Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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A question of confidence in Yahapalanaya – the unfinished mandate

Posted by harimpeiris on April 2, 2018

 By Harim Peiris

(Published on Groundviews on 30th March 2018)

 

Hard on the heels of the local government elections, the Joint Opposition (JO) emboldened by the unexpectedly robust performance of their nascent political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), popularly known as the “Pohotuwa” has sought to leverage that result into destabilizing the ruling coalition at the center. The chosen battle ground has been Parliament and the modus operandi is a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister. Now Parliament reflects the electoral verdict of August 2015 and especially the subsequent divergent views within the former ruling UPFA, with half its group making up the JO in opposition, while half are in the governing coalition. Accordingly, in Parliament, the JO has only about fifty-five members and hence has seemingly a tough challenge to get the required numbers for a simple majority of one hundred and thirteen. The key parliamentary blocs to watch in the numbers game, would be of course the SLFP group in government, of which three members have already signed the no confidence motion, the sixteen-member TNA group and the six member JVP group. While some vocal members of the SLFP in Government, particularly Minister SB Dissanayake is on record stating that the SLFP has no reason to oppose the no confidence motion, whether the entire SLFP group in government would en-bloc oppose their coalition partner is doubtful given the consequences of such a course of action.

The TNA which generally distances itself from political intrigues and palace coups in the south needs only to abstain, for the no confidence motion to fail. The dark horse or unknown variable in the entire exercise if of course the UNP parliamentary group itself, with a few muted rumblings within its ranks, given voice from the rather unexpected quarter of Kurunegala District MP, Ranga Bandara, who claims that up to two dozen UNP MPs will desert their leader. Given that all attempts to get even one UNP MP to sign the motion was unsuccessful, this claim is likely more wishful than real. However, a parliamentary numbers game is quite often, like the glorious uncertainties of a T20 cricket match, though the outcome has much more serious consequences. However, we shall all know the result on April 4th.

 

Driving the current political dynamics is the politics of the 2020 election cycle, yet more than one and a half years away. While an undivided focus on the next election is obvious and understandable for an opposition, as the losers in an election, it is an unsuitable focus for a government. The Government is far better off focusing and seeking to deliver on what the people voted them into office for, namely to implement their mandate. In numerous conversations this columnist has had with many stakeholders, activists, supporters and sympathizes of the good governance administration and the rainbow coalition, a common thread of thought has been that the LG election results were a reflection on that fact, that the Government is seen as having not delivered sufficiently on the pledges it has made and the promises it gave in 2015. The three pillars on which this government was elected, namely economic, democratic and reconciliation reforms have all moved forward, but as the electorate so eloquently stated, progress has been quite inadequately.

 

The Government should consider some pragmatic measures to bring about a rebound in their popularity ratings.  The real solution to the government’s lackluster polls performance would be a recommitment to its key principals and to move forward with a fresh impetus and below are some suggestions.

 

  1. A new one hundred (100) day program, implemented effectively including the key unfinished business, before the forthcoming provincial council elections may be in order.
  2. Economic growth has been anemic, with growth levels below the war time average. With an eye on the impending election cycle and accommodating the time lag of policy measures on the real economy, the government should fairly quickly move into significant populist and welfare measures including fertilizer and other agricultural subsidies as well as state sector recruitment. The fiscal slippage can be minimized, though not eliminated through increased revenue from measures in the new Inland Revenue Act and deferment and phased out implementation of capital projects.
  3. The corruption and rights abuse allegations against the previous Rajapakse Administration was a key aspect of the 2015 elections. It has certainly been a mystery to the 6.2 million Sri Lankans who voted for President Sirisena, why no progress has been made on the Thajudeen murder, the Avant Garde case, the MIG deal, the Lasantha Wickramatunga murder among many other crimes, corruption and abuses committed during the Rajapakse years. The robustness of the investigation of the bond issue, which to the credit of the government, has with justice issues like charity, begun at home, has not been matched by investigations and indictments on the numerous allegations against the previous regime. Field Marshall Fonseka has been and is still making a strong claim to be given the law and order portfolio to pursue with more vigor the misdeeds of the past. While a military background is not directly police or law and order related, he is the most immune from the political calculations and external influences which can otherwise be brought to bear on the situation. In our national pastime of cricket, when a bowler is not taking wickets, the captain makes a bowling change. Similarly, during the past three years, regarding corruption and abuse of power, except for the former presidential secretary convicted on the misuse of TRC funds, no other convictions were secured and few indictments made.  Minister Sagala Ratnayake took the gentleman’s high road and stepped aside. It is perhaps time to give the war winning army commander, a new challenge to launch a two-year war on corruption, past and present.

 

 

Playing the same notes on a musical instrument, only produces the same old music as in the past. It is time for something different to achieve the unfished tasks of the good governance promises of 2015.

 

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The politics of organized violence against the Muslim Community

Posted by harimpeiris on March 13, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published on www.Groundviews.com and in the Daily News of 13th March 2018 as “Togetherness in Tatters”)

 

It is an interesting phenomenon in Sri Lanka that the very same people who bristle at the very suggestion of deficiencies in the Sri Lankan State and most vehemently argue against the need for either state reform or reconciliation, that through their uncivilized and indeed illegal actions, make the strongest case for both the urgent need for reforms and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. What we witnessed in the past two weeks, puts us to shame as Sri Lankans, makes the need for state reform more important not less and in the failure of the Sri Lankan state to protect the person, properties and community (religious) infrastructure of her citizens, increases the severity of international community voices that question the ability and capability of Sri Lanka’s state institutions of law and order, justice and governance to ensure basic civilized behavior within our borders. Having mini pogroms against ethnic or religious minorities is not the best advertisement for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva.

Violence against the Muslim Community is both organized and calibrated.

 

The past week witnessed the anti-Muslim violence in the Kandy District, which was preceded the previous week by similar, though lesser scale attacks in Ampara. This violence again, was no flash in the pan, the steady hate mongering campaign against the Muslim community has been in the making for at least five years, beginning most notably and seemingly benignly as an anti halal campaign. Both the Government, through the Honorable Prime Minister and law enforcement have acknowledged that the attacks on the Muslim community has been premeditated and organized. The so-called provocation in Ampara, that of orally administered (or mixed in food) impotency medication is a product non-existent in the world and the contrived paranoia would be laughable if it was not tragic. The violence, especially in Kandy was also carefully calibrated to not result in the loss of life and limb but to destroy the economic assets of the Muslim community. Hence their homes, shops, vehicles and goods were targeted. In a particularly barbaric manner, Muslim places of worship, their mosques were attacked, vandalized, damaged and destroyed. It is a particularly distressing aspect of Sri Lanka’s political violence that the sanctity of places of worship is not observed. In the very same Kandy, where during the war years, terrorists attacked the hallowed Sri Dalada Maligawa, to the condemnation of the whole world, in post war Sri Lanka, a new breed of terror was unleased on other places of worship. What we are witnessing in these attacks is not communal violence. It is not the Sinhala community against the Muslim community. Most Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religions long for a peaceful and prosperous post war Sri Lanka, undergirded for many by the most tolerant and non-violent noble precepts. What we are witnessing in Sri Lanka, are small fascist movements, intent on violence to achieve their socio-political objectives.

The Malwatta Mahanayaka speaks out

 

The rather unfortunate and distinguishing feature of our own variety of fascism, as opposed to say the German Nazi or Italian fascists movements is that while European fascism was purely ethnic, Hitler being obsessed with his pure Aryan race, Mussolini with his new Romans, post war Sri Lankan fascism mixes in the added toxicity of a religious veneer into its characteristic, making it even more dangerous and fearsome than the European variety of yester year. It is in that context, that the statement of the Most Venerable Tibboutuwawe Sr Siddharatha Sumangala Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatta chapter should become a guide post. The Prelate has observed that when there are state armed forces and the police to protect the country and the people, there is no need for auxiliary Balakayas and Balasenas to offer them protection. A thinly veiled reference to the Ravanaya Balakaya and the Mahason Balasena, which are at the center of investigations into the anti-Muslim violence, given their use of social media to spread their hate and publicize their violence. Video clips of the clergy rather than the laity, associated with those organizations, inciting people to mass murder no less, rests now on many servers, hard drives, sim cards and phones, making it virtually impossible to deny culpability.  The Venerable Mahanayake moreover clearly articulated his vision for the venerable Maha Sanga, by stating that if every temple guided the people of their devotee village on the correct path, the moral and social upliftment of the village would occur. The two ideas, namely that the Sanga should provide moral and spiritual guidance to the village community and that state and democratic processes and institutions are there for social and political objectives, taken together completely debunk any religious, spiritual or moral basis for the fascist campaign of political terror being engaged in by the “Balakayas and Balasenas” of Sri Lankan fascism.

Electoral gains by the Pohotuwa opened the space for new violence

 

There is little doubt that the recent local level electoral gains of the Pohotuwa, opened the door for a fresh wave of anti-minority violence by the small fascist groups, drawing their inspiration and energy from the thinly veiled racism and ethno-religious nationalism, which are the hall mark of the tribal politics which the Rajapakse comeback project employs. It opens up the space and opportunity for the kind of ethno-religious violence we observed. The fascists groups, their predecessors and embryos were also nursed both covertly and overtly during the Rajapakse second term.

The Government has promised swift compensation to the victims of the violence, a Presidential commission or at least a committee to investigate the attacks and the Army to be deployed to rebuild homes and mosques which were destroyed. But the real loser from the events of the past several weeks, was post war reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Developing a new Sri Lanka, where we have a unifying identity which overlays our ethnic or religious identities and a state which protects all her citizens irrespective of caste, creed or class were the fundamentals which was seriously damaged these past two weeks. Rebuilding those is harder work and not solely the preserve of the political leadership, but is a responsibility, for all of us.

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An open letter to Prof. G.L. Peiris

Posted by harimpeiris on February 27, 2018

(Published in the Daily News of 6th February 2018)

Prof. G.L Peiris

Chairman / SLPP

 

Dear Professor Peiris,

I thought I should write to you at this time and at the outset may I congratulate you on the performance of the SLPP, the new political party in which you are the Chairman. The performance of the SLPP was somewhat better than many expected, though as you are well aware, fell far short of what a successful comeback by the Rajapaksa’s would require. The basic political formulae of 2015, that of Rajapakse verses the rest, still held true and while you garnered an impressive 4.9 million votes nationally this is considerably less than the 5.7 million, unsuccessful effort of Mahinda Rajapakse in January 2015. The percentage vote also of the SLPP at 44% percent, is also less than the loosing 47% polled by Mahinda Rajapakse in 2015. This however is still a creditable performance but probably owes more to the fact that the rainbow coalition’s progeny, the national unity government of the UNP and the SLFP had not delivered on the high expectations, hopes and aspirations the people reposed in them in January and indeed August, 2015. Tempting though it must be, I hope you would not be obstructionist with regard to the attempted reforms by the government going forward.

However, I write with regard to several concerns and issues, which would profit from your attention.

  1. Post-election violence

The first area of concern has been reports of some of your successful candidates at the election engaging in post-election violence, intimidation and harassment against their opponents and shockingly against women candidates. While the primary reason was lax policing after the election, the responsibility should be with the perpetrators, who are unfortunately mostly from your party. Reports are emerging that the integrity and moral quotient of some or many of your candidates are quite suspect. You may not want to further promote such individuals nor condone their violence. Frankly if this is the response to wining a local election, we can well anticipate the night of the long knives which would likely be unleased in the eventuality of success at a general election.

  1. Opposing constitutional reforms and anti-minority rhetoric

It has been particularly distressing to witness the politics, policies and rhetoric utilized by the Rajapakse comeback project in opposing reforms and reconciliation. While parochial narrow ethno-religious nationalism is always morally repugnant and intellectually hollow, as you have discovered, the appeal to baser instincts are always electorally attractive though at a huge collective social cost. I would appeal that you and the JO front bench, which is notably mono-ethnic be mindful of the diversity of Sri Lankan society and the need for political reforms in a post war environment. The tone, tenor and content of the political rhetoric emanating from your party’s senior political leadership has been anti-minority.  You are no doubt aware of the allegations made in Parliament by the Leader of the Opposition and the TNA, regarding the misinformation carried on by your party before, during and after the election. Your counter that the TNA ceded Tamil political space and authority to LTTE during the war years, is rather disingenuous considering that your chief allies in the Tamil areas of the Eastern Province, are all former leaders and fighters in the LTTE. Moreover the “support” by the ITAK to the LTTE was obtained through the barrel of a gun and through the murder of many of their leaders. Really post-war reconciliation and healing a polarized society requires more statesmanship or responsibility than your political masters and co-travelers have demonstrated.

I also read with interest your post-election statement that there is a conspiracy to drive a wedge between the Muslim Community and the SLPP and its Rajapakse comeback project. You would no doubt be aware that the SLPP fared disastrously among both the Muslim as well as the Tamil community voters. Your party secured just 1% of the vote in the Jaffna District and 1.5% of the vote in the Batticalo District. The attacks on Mosques, the anti halal movement and the burning of Koran’s started in the post war period under the Rajapakse Administration. The extremist organizations, which in-fact welcomed your electoral successes were provided both covert and even overt assistance during the Rajapakse years. They have been defanged since 2015 but have received a fresh lease of life from the politics and rhetoric of the SLPP.

  1. The Leader of the Opposition and a general election

I must say I was very surprised that for a party headed by a professor of laws, that there seems a demonstrated ignorance of the basic tenants of constitutional governance. Firstly, by what stretch of the imagination can a plurality of the vote in local municipal elections give rise to negating the mandate of the people at an earlier general election. Really the former president should be better advised by you. Demanding that the President sack the Prime Minister is neither justified constitutionally under the 19th Amendment, the signature achievement of the unity government nor indeed even politically. The concurrent exercise of independent public mandates cannot be a concept unknown to you.

Then there was a ludicrous demand by your allies for the position of the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament to be handed over to former President Rajapakse. The serious obstacle to this arises from the fact that he is elected to Parliament as a member of the UPFA. The President as head of the Cabinet and Government is also head of the UPFA and the UPFA is formally part of the Government as most recently confirmed in Parliament by the General Secretary of the UPFA. You would no doubt agree that it would be ridiculous for both the head of government and the leader of the opposition, to be from the same party.

I trust the above would be of assistance in the days ahead as the SLPP / JO charts its future course.

Yours sincerely

Harim Peiris 

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A January 8th way forward

Posted by harimpeiris on February 22, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 20th February 2018)

 

The local government elections being over, the focus has shifted to Parliament where moves have been underway to reconstitute the government. Now a government makeover, reconstitution or reformation is a desirable exercise, given the public dissatisfaction overall, regarding the government’s performance at present. The main Sinhala opposition and its political vehicle the SLPP had a higher than expected public response as the election results demonstrate, providing a wake-up call to the coalition government and especially the two main parties that constitute the same. Some salient facts of the current situation and a way forward are as follows.

 

Mahinda Rajapakse did not improve on his losing 2015 performance

 

It was young Oxford scholar Gehan Gunatilleke, who in a well-argued piece right after the election first pointed out that the SLPP, the political comeback vehicle of the Rajapaksa’s, did not even secure the unsuccessful 5.2 million votes, Mahinda Rajapakse polled in 2015, despite a higher number of registered voters and a similar turnout. Hence, the vote was more a mid-term protest vote at the government, than sufficient nostalgia for a Rajapakse return, otherwise Mahinda needed to better his own loosing performance.

 

Hot on the heels though of the SLPP polling more votes than the two government parties, the UNP and the SLFP, the JO led SLPP called and still calls for a dissolution of parliament and the holding of early general elections. It is surprising for a political party led by a former professor of laws, GL Peiris (no relative I hasten to add) being the titular chairman of the SLPP, that the SLPP and the JO demonstrates an ignorance of either the letter or the ethos of constitutional government. The SLPP claims and indeed has a mandate in the local government institutions it has won outright though failing to have a majority in many of the councils in which it is the largest party. However, to use a local government result to try and secure a change in the national government is disingenuous and is neither supported by the letter or the practice of constitutional governance.

 

What Sri Lanka presently has is the concurrent operation of three mandates, each distinct from each other. President Sirisena has a mandate from the January 8th 2015 presidential election, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe has a mandate from the August 2015 general election to parliament, in which his party secured the largest number of seats and formed a unity government, which passed its most recent budget, the hallmark of any government by a 2/3rd majority two months ago. The possible crossover of some SLFP members from the government to the opposition does not detract from the parliamentary election mandate, unless the opposition successfully passes a motion of no confidence in parliament. What the SLPP has is a mandate in a majority of the local government institutions, it should roll up its sleeves and fulfil its responsibilities, not play politics.

 

A commitment to the mandate of 2015

 

It has been surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) the TNA as the third largest party and the official opposition in Parliament which has captured the moral high ground and has argued on principal, for the continuation of the good governance reform mandates of 2015, mandates which were backed fully by their constituencies in the North and East and indeed convincingly in the rest of the country. Now JO theoreticians and indeed Mahinda Rajapakse have articulated that the minority voice does not count and their now clearly dominant faction of the SLFP reflects the wishes of the majority ethno-religious community. But mercifully despite Sri Lanka’s many shortcomings as a pluralist state, we do not constitutionally have second class citizens and everyone’s vote counts equally.

 

The real lesson of both the 2015 elections and the 2018 election would be that the people supported then the good governance reforms platform on which President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe were elected. Hence their disappointment is more likely with the poor implementation of the needed reforms they backed, rather than a lack of support for the reforms. The way forward then is to recommit to and work towards the implementation of the good governance reform program, the economic, governance and reconciliation reforms Sri Lanka so badly needs. What we don’t require is a return to the past.

 

It has been Prime Minister Wickramasinghe who in a wide-ranging press conference after the LG election results, attributed the government’s poor showing to sub-optimal economic performance. Also mentioned by other leaders including the President during the election campaign has been the government’s inability to bring to book many of the culprits of the previous regime accused of corruption, gross mismanagement and abuse of power. In the best traditions of democracy, the law and order minister who holds direct responsibility for the criminal justice system and investigative agencies has offered to resign and may well be assigned a different portfolio in an impending cabinet reshuffle.

 

JO weak in Parliament

 

The political reality in Sri Lanka, is that defeated in 2015, the Rajapaksa’s lost the presidency, a parliamentary majority and indeed control of the SLFP. It may well have compensated for the latter by successfully launching the SLPP. Certainly, the Pohotuwa party never seems to be short of money. Wonder where it all comes from? But the numbers in Parliament still stand largely in support of a reconstituted government but continued implementation of the mandates of 2015.

 

The 19th amendment to the constitution’s non-dissolving feature actually first proposed by the JVP, was created for just a situation such as now. To prevent an exercise of executive political power to overturn a public mandate. Parliament needs to run its term or decide themselves to go for a dissolution. The mandate of 2015 has two components, one is a term of office, five years and the other is the program of reforms. Both are important and neither has been completed. For the good of Sri Lanka, both must continue.

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Lest history repeats

Posted by harimpeiris on January 23, 2018

By Harim Peiris
(Published in the Daily News of 23rd January 2018)

With a three-way race for the local government polls well underway, actually a five-party race if one considers the official opposition JVP and the TNA as well, President Sirisena at a political rally late last week in Kosgama, called on the people to prevent a return to the past. He urged the people to not leave room for the return of white vans, fear, humiliation and ethnic disharmony. When Sri Lanka was fast becoming a near pariah state on the world stage and where rampant corruption by the kith and kin of the ruling elite was the order of the day. He urged people to use their vote to wisely to prevent a return to such a past.

The Rajapaksa’s have never admitted error

 

In the course of the campaign for the LG elections, in the run up to the same and before then, the Rajapakse’s nor their surrogates the SLPP or their allies in the Joint Opposition (JO) have never acknowledged the errors, faults and shortcomings of the Rajapakse Administration, especially during its second term. There has been no regret mentioned at all for sacking a Chief Justice, jailing a presidential election opponent, victimizing the war time Army commander, permitting newspaper editors to be murdered in broad daylight, seeing Mosques burnt and Muslim businesses attacked, appalling human rights violations, economic mismanagement, taking on crippling debt and rampant corruption. While it should be conceded that in our cultural ethos, at least for a majority of people, the concept of repentance saying “mea culpa” or my fault is alien and a loss of face, a candid acknowledgement of error and a commitment to a new path is not politically uncommon and is actually required.

When the SLFP in 1994, returned from a seventeen-year political wilderness in the opposition, under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga, there was a clear break from the disastrous and failed socialist policies of the 1970-77 period and commitment to a managed free market economy. The UNP has radically moved away from its disastrous approach to ethnic relations which witnessed the fiasco of the District Development Council (DDC) elections of 1982, the resultant burning of the Jaffna public library and the 1983 anti-Tamil riots under their watch. Even the JVP, counter ideologically has renounced armed revolution, which it had twice waged both in 1971 and 1988/89 as a means of bringing in socialism and most crucially for national reconciliation and social cohesion, the TNA used the destruction of the LTTE’s entire senior military leadership to renounce both separatism and the armed struggle, committing instead to a robust democratic political engagement with the Sinhala polity.

In contrast, the only political force to have expressed no regrets, remorse or a commitment to a political course correction are the Rajapakse’s, their fellow travelers of the Joint Opposition and their political surrogates in the SLPP. The Rajapakse political project seems intent on taking Sri Lanka back to a darker past, the contours of which we can all remember and President Sirisena urges us never to return to. A serious Rajapakse return will require a reexamination of what went wrong, especially in its second term, candidly admitting the same and committing very publicly to never repeat its dark, disastrous and corrupt track record. Paradoxically it may require a new, younger generation leadership, like young Namal to be the standard bearer for the “kurakkan shawl” rather than either brother number one or brother number two (no pun intended).

Where is Gotabaya?

 

The issue of succession within the Rajapakse family is the issue which clearly remains unresolved, demonstrated most recently by the departure from Sri Lanka of Gotabaya Rajapakse and his decision to sit out the LG election in the United States. His political organization “Eliya” and its associates have become totally silent and are not active in support of the SLPP pohotuwa. The Rajapakse top echelon have divergent interests, which work against a quick return to power. Mahinda is constitutionally barred from seeking election as president, son Namal requires time to build himself up as a national leader with broad acceptance, Basil has too many political enemies from his decade as Mahinda’s political hitman and henchman and Gotabaya is a polarizing figure, with no experience in politics, a military mindset unsuited to democratic governance  together with a complete lack of understanding that compromise can lead to consensus  and is anathema to the Muslims who comprise 10% of the electorate. These are significant drawbacks, not helped in any way that their political allies are mono ethnically Sinhala only and comprise such political lightweights as Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitharane, Udaya Gamanpilla and Wimal Weerawansa, all leaders of very small political parties, which all except the last, being only capable of electing their leader and no one else to Parliament. One-man parties and the exception of the NFF with five MPs has been imploding of late, with cross overs to President Sirisena’s SLFP.

From August 2015 to February 2018

 

The real story of February 2018 and how it differs from the general election of August 2015 is that overall the national vote but especially the UPFA vote will now be broken up between the SLFP led by President Sirisena and the SLPP led by the Rajapakse’s.  The Rajapaksa’s SLPP’s pohotuwa claims the opposition or political dissent space and the Sinhala nationalism political space, while President Sirisena has the SLFP’s party machinery, the anti-corruption platform and the political moral high ground. Exactly how the UPFA / SLFP vote will split up and how much of the floating vote would swing towards President Sirisena remains to be seen. It is uncharted political territory and we shall know the answer soon enough on February 11th, when the election results are known. Either way as President Sirisena says, we must avoid a return to the past.

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