an important issue and significant change in national life. President Sirisena seems to have decided through private consultations and has been announcing it and seeking to move forward the administrative machinery to give effect to the policy. Even administratively the Justice Ministry and the Prisons Department deny formal procedural measures to reintroduce the death penalty. It is clear, that the policy faces serious political and social opposition. Both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse have voiced their serious concerns and reservations over reintroducing the death penalty and assuming that these leaders carry their respective parties on the issue, both the governing UNP and the main opposition SLPP oppose the reintroduction of the death penalty.
In the case of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, it was his uncle and a previous UNP president JR Jayewardene who introduced the indefinite moratorium on judicial executions in Sri Lanka and in the case of opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his own two terms as president, one of them during the final stages of a brutal civil war, the death penalty was not reintroduced, even as a law and order measure or tool of state policy.
Religious leaders of all faiths have opposed the reintroduction of the death penalty and have taken their case before the superior courts, many religious leaders being among the petitioners / appellants in superior court proceedings against the issue. Many Journalists, civil society activists and think tanks have also opposed reintroducing the death penalty.

The Challenge of Human Rights

Human rights have not been a strong suit in Sri Lankan national life. The reality of a long drawn civil war had meant a rather obvious reduction in civil liberties. Within the international community, Sri Lanka still has a distance to go before our past weaknesses and failures on the protection and promotion of human rights would be seen as remedied with institutional protection against reoccurrence. One of Sri Lanka’s few human rights victories have been that we had effectively abolished the death penalty through a moratorium on its implementation, which was continuing decade after decade and seemingly having a consensus in society that it should continue. It is not in our national interest, to eliminate this gain in human rights protection and reintroduce judicial executions by the state. Both the hard won GSP plus trade benefits from the EU crucial for our exports and even law and order cooperation with non-death penalty nations would be affected.

An incoherent and inconclusive law and order argument

The proponents of the death penalty, including our nation’s chief executive, make a law and order argument for the reintroduction of the death penalty. When first proposed, it was a narrow focus. Let us execute repeat drug offences, who are still leading their illegal operations from within the prisons. Firstly, if criminal enterprises are being organized and coordinated by prisoners, this can and should be stopped through appropriate prison and prisoner management measures, not through execution of the prisoners. The general principal is that once convicted and in the custody of the state, a person has been rendered harmless and of no further threat to society at least during the period of judicial custody. Ensuring this is the responsibility of the prisons department.
As numerous research and empirical data demonstrates, there is absolutely no correlation between the existence of the death penalty and reduced crime rates. In fact, on the contrary some of the countries with capital punishment have much higher crime rates than countries which do not. As an example, the United States is one of the few Western democracies to still implement the death penalty, but it has a significantly higher crime rate and higher rates of incarceration or per capita prison population than say the Western European countries which have all abolished the death penalty.
President Maithripala Sirisena, as he approaches the end of his presidential term and very likely seeing the end of his period as first citizen, would be well advised to reconsider his headlong dash down the path of reintroducing the death penalty. He will be remembered for many things, including being the first challenger to electorally defeat an incumbent president and for the rainbow coalition he led to victory in 2015. The early gains of his presidency are not insignificant though perhaps overshadowed now by his own political makeover in seeking the political mantle of the Rajapaksa’s he defeated five years ago. But to leave a legacy of tarnishing one of Sri Lanka’s few gains in human rights in the past half century would be unwise and best avoided.

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Mangala challenges the politics of division

Posted by harimpeiris on June 13, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 10th June 2019)

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who recently celebrated 30 years in public life, is certainly no ordinary politician. He has always, throughout his career, been more of a leader, than a follower and generally challenged conventional political wisdom and done so, mostly successfully. During his youthful beginnings in politics, during the second JVP insurrection, he fought hard for human rights and the cause of the disappeared. When the southern SLFP leadership was toying with boycotting the 1989 general election, he jumped into the fray. As a young freshman SLFP parliamentarian in 1989, he was a key operative in seeking the easing upstairs of the iconic Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the induction of the next generation of leadership under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. As CBK then resolutely swung the SLFP, from the opponent of provincial councils, into an enlightened political party presenting a political package of accommodation and inclusiveness, Mangala Samaraweera was at the forefront of that change through the “Sudu-Nelum” movement.

In more recent times, he was one of the earliest nay-sayers about the Rajapakse regime’s excesses, from its own front benches as Foreign Minister and his critique of its human rights and forecast of its international consequences was almost prophetic in their accuracy and remarkable in its foresight. During the current post 2015 dispensation, Mangala took the leadership on the delivery of national reconciliation as Foreign Minister and now as Finance Minister, he is spearheading the next generation of essential reforms and our tortuously slow economic recovery from the expensive Chinese debt funded, allegedly corrupt, budget busting white elephant projects of the previous era.

Unifying rather than dividing

So, Minister Mangala Samaraweera is a clear opinion leader and a catalyst for change. Recently, especially in the aftermath of the horrendous Easter bomb attacks, he has been articulating a unifying vision of us coming together as a nation to face our common enemy. This is in the context, where the predominant political response, after the initial calm created by the Christian community’s resolute decision to forgive and not retaliate, has been to divide and hate monger. He has also not been reluctant to take on the sacred cows of our religious leaders, when they are engaging in more temporal pursuits such as “fasts unto deaths” and open support for the same.

Sri Lanka is a deeply divided society. We are divided along every possible social fault line imaginable. We are divided along ethnic, religious, linguistic, caste and class lines. Sri Lanka has essentially failed post-independence to forge a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual national identity which over aches our more parochial ethno-religious identities. In fact, our giant neighbour India has done a remarkable job in creating such a national Indian identity from a mosaic of different ethno-linguistic groups. The goal of a Sri Lankan identity remains elusive and the task of reforms towards a Sri Lankan state which accommodates the diversity of her peoples is challenging.

Sri Lankan politics and politicians, and not least allied industries such as media, basically at some level play off on the divisions in our society, to seek leadership. As Mangala wrote in his recent essay of 5th June titled The Cardinal Sin. I quote, “When a political party, media organization or religious leader depends for their survival on one group of Sri Lankans becoming afraid of another, we must be wary of them”.

Identifying the real enemy

Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history has witnessed people fighting. At the outset we disenfranchised the Tamils of Indian decent, then we got rid of the Burghers, then fought along economic class lines under the JVP banner, simultaneously engaging in a near ruinous civil war with the Tamil community and post-war launched an assault on the Muslim community’s business interests under the guise of anti-halal, poisoned toffees and every other imagined paranoia we could come up.

Sri Lanka and specifically the Christian community, in both their Roman Catholic and non-Roman traditions were the victims of a radical Islamic group’s terrorist attack. Mercifully and with full credit to our security forces, no further attacks were allowed and the terror network degraded beyond offensive capability. However, as Mangala Samaraweera so clearly articulates, the response to violent Islamic extremism is not anti-Islamic extremism or Islamophobia. In fact, the wave of anti-Muslim violence has been distracting and diverting the attention of the law enforcement and the security forces. Further violence and discrimination against an entire community for the actions of a few, is a sure recipe for radicalizing the majority. It is the path we trod in the 1980s vis-a-vis Tamil militants and the Tamil community and we must not repeat those mistakes. As the reports from the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the attacks are revealing, we had information on the terror cells developing in Kathankudy from the Muslim community itself. But the state chose to take no action, until an attack took place and have now closed the stable door once the horse has bolted. We are now obsessed with chasing red herrings of sterilizing gynecologists, rather than tracking down any remaining foreign-trained ISIS terrorists and hate mongers and rabble rousers of whatever hue and persuasion.

The real enemy of Sri Lanka, are those that seek to divide us. For united in our diversity we stand and divided we fall.

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De-radicalization of extremists is not achieved through alienating moderates

Posted by harimpeiris on June 6, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 04th June 2019)

(This column was written before Rathana Thera ended his fast)

As this article is being written Member of Parliament and presidential advisor, the Ven. Ratna Thera’s fast in Kandy, has entered its fourth day and consequently resulted in his key demand being met, that of the governors of the Eastern and Western provinces, M.L.A.M Hizbulla and Azath Salley, handing in their resignations to President Sirisena, their appointing authority. It is rather ironic that a presidential advisor, takes up a fast in protest against two of the President’s key Muslim allies. One hopes the Thera, will give up his fast, considering that he has succeeded in having two of his key demands met and not least because as a Member of Parliament and a presidential advisor he has access to the powers that be and can advocate his views in private rather than in public.

Whether the resignation of the two governors would eliminate the tension that had been building up in the Kandy area through the fast and aided by the ultimatum to the President issued by the newly pardoned head of the BBS yesterday, remains to be seen. Memories have not healed and victims not entirely compensated for the damage and destruction in Digana and there are genuine fears among the Muslim community of fresh violence against their properties. Their persons, generally being spared in the new calibrated violence against the community.

Sri Lanka, as indeed many other countries of the world, clearly face the challenge of dealing with a stream of political violence aided by international terror networks and influenced by a particular understanding and interpretation of the Islamic scriptures, finding its origins in Saudi Arabia. This deradicalization endeavor however requires the support of the Muslim community in general, which support they have been providing both before and after the Easter bomb attacks. In fact, with regard to the NTJ ring leader, evidence surfacing through the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the attacks, is that there was ample information of violent attacks made available to the State, but no action was taken. The general response by all senior Muslim community leaders, is that the community itself was giving information and altering the government to the existence and the rise of an extremist, violent small group in their midst, but no action was taken. That no action was taken is fairly self-evident. That information was available, both from domestic Muslim sources and also reportedly from the India authorities is also established. The only argument being as to who knew what and who should shoulder the responsibility for the failure to act. Perhaps we should collectively take responsibility for this failure. After all it was a failure on the part of the state and by state institutions. Ensuring that violent extremism holds little attraction for the Muslim community in general and Muslim youth in particular is certainly not achieved by ostracizing the community, making it impossible for them to engage in their livelihoods, especially trade and other generalized assaults on their community life, schools, mosques, businesses and way of life.

Sri Lanka’s past experience with violent extremism

Sri Lanka’s past experience with violent extremism, is that moderate leadership is the best panacea for mitigating and managing such extremism. When largely Sinhala youth took up arms under the banner of the JVP in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s, it was the lack of support for such views and activities by the vast majority of the Sinhala people, their academics, religious leaders and others, which ensured that the violent expression JVP politics would not gain traction in Sinhala society. Conversely the LTTE, when it sought domination of the Tamil community engaged in killing off all its political opponents ranging from the TULF to the TELO and EPRLF to ensure that they were the last and only one standing to ensure being the “sole representatives” of the Tamil people. Today the re-emergence and leadership of the Tamil community by the staunchly non-violent and moderate Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) under the leadership of the Sambanthan, Senathirajaha and Sumanthiran trinity (no pun intended) is the best bulwark and defense against a reemergence of a violent expression of ethnic Tamil nationalism. Similarly, the moderate political leadership of the Muslim community, led by Minister Rauf Hakeem and the SLMC, is an essential ally in the common endeavour to ensure that the Muslim community continues in the same, socially integrated and politically moderate path they have trod for centuries and certainly in post independent Sri Lanka. Attacking the moderates, the symbols of their community and ordinary Muslims is certainly no recipe for dealing with extremism.

Representing the Sinhala Buddhist voice

The majority Sinhala voice of whom the vast majority are Buddhist, though a significant Sinhala Catholic community exists, need to also examine who and how their interests are represented. It was interestingly after the Digana violence that the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter, famously stated in a barely disguised allusion to the chief suspect perpetrator organization, that there was no need for “Balakayas” in Sri Lanka, because we have a state with adequate armed forces and law enforcement for national security. There is absolutely no need for the law of the jungle or for majoritarian groups to take to calibrated communal violence against a minority.

It is regrettable that as the security situation becomes increasing under control, as confirmed to us by both the Commander-in-Chief and the Army commander, that communal disharmony and tensions continue to boil and simmer. The onset of the election cycle may well mean that political actors are not particularly incentivized to defuse tensions and increase social harmony. Accordingly, it may well then be the responsibility of other social actors-from civil society, religious leaders, opinion makers and business leaders-to seek to defuse tensions and heal the wounds of a yet again polarizing Sri Lankan society.

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Avoiding a July ’83 pogrom against Muslims

Posted by harimpeiris on May 22, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 16th May 2019)

Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapakse has gone on record, advising people in general and his supporters in particular one presumes, to avoid a repetition of the black July’83 pogrom and this time against the Muslim community. Excellent advice indeed from the former President and current leader of the opposition, one which unfortunately seems to have been observed in the breech by events which had been occurring the past few days in the North Western Province and the Gampaha District in particular. Just when Sri Lanka was seemingly slowly recovering from the Easter bombings and both the commander in chief and the army commander claimed the situation was under control and that people could and should resume their day to day lives again. That schools could reopen and life can go on, violence against Muslims very similar to that which happened in Digana last year, Ampara before that and in Durga Town in 2014 broke out.

Christian leaders call for forgiveness

The Christian community who were the primary targets of the Easter Sunday attacks through the bombing of their places of worship, were in the aftermath of the attacks, very clear, through unequivocal statements by their leaders both spiritual and temporal, that the Christian community response would be to forgive, not take revenge and actually reach out to the Muslim community with the love of Jesus Christ. That after all was the essence of the message of Easter, of the risen Christ. This surely calmed things down for several weeks or at least did not provide an excuse for an attack.

Mahason Balakaya and Namal Kumara arrested

The police authorities have been rather coy about releasing information about the ongoing investigations into the Easter carnage, claiming with considerable merit that premature disclose would compromise the ongoing investigations. However, to their credit it was revealed that with regards the anti-Muslim violence of the last few days that the leader of the Mahason Balakaya and Namal Kumara of assassination plot fame were taken into custody on suspicion of instigating and involvement in the mob attacks. Now the leader of the Mahason Balakaya was in custody on charges of instigating similar attacks against the Muslims in the Digana violence, last year. It is noteworthy that one of the first events to occur during the abortive 52 day, Rajapakse constitutional coup regime of October / November last year, was that the Mahason Balakaya leader was released on bail due to the police and the Attorney General’s Department not objecting to bail. Clearly, he saw his release as a license to ply his trade again. Perhaps the newly appointed Attorney General can investigate why his department or the Police did not object to bail for the prime suspect in the Digana violence. The reality with all political violence in this country is that it is organized and instigated, with political patronage which provides the impunity. The attacks against Muslims in Duragha Town in 2014, Ampara and Digana last year or the North Western Province, after Easter, is that it is instigated and organized, not spontaneous.

Dealing with radicalization within the Muslim Community

As discourse and details emerge from within the Muslim community and its leaders themselves about radical elements and radicalization within the Muslim community, it is worth breaking up the real challenges in this regard faced by Sri Lankans in general and the Muslim community in particular, which are three-fold. Firstly, there is a need to avoid extremist violence or violent extremism. This is the kind of murderous hate which seeks to blow up people. With a theological or ideological cover for their murderous hate. This is primarily a security issue and is on par with ensuring that for whatever reason, there is no terrorism in Sri Lanka. Secondly there is the need to engage in processes and dialogue with and within the Muslim community on the changing nature by some of their number, of their interpretation of their faith and scriptures, clearly more influenced now by Arab and specifically Saudi Arabian Wahabism and Saudi funds. There isn’t a problem per se with any interpretation of scriptures, just that it cannot instigate violence. Though the opposition is gunning for Minster Rishard Bathurdeen and a no confidence motion against him has been handed over, the current locus of violent extremism has been Kathankudy, which is the pocket borough of Eastern Province Governor Hizbulla. There is a call for the Governor to step down or be removed, though neither seems likely. Thirdly there is the need to continue to have Sri Lanka’s Muslim community to be the integrated and peacefully coexisting community, which makes up an integral part of Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious society. This would require some marginalization of extremism by the Muslim community and a differentiation of terrorism and the Islamic faith in the public discourse.

Over thirty years ago, in July 1983, there was a pogrom against the Tamil community, a clear failure of the state to prevent violence a minority community, amidst accusations of senior state actors, including Cabinet ministers involved in instigating and organizing the attacks and covering up for the attackers. State security stood idly by. Fortunately, the Sinhala community dominated Sri Lankan state structures and the polity realized the folly of organized political violence and the likes of July ’83 was never repeated. We should hope the lessons have not been forgotten. Unfortunately, Durga Town and Digana in the past and the North Western Province in the past few days have provided a new model of violence, namely carefully calibrated attacks on Muslim property, while avoiding persons. The problem with violence, even carefully calibrated, is that it breeds retaliation and is often escalated by perpetrators. Frist it was burning the Jaffna Public library, when that didn’t achieve the desired result, we had July ’83. Clearly Digana had not satiated the appetite for anti-Muslim violence. The political patrons behind anti-Muslim violence may never be publicly revealed but it is a little more evident as to who is seeking to claim political advantage from the situation. Social media is rife as to who the savior should be.

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