Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • June 2022
    M T W T F S S

Catholic Church Demands Justice From The State

Posted by harimpeiris on February 17, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 17th February 2022)

The latest drama in the long running saga of the Easter Sunday bombings was the sudden arrest by the CID and subsequent release by the Magistrate’s Court of social activist and Easter Sunday attack justice advocacy activist, Shehan Malaka. This was even as the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, backed fully by the Vatican in Rome, has been relentless in pressing the state to seek out the truth regarding the horrific coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in 2019.

At a media conference Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, said “A course of action is being organized by the Sri Lankan Catholic Church together with the Vatican but we will not divulge anything about it now. It is the government which has to be responsible for the consequences which Sri Lanka has to undergo, if the church seeks international assistance to mete out justice for those who were affected by the Easter Sunday mayhem”.

That the attacks had political ramifications is obvious. As Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has stated plainly, the current SLPP administration and its then presidential candidate chose the immediate aftermath of the bomb attack to announce his presidential candidacy, an unusual occasion to say the least, for a political announcement. The rationale however for the announcement was very clear once the campaign for the presidency commenced shortly thereafter. The issues were national security, preventing terrorism and generally saving the country’s majority community from real and perceived enemies within. Once the election results rolled in though, both in November 2019 and again in August 2020, it wasn’t entirely clear as to what carried the day. Was it the nationalistic security rhetoric or the political hara-kiri or self-destruction in which the Yahapalanaya administration engaged in through constant infighting between its two chief constituent parts, the President and Prime Minister and their respective parties, ostensibly in a governing alliance?

Seeking answers

The Catholic vote in the Western Province, mostly Sinhala, in the Colombo and especially the Gampaha districts are important in national elections though it is not really a fixed block vote; it moves with the political winds of the day. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was able to capture that vote on a pro-peace platform, Mahinda was able to capture it for a more nationalist agenda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to capture it on national security rhetoric or less charitably termed as fear mongering. The issue that now comes to haunt him is that there is a widespread perception that has not been delivery on that or any other score. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has some very salient points that cause him to take issue with the administration, chief among them has been the failure of the state to identify the conspirators or chief mastermind(s) behind the attack and not just the trigger pullers who were pulverized in their own blasts. There is widespread interest regarding the alleged role, if any, played by sections of the state intelligence. The code name Sonic is today a household name in Sri Lanka. Harassment by law enforcement of activists ranging from Father Cyril Gamini to Shehan Malaka and other civil society actors demanding and working for justice for the victims doesn’t do the state any good in making the argument that there is nothing to cover up.

US President Richard Nixon resigned on the eve of an impeachment vote in Congress when it became clear he would lose the vote and be impeached after the Watergate saga and attempts to cover it up led directly to the White House. There is a particular loss of popular and political legitimacy that comes from being associated with something considered a national atrocity. The Easter Sunday attacks were just such an atrocity. The Catholic church on behalf of the victims is demanding justice. The association of any political actors with that atrocity would be politically fatal for them. It is unwise for powerful state actors to lend credence to that belief.

UNHRC and an international probe

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution and process on Sri Lanka has internationalized our human rights weaknesses and issues. Seeking to wrest back the initiative and argue for purely domestic remedies has been a bi-partisan consensus on Sri Lanka; even the previous government’s co-sponsored UNHRC resolution clearly stating that the remedial measures would be a domestic process, albeit with the participation of non-nationals. On an aside, a significant feature of the 20th Amendment was to allow dual citizens to be members of parliament and ministers of the government. A key feature of the domestic process consensus is that our justice system delivers justice. That argument, while accepted in Sri Lanka where the judiciary is mercifully held in high esteem – merciful because trust in the efficacy of the judiciary is essential for social order, is challenged internationally where well documented research exists on the culture of impunity and the paucity of legal remedies that exists with regard to the violation of human rights, especially by actors associated with the state.

The Catholic church hierarchy has been vocal and public that it has not received justice and does not believe that victims will receive justice in Sri Lanka, at least at the investigation stage, and is calling for an international investigation that can provide the evidence for local judicial remedies. Cooperation among law enforcement, whether through the structure of Interpol or other bi lateral arrangements exists, so this is not impossible. But what it does do is create for the first time a strong domestic lobby and constituency in the Sinhala south demanding an international investigation.

To add insult to injury for the Catholic church was the tragi-comedy of the grenade at the All-Saints Church Borella and the rather public exchange of words between the Inspector General of Police and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Politicians calling the police biased and a political tool of the government of the day is common but what is new is when religious leaders with significant sway over their faithful and with a worldwide network of sympathetic fellow faithful basically call out the state law enforcement and security structures on their actions and inactions – something we have not seen before is happening and the genie is not going back inside the bottle.

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Crafting an alternative to a failing Government

Posted by harimpeiris on February 2, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 02nd February 2022)

A nation was promised “vistas of prosperity and splendor” and about 6.9 million voters, opted for it, subsequently providing a two third parliamentary majority to implement the same. A little over two years later, the reality is experienced by everyone. Shortages of everything, from cooking gas to milk powder, from foreign exchange to crude oil and now the resulting power cuts.

There is little need to expound at length, the economic, social and daily pain that the populace is experiencing. It is a daily experience, which will speak the loudest at the ballot box, when the government musters up the courage to face the polls, be they the delayed local or provincial elections.

This is a government running scared of facing the electorate. Covid is hardly an excuse, we had elections in August 2020 at the height of the first wave and after a long lockdown. We are since, vaccinated, masked and learning to live life with a virus, dengue and a shortage of everything.

What is more useful, is to study the colossal policy and political failures of the SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration, so that perhaps the Government can learn from its mistakes and make a course correction and that a future SJB Administration can avoid the colossal blunders of this Government’s current tenure.

1. Majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism has it limits

It is Samuel Johnson, who in 1745 is credited with the saying “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Then as now, what Johnson and other political theorists argued was that it is very easy to play identity politics or ethno-religious nationalism to mask self-interest and ignore sound public policies and prudent governance. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, post war the Administrations of 2010-2014 and 2019 to date, has heightened divisiveness and polarisation in society for political power.

In the discourse on Sri Lanka’s national question, there is often the claim, not without merit, that the British colonial administration practiced “divide and rule” in the then Ceylon as well as in other colonies. In reality, we don’t need to go that far back in history to see divide and rule politics in Sri Lanka. But what the elections of 2015 demonstrated and future elections will demonstrate, is that there is a limit to economic pain and bad governance, that a majority in society will tolerate, notwithstanding the most strident and ardent ethno-religious nationalism. Lesson no 1; Ardent ethno-religious nationalism is not a substitute for sound policy and prudent governance.

2. The Military is not there to run the country

The Sri Lankan military is one of the best in the world and until skepticism set in about our domestic human rights enforcement and safeguards, widely desired for UN peacekeeping roles, as one of the few militaries with actual combat experience.

However, a military like any other state institution and structure has a role and purpose. To pervert that role and purpose is to do a disservice to society and also to weaken the institution concerned. The Sri Lankan military’s latest mandate from this Administration has become “green agriculture”. The Government’s epic failure of overnight denying to both farmers and planters, non-organic fertiliser. One wonders how the light infantry or the heavy artillery, is to be deployed effectively for organic farming.

The government has become heavy on presidential taskforces, the latest one being headed by an ex-convict, that almost prompted the Justice Minister to throw in the towel. The governance of Sri Lanka’s oldest democracy requires as President Premadasa famously stated “consultation, compromise and consensus”. A process and skill, which the governing party, the ruling family and the powerful generals and admirals running the country seemingly have in short supply, if at all. Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions of governance must be allowed to function freely, robustly and independently. That is not really the case today. We do not need a Hitler; we need a Mandela. Lesson no 2; The military is not an answer to every problem.

3. Policy not politics should drive governance decisions

At the heart of Sri Lanka’s current economic woes are two key political decisions of the Administration and not a Sars virus named Covid-19 and its mutations. The first and most negative decision the Government took in December 2019, was to slash and roll back the tax increases which had been painfully introduced by its predecessor Administration. This in a country which has an extremely narrow tax base and a very low tax revenue to GDP ratio, compared with peer nations. We are today going hat in hand to Bangladesh for foreign currency and swap arrangements. The failures of the government’s fiscal policy are not just on full display, its resultant monetary policy implications are now felt in the pain of everyday living as shortages of all imports essential to daily life, from fuel, milk power, medicines, cooking gas and basic food items mount and continue with no end in sight. The second policy blunder, effected last year, was to overnight ban non-organic fertiliser.

The resultant decline in agricultural yields, farmer incomes and increase in food prices, combine to create severe hardship to both rural farmers and urban consumers. Both these decisions ignored the advice of economists, policy experts and community leaders.

For an Administration, which promised technocracy driven sound policy, we have ended up with quite the opposite. A small elite, listening to an echo of its own words.

Lesson no 3. Rome was not built in a day. We do not need shock therapy, that is all shock and no therapy.

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Vistas of prosperity – Not quite! 

Posted by harimpeiris on January 6, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 5th January 2022)

The New Year 2022 is upon us and with it also, late last year, the completion of two years of the first SLPP administration. As a nation, as we look to the year ahead, the prospects for the vistas of prosperity, we were promised, are not bright and a look back may allow the current administration to charter a new course or an eventual successor to carve out an alternate path. For a country promised vistas of prosperity and splendour, the contrary could hardly be starker; people standing in line for daily essentials, shortages of everything from cooking gas to foreign exchange, with rising inflation and declining real incomes and living standards. The hardest hit is the rural farmer and plantation worker as agricultural and plantation output and yields drop precipitously due to the fiasco that is our fertiliser policy. National life and governance are no better. We seem unable to manage anything from an oil spill to sub-standard fertiliser, and despite various election pledges of both national security and justice we are no closer to knowing who the masterminds of the 2019 Easter bombings were and bringing the conspirators to justice. Our international standing is at an all time low, facing opprobrium in Geneva and very unwisely having moved Sri Lanka away from our traditional ‘friends with all policy’ to an unnecessary alignment with one power at the cost of our relations with others.

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has sought to defray rising criticism and significant erosion of public support to the government by announcing overnight and not through his November Budget, a relief package costing the government over two hundred billion rupees, the highlight of which is a 5000 rupee monthly allowance for all public servants and disabled ex-servicemen. This will indeed be a welcome relief to public servants, but those really hurting even more right now are the rural farmers, the informal sector and daily wage earners, who are seeing living standards and real incomes plummet.

The government’s answer to all this of course, is that the only culprit is COVID-19 and if not for the pandemic, the vistas of prosperity and splendour would be upon us. But even a cursory examination of this thesis proves otherwise. It was unwise and bad policy, pure and simple, which caused the mire in which we find ourselves in today. Many economies in the world, including those in our region, such as even Bangladesh, to whom we now go hat in hand for foreign exchange swaps, saw their economies take a hit during the initial COVID-19 waves in 2020, but rebound in 2021 and are well poised for growth in 2022. That is not the case for Sri Lanka. Our wounds are self-inflicted and exacerbated by the defining weaknesses of this administration, their unwillingness to consult experts, their inability to listen to the community and their complete, if misguided, faith in the righteousness of their cause.

Organic fertiliser fiasco

The first self-inflicted wound, the pain of which is yet to be felt, because the Maha crop season is yet not fully harvested, was the amazingly short-sighted decision, since rescinded, to administer shock therapy to the agricultural sector by banning non-organic fertiliser. Around the world, organic farming is an upmarket niche and not a mass market practice. The SLPP manifesto did promise to work the transition to organic farming but in a phased-out manner, over a decade. The implementation was different. It was sudden, overnight and instantaneous. The task of green agriculture has now been, even more bizarrely, handed over to the Army. It was not only agriculture that was affected, but also the plantations, especially tea, that also relies on fertiliser. Both these sectors combined employ the majority of Sri Lanka’s labour force. The drop in yields and output would push many rural families and plantation worker communities deeper into despair, debt and relative poverty. Food shortages are causing cost-push inflation or prices of daily essentials to soar. The reversal of the non-organic fertiliser policy has come too late and with the significant collateral damage of having to remove any subsidies on fertiliser and not paying the fertiliser importers their dues, running into billions of rupees, for prior period subsidies, thereby effectively restricting their ability to supply fresh stocks. This was not COVID-19 induced.

Fiscal slippage

The previous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had expended political capital and taken the political hits to adjusted direct taxation upwards through the 2018 Budget and the resultant Inland Revenue Amendment Act. Sri Lanka is a country which has the twin anomalies of a very low tax revenue to GDP ratio compounded by a very high indirect to direct tax ratio, which disproportionately falls on the lower income sections of the population; this in a social context of extremely skewed income distribution, where the top ten percent of the population earns just below forty percentile of the national income. In that context, there was absolutely no need for a massive tax cut, in the first flush of election victory, for that top percent of the population. It was both unwise and unnecessary and resulted in a massive fiscal slippage which consequently led to an even more foolish loose money policy by the Central Bank. Today, consequently, the government is without adequate revenue. This was also not COVID-19 induced.

Loose monetary policy and foreign exchange crisis

The Central Bank, in 2020 and 2021, led by economic theories that predated the fall of the Berlin wall and was inspired most closely perhaps by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government of 1970-1977 and its protectionist, even isolationist ethos, followed a loose money policy during the years of the pandemic. Saner counsel, including those of the opposition SJB was ignored. Former State Finance Minister Eran Wickramaratne was to point out in 2020, that the problem in economic activity and production was supply side constraints consequent to the lockdowns and loose money would not help or address the situation. It would merely cause massive inflation down the road. The rather obvious forecast has now been fulfilled. The foreign exchange crisis is because the Central Bank by executive fiat, that far exceeds the moral persuasion of markets, insists on maintaining the exchange rate artificially high, essentially seeking to have the export sector subsidise the government’s money printing binge. A solution that cannot really be made to work. While interest rates should only be allowed to rise moderately, the exchange rate would need to be at a more market driven equilibrium, which would result in both greater foreign exchange inflows through formal banking channels, while facilitating foreign direct investment (FDI) as well, which is also at an all time low. None of this is COVID-19 induced.

The cracks in the Government ranks are showing. The minor left party allies are openly voicing their dissent. The SLFP, whose leading lights have been deprived of meaningful ministerial office, has been distancing itself from the Administration and there is fresh speculation in the mainstream press about yet another Cabinet reshuffle including a replacement of the Prime Minister, a rumour squashed by the PM’s media office earlier yesterday. But the disunity can hardly help either policy cohesion or a course correction, both of which are needed for Sri Lanka to recover from the hole we have dug for ourselves.

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Face the Nation TV1 : Managing global relations in the contemporary age 25.10.2021

Posted by harimpeiris on November 5, 2021

On 25th October 2021, Harim Peiris appeared as a guest speaker on Face the Nation program on TV1 to discuss on Managing global relations in the contemporary age.

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A Cabinet Reshuffle for a Much Needed Course Correction

Posted by harimpeiris on August 19, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 18th August 2021)

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, approximately a third of the way into his term of office, carried out the most significant mid term cabinet reshuffle in recent Sri Lankan political history. The closest in scale and scope was about 18 years ago when President Chandrika Kumaratunga arrogated to herself the ministries of Defence and Internal Security and inducted Lakshman Kadirgamar as Media Minister into the rather difficult co-habitation government with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a precursor to the latter’s even more tortuous relationship with another SLFP president, Maithripala Sirisena.

However the SLFP’s effective political successor, the SLPP, has carried out an even more significant political reshuffle. Considering the preceding induction of Basil Rajapakse as Minister of Finance, with the same portfolio being divested from the Prime Minister and the current reshuffle, signifies some changes in government tactics at least, a change in the batting order, if not in the team, and some possible changes in the game plan.

When Covid-19 first made its appearance in Sri Lanka, in March 2020, the new administration elected in November 2019 and facing an unsympathetic lame duck parliament was intent on conducting the general elections and a lockdown was declared only after nominations were received. Similarly, as the latest and most virulent Covid-19 wave surges in the country with record number of daily deaths and infections, the focus of the Administration seems to be on more political rather than public health concerns. However, in the current context, good public pandemic management would be good politics. However, social media seemingly indicates that there is quite a bit of skepticism regarding the Government’s pronouncements and actions especially with regard the real Covid situation in the country.

Taking over the mantle of the Health Ministry is Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, whose claim to fame was as Media Minister during the war years under President Mahinda Rajapaksa where he worked well with the military. Clearly the new Health Minister will continue to be a good spokesman and speak his lines clearly in the military dominated, public health exercise. He could perhaps use the trust he has built up with the military hierarchy to reassert the primacy of the health sector professionals in the fight against the pandemic. After all fighting against viruses requires an altogether different skill set to fighting against terrorists. Hopefully the maiden November budget of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa would see a shift to public health care and indeed education instead of increasing peace time defense expenditure.

The most significant of the political changes wrought by the cabinet reshuffle, is the inducting of young Namal Rajapaksa as Minister in Charge of Development Coordination and Supervision. If, as the Duke of Wellington famously claimed, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton, it may well be that at a future date the new Development Coordination Minister would claim that the development battle for Sri Lanka was shaped on the rugby grounds of that school by the sea in Mt. Lavinia. The development challenges facing the young minister are considerable. Poor fiscal policy keeps Sri Lanka at the lowest rung of tax revenue as a percentage of GDP while a loose money policy is fueling inflation and putting enormous pressure on the exchange rate, which cannot be contained by banning imports. A political ideology, which declines American financial grants not loans (MCC) and denies foreign direct investment from India (East Container Terminal/ECT) while we are starved for foreign exchange, does not leave the new minister or indeed his uncle the new finance minister, much scope for action. The shock therapy of the overnight organic fertilizer only policy, six decades after its better-known language equivalent, may well have similar profound effects, this time on Sri Lanka’s still agrarian economy, as yields and production begins to decline.

Foreign policy is another area that shifts to yet another distinguished old Thomian, Professor G.L. Peiris, the devolution package advocate for President Kumaratunga, the former peace negotiator with the LTTE for Ranil Wickremesinghe and of course in his most recent avatar, the chairperson and an ideologue of sorts for the majoritarian ethno nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP), the political vehicle of Sri Lanka’s first family. Foreign policy has been, one suspects, largely shaped for the SLPP by the generals, or rather, the admiral running the show at the Republic building; it will be interesting to see if the new minister will seek to remake Sri Lanka’s foreign policy by rebuilding our relations with India, strengthening our traditional non-alignment and improving relations with our largest export markets nations of the West. The as yet unresolved issues of post war reconciliation also find their locus now in the Foreign Ministry, as human rights and reform of the PTA drive the GSP+ process and Sri Lanka continues to be on the UNHRC agenda through our country specific resolution. Engagement, or the absence thereof, with Sri Lanka’s diaspora community is also in the purview of foreign affairs.

The good professor’s predecessor at the Foreign Ministry, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, takes over education at the time when the school teachers are on strike, demanding the rectification of all their long running salary and service anomalies. It remains to be seen if the scion of the Boralugoda lion can use his vast public service experience and political acumen to resolve the issues faced by teachers, the largest category of public servants by far. Sending the president of the teacher’s union for enforced quarantine is best not repeated. We are still a multi-party democracy governed by the rule of law and not an absolute monarchy nor a military dictatorship. As the courts recently observed, quarantine regulations do not override the constitutional liberties and rights granted under the constitution.

The first SLPP Administration at the end of about a third of its term of office signals some desire for a tactical if not a strategic rethink and an operational regrouping and redeployment. It remains to be seen if the significant personnel changes it has made will translate into policy changes. All Sri Lankans, for our collective well-being, should wish our new ministers every success in their future endeavours.

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