Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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An Open Letter to Prof. G.L. Peiris

Posted by harimpeiris on August 15, 2017

(Published in the Daily News of 11th August 2017)

Prof. G.L. Peiris

Leader, SLPP.

 

Dear Professor Peiris,

 

Reconciliation, Sinhala Eelam and a Sinhala National Alliance

 

I thought I must write to you despite your obviously busy schedule, both because you at least nominally lead one aspect of the Rajapakse come back project under the banner of the nascent SLPP and also because you are unarguably, as a former foreign minister, a key advisor to defeated President Rajapakse on matters relating to post war, national reconciliation. I must at the outset explain why I stated that you lead one aspect of the Rajapakse comeback project, because it is never clear to any observer or the public, which brother number two (pardon the pun) Basil or Gotabaya proposes to replace Mahinda as the heir to the attempted Rajapakse dynasty. Would a toss of a coin determine, which Rajapakse becomes the next presidential Rajapakse candidate? But of course, your bets are on Basil, however I think Gotabaya is streets ahead in the inter-Rajapakse primaries to be the next Rajapakse candidate in 2020. Of course, Mahinda believes that this government will fall long before that, then again, his political judgement has been quite suspect of late, after all he thought he would win in 2015 and lost not once but twice.

 

Sinhala Eelam and the Sinhala National Alliance (SNA)

 

I believe it was a friend and mutual colleague from the days of the Kumaratunga presidency, which we both served at one point, who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote the Sinhala equivalent of the narrow ethnic based, exclusionary political vision and extremely violent political program, which Prabhakaran and the LTTE promoted and fought for. The LTTE had a vision, that the North and East of Sri Lanka was mono ethnically Tamil, that there was no space or need to accommodation any others as equal partners and that a strong leader, tolerating no decent was necessary to protect the Tamils from the Sinhala people and one presumes the Muslim people.

 

It is very worrying that the political rhetoric and discourse emanating from the Rajapakse come back project and its political vehicles of the JO and the SLPP, make worryingly Prabhakaran like arguments except this time in relation to the Sinhala people. Again, a distinct territory (whole of Sri Lanka) is the sole preserve of a single ethno-religious group, the Sinhala people need a strong leader to protect them from enemies within and without, which again also includes the poor long-suffering Muslims who got hit from both the Tamil Eelamists and now from the Sinhala Eelamists. We have heard this rhetoric before and it was not pretty and it was also resoundingly defeated at the elections of 2015. Perhaps a rethink might be in order.

 

I have also observed that despite the acrimony and vitriol directed at the governing national alliance and specifically the United National Party (of which you were a front bencher in a previous avatar), the real bogey which the Rajapakse comeback project seems to target is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, who you should recognize for having rather adroitly captured the leadership of the Tamil polity, post the war and considerably moderated the TNA. Now the TNA representing a minority community and steadfastly limiting its political activities and appeal to the North and East is logical given its own Tamil constituency’s demographics in the Northern and Eastern provinces. On the other hand, a responsible national opposition to be a genuine alternative government needs to represent or broaden its appeal to the entire country and it is a feature of the Rajapakse support base, that it is limited to the Sinhala people, that also predominantly of the majority religion and mostly in the Southern part of the country or outside the North and East. Regrettably for Sri Lanka, the Rajapakse come back project should be more aptly titled the “Sinhala National Alliance” (SNA) and is limited to the areas outside the Northern, Eastern and Central Provinces.

 

Reconciliation

 

Dear Professor Peiris, you have impeccable credentials or at least experience in national reconciliation, having first advocated President Kumaratunga’s devolution package from 1994-1999, then catapulting to the front bench of the subsequent UNP Government under Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe from 2001-2004 as well as that Government’s chief peace negotiator with the LTTE and of course since 2005, been a loyalist of the Rajapakse clan.  So, you have the unique distinction of having worked with three of the main political protagonists at the apex of Sri Lanka’s political establishment, namely CBK, Ranil and Mahinda. If you had read the roll of the electoral dice correctly in 2015, you may even now have been advising President Sirisena, then your political journey would have been truly unique.

 

However, despite this extensive experience in reconciliation and peace processes it is quite concerning and somewhat disappointing to witness what can only be termed fear mongering and narrow exclusionary politics in terms of the recent responses to first the OMP and more recently to the enabling domestic legislation for the international convention against enforced disappearances. You should no doubt recognize that defeated President Rajapakse committed Sri Lanka to accountability in the joint communique with then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2009 and significantly failed to create the basis for non-reoccurrence and a durable peace. It would be extremely desirable if in the national, as opposed to a partisan interest, if defeated President Rajapakse supported his successor in office, in the arduous but necessary task of national reconciliation or “sanhidiyawa”.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Harim Peiris

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The real SLFP – UNP MOU are the election results of 2015

Posted by harimpeiris on July 20, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 20th July 2017)

 

In recent weeks, there has been quite a lot of political discussion on the topic of the political alliance of the two main political parties in the country, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), which has joined hands to form the national unity government we have today. Some members of the government have voiced their frustrations over the alliance and are threatening to leave, while the senior political leadership is seeking to preserve the rainbow coalition which formed the Yahapalanaya Government in 2015. The current focus of the debate seems to the MOU between the SLFP and the UNP, which is currently only till December 2017, while the term of the government itself stretches on till 2020.

1. The Presidential election results of January 2015

Any members of the Government who focus too strongly on an MOU between two political parties as the sole criteria for a national government are forgetting the cardinal rule of constitutional governance. Firstly, the Sri Lankan constitution clearly states that the people of Sri Lanka are sovereign and we exercise our sovereignty very directly through periodic elections. In the presidential elections of January 2015, the people clearly and convincingly elected Maithripala Sirisena as President of the Republic and with it thereby, as Head of State, Head of Government and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The people elected a common candidate, a unity figure, the head of a rainbow coalition and gave a mandate for the common program of the common candidate. During the presidential election campaign, then common candidate Sirisena, gave a very solemn and public undertaking, to appoint Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister. In fact, when D.M. Jayaratne refused to resign following the presidential election result, it was president elect Sirisena who was the most insistent that Ranil Wickramasinghe be sworn in as Prime Minister, right after his own swearing in, which historic events occurred almost poetically on Independence Square one late evening in January 2015.

2. The General Election and the concurrent mandate

During the general election campaign of August 2015, President Sirisena gave another Solomon undertaking that he would not appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, even if the UPFA won, which it did not, the UNP prevailing at the general elections. The fact that the National Democratic Front rainbow alliance which won the election for Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015 contested the general election through its or as distinctive constituent parties, does not in any way negate the mandate received by President Sirisena in January 2015.

 

When we examine the mandate received by the UNP in August 2015, it is equally clear, that the UNP committed to a continuation of the unity government and the program of the rainbow coalition, with a fleshed out and detailed economic reform policy, which is seen as their unique selling point. The joint opposition section of the SLFP has tended to argue that they never received a mandate to work as part of the unity government, but they ignore two important facts. Firstly, it is their party leader, President Sirisena, who is leading the unity government and doing so through a direct mandate of the people. When the SLFP accepted Maithripala Sirisena as SLPF party leader, post the presidential election and after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse, their reason for doing so, was that Maithripala Sirisena was indeed president, the SLFP constitution mandating that any member, in the event of being elected president became leader of the party. In doing so, the SLFP, also accepted the responsibility of supporting President Sirisena in that endeavor and role. Secondly, that any mandate at the general election does not negate the mandate of the presidential, which they chose to support for the duration of that mandate. The UNP as the party which received a mandate at the general election has decided that the two parties should work together for the duration of their respective terms of office. There is a concurrent operation of twin mandates and the two mandates are aligned together and mandated by the sovereign people of Sri Lanka. That is the real basis for the national unity government. No party politics or partisan interests could or should trump the popular mandate of the people.

3. Surely it is about delivering on the current mandate

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe is currently on public record stating that the alliance of the two major parties is a must for the country’s progress and development. It is fairly clear, that the next generation of economic reforms, addressing the effects and causes of the war and strengthening and solidifying democratic freedoms and institutions requires a degree of consensus between the two main political parties in the country. Frankly it is surprising that so far before a national election, either presidential or parliamentary, that political parties seem highly focused on the national elections of 2020. Some sections of the opposition seem focused on the local government elections and that’s fine. It is natural for opposition parties to be wanting to regularly campaign and keep things on the boil. However, the people of Sri Lanka are much more likely to be focused on what the government elected and mandated in 2015 are doing to better their lives and improve their future. The easy gains of 2015 /16 are now behind and the hard work of the mid-term needs to be attended to. Economic, democratic and reconciliation reforms should be the agenda of the government and not the opposition agenda of a premature focus on the elections of 2020.

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A peace dividend of no enforced disappearances

Posted by harimpeiris on July 17, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 14th July 2017)

 

Recent weeks have witnessed a political debate over the presentation by the Government of the enabling legislation for the enactment of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Much of the criticisms of the proposed Act, seems to stem from misinformation and a misconception about what the proposed Act is all about and what it seeks to achieve.

1. This is for the future not the past

The first point which much be noted with regard to the enabling legislation for the protection from enforced disappearances, is that it is for the future and not for the past. There is no intent or provision in the law to make it retroactive, the law will only be valid for the future. The intent of the law is to criminalize and prevent enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka as a peace dividend for our people. Accordingly, the argument that the Bill is targeting war heroes or will lead to legal jeopardy for war heroes just does not apply, since the Act will come into force more than eight years after the war is over.

2. Sri Lanka has a problem with enforced disappearances / extra judicial executions

The sad reality in Sri Lanka is that we have had in the past, a significant problem with enforced disappearances, running into the tens of thousands. The Manori Muttetuwegama Commission of the mid 1990s documented over forty thousand disappearances, mostly Sinhala people and largely from the South, in the context of the second JVP insurrection of 1988/89. The missing in the North has not yet been documented, but all these past instances occurred during and in the context of an armed threat to and conflict with the State. Currently there is no such conflict, we are nearly a decade after the guns fell silent and we should refrain from living in peace time like we did during the war. This is not just the absence of bombs exploding but the legal framework as well. A war oriented legal framework does not assist in the transition from a violence and war wracked society to a peaceful and prosperous one. If we don’t have change. there is no peace dividend for our people.

 

During the period of the conflict, enforced disappearances might have been tolerated by society and perhaps sanctioned or used by the state, or state agents, as a counter terrorism measure. However, today we are not engaged in a war against domestic terror or a civil conflict or insurrection. In the event of any such future, nascent threats, it is best to first try and deal with the problem within the context of the rule of law, both domestic and international, as a society governed by the rule of law, as befits our ancient civilization. We cannot act like a banana republic and expect and demand respect. However, our current laws must meet our current needs and our current context, is post war and our need is a reconciliation driven, durable peace.

 

Post war, the white van culture and enforced disappearances devoured democratic political dissenters and media personalities, demonstrating the dangers of post war continuation of a war period ethos.

3. This is a domestic process

There has also been much debate in Sri Lanka about domestic processes and foreign judges. This Bill is not about accountability it is about non-reoccurrence.  This particular piece of proposed legislation meets all the high hurdles that detractors of international involvement have preciously made. Firstly, it is clearly and solely a domestic process, a domestic law with domestic jurisdiction. The much talked of extradition aspects is for enforced disappearance crimes committed elsewhere in the world, in other jurisdictions. Only Sri Lanka will exercise jurisdiction for alleged crimes committed in Sri Lanka and will investigate and try such persons in a purely domestic Sri Lankan process. The fear mongering hypothetical examples of our political or military security leadership of the past or indeed the present or future being subject to foreign jurisdiction is palpably false and is misleading based on misinformation. One aspect of Sri Lanka’s counter to the world against any international involvement in our judicial processes is that our justice systems is robust, efficient and a reasonable remedy for wrongs committed. We cannot shirk our domestic responsibilities and concurrently also claim we are taking all domestic measures required to ensure non-reoccurrence of conflict and violence.

 

Protection of Buddhism could include inculcating Buddhist values

 

Concurrent with the general debate on constitutional reform has been an animated debate about the foremost place to accorded to Buddhism, as provided for in article nine of the present constitution. Firstly, why there is any debate on it at all, is a mystery because all Government leaders from the President, the Prime Minister and various other leaders have assured and reassured repeatedly and both publicly and privately, that there will be no arrogation or change of the said Article nine on Buddhism.

As part of the protection of the Buddha Sassana, it would be worth exploring ways and means of also actually inculcating Buddhist values of compassion and kindness into our society and policy framework. Bhutan for instance, as a Buddhist Kingdom, seeks to measure “gross national happiness” for her citizens to be peaceful and content. In the context of the protection from enforced disappearances it is worth noting, that the sanctity of life is a fundamental tenant of Buddhist teaching and precept and from it could flow the protection of life, including human life, as a fundamental value and would ensure that Sri Lankans are protected from enforced disappearance and extra judicial executions. The right to life is also a constitutionally enshrined basic right. It was way back in 1978 that Sri Lanka essentially adopted a moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty, the last judicial execution in Sri Lanka being I believe in 1975, a moratorium which has essentially lasted for four decades or for a majority of our post-independence history. It is a pity if the Sri Lankan State which, does not implement judicial execution of criminals, was to sanction and tolerate in the post war period, enforced disappearances and extra judicial executions of her citizens.

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The TNA storm in a tea cup

Posted by harimpeiris on June 28, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 28th June 2017)

The Northern Provincial Council (NPC), its activities and politics, attracts far more national and even international level political attention than its counterparts in the other eight provinces, due to several reasons. Firstly, devolution of power is a core aspect of Tamil politics, secondly the Northern Provincial Council is and would most likely for quite a while continue to be Sri Lanka’s consistent opposition controlled provincial council and thirdly post war, there was international pressure to hold the Northern Provincial Council elections.

 

Therefore, the recent saga in Tamil politics where Northern Chief Minister, retired Justice Wigneswaren was almost removed by a motion of no confidence moved by a majority of the Northern Provincial Council, riveted political attention up North and to the chief protagonists in the crisis, namely the Chief Minister and Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) leader and former general secretary Mavai Senathirajah. It took the wisdom and sagacity of TNA leader Rajavarothian Sambanthan, ably assisted by his trusted assistant, President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran, to diffuse the crisis and restore a semblance of unity between the dominant ITAK and some of its smaller partners, affiliates and fellow travelers.

 

Chief Minister refuses to support TNA at the General Election

 

Now, the current situation with the Chief Minister was not the first time that there has been sharp divergence in policies and politics between the Chief Minister and the ITAK. The first instance was during the general elections of 2015, when Chief Minister Wigneswaren made the amazing public statement and took the political stand, that he would not be supporting the TNA at the general elections, since he must be above, or as a provincial leader, is it beneath the parliamentary political fray. Such a stance was unheard of either in Sri Lanka or abroad, you would not for instance have a Governor in the US, refuse to campaign for his party at congressional elections. The result of this act of political ingratitude to the TNA which had plucked him out from the cold and installed him as Chief Minster through the Party’s block vote, was that the TNA which secured five (5) of the seven (7) seats in the Jaffna district lost out on getting the sixth seat by just six votes and the beneficiary of that close call was of course Ms. Vijeykala Maheswaren of the UNP, which secured the sixth seat and the EPDP’s Douglas Devananda who came in seventh.

 

However, Chief Minister Wigneswaren did not strictly stay neutral in the general election fray. Three days before the poll he issued a statement calling upon the Tamil people to vote for Tamil parties that would support the Tamil struggle rather than compromise. This was both a break from his position of being supposedly recused from the process and left the Tamil polity in little doubt that he was criticizing the TNA and recommending the political alliance of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) led by the intransigent and anti-engagement Gajan Ponnambalam. But the Chief Minister learnt, a lesson he seems to have since forgotten that when he goes and acts against the ITAK / TNA, (the parliamentary elections were contested as ITAK since TNA is not a registered political party or alliance), he has no electoral currency, credibility or clout. The general elections of August 2015, were a rout for the Chief Minister’s preferred ACTC led non-engagers. For all Gajan Ponnambalam’ s rather extreme Tamil nationalist rhetoric, (his counterpart on the Sinhala side would be Wimal Weerawansa), his group secured just a little over five thousand votes in the entire Jaffna District getting less than one third of the over seventeen thousand votes secured by young Angajan Ramanathan, leading the UPFA’s rather unsuccessful effort under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sinhala nationalism. The reality of the Jaffna District General elections of August 2015, is that the Sinhala nationalism of Mahinda Rajapaksa as represented by young Ramanathan on the UPFA ticket, had three times more attraction than the Tamil nationalism of the variety sprouted by Gajen Ponnambalam. This despite the Chief Minister’s misguided endorsement. Following the general election as well, many ITAK Northern Provincial Councilors wished to remove Chief Minister and once again TNA and the then newly minted Leader of the Opposition Sambanthan, demonstrated that he insisted on repaying evil with good by letting the Chief Minister remain.

 

The next action by the Chief Minister, against the ITAK was the formation of the Tamil People’s Forum (TPF) essentially the political refuge of those who were unsuccessful at the general elections of 2015. The Chief Minister instead of focusing on dealing with and ameliorating the effects of the conflict in the North, was busy trying to create and be an alternate voice to the TNA / ITAK in Tamil politics. Again, ITAK provincial councilors wanted to remove the Chief Minister, again TNA leader Sambanthan demonstrated how much Tamil politics had changed, the new democratic Tamil political leadership of the TNA / ITAK leadership of Sambanthan, Senathiraja and Sumanthiran are not willing to take action against their internal political critics. One hopes their political accommodation and graciousness, which turns Machiavelli’s theories on its head, would be electorally rewarded in time to come, not least because reconciliation in Sri Lanka requires the moderation and democratic credentials of the ITAK’s leadership of the Tamil polity.

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Fight of Good Against Evil

Posted by harimpeiris on June 19, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of June 19th 2017)

 

The BBS, Gotabaya and the rise of the politics of hate

 

June 14th and 15th marks the third anniversary of the ant- Muslim violence at Dhurga town, Aluthgama in 2014, which left four Muslim men dead, over eighty injured, some seriously and massive property damages, to Mosques, Muslim owned commercial establishments and Muslim private residences. The attacks, then were a culmination of a process of anti-Muslim propaganda, carried out by extremist organizations, which sought to instill fear and loathing of the Muslim community among the majority community. To counter the fact that they were unable to whip up generalized communal violence, goon squads, like the brown shirts of the Nazi’s carried out attacks with absolute impunity. The police were silent onlookers to this tragic drama. The political fallout of this situation was that the Rajapakse regime lost any vestiges of support, they had with the Muslim community and in the elections of 2015, the Muslims were the single most monolithic bloc supporting President Maithripala Sirisena and the Yahapalanaya rainbow coalition. Which is why even in the August 2015 general election, the UPFA / SLFP election campaign under Mahinda Rajapakse, failed to elect a single Muslim MP to Parliament and SLFP Muslim leaders, M.H.M Fowzi, Hizbulla from the East and Faizer Mustapher, had all got to be accommodated on the National List.

The BBS and Gotabaya

 

The organization most often named as responsible for whipping up communal disharmony and hate mongering against religious minorities, is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Its spokesmen deny they engage in violence, though their vitriolic hate speech, which can be construed as instigating violence is in the public domain, easily accessible to the police and the Attorney General’s Department. The politics and tactics of the BBS are worth an analysis. The BBS contested the 2015 General Elections to Parliament and even in their bastion of the Kalutara district, only secured about five hundred votes in the entire district and fared even worse elsewhere. Clearly, they have no electoral appeal among the Sri Lankan public and overestimate their public appeal, at least electorally. It is to the credit of the Sri Lankan voter, that we generally reject extremes and strengthen the more moderate center.

After the most recent wave of anti-Muslim violence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a contested political heir apparent of elder brother President Mahinda and an aspirant to the SLFP leadership was surprisingly quick to disassociate himself from the anti-Muslim violence. It was surprising because at the time of his denial, no one had accused him of any involvement. So, one wonders, why he chose to put the hat on. However, in refutation of the denial, Cabinet Minister S.B. Dissanayake was to state that “Gotabaya Rajapakse formed, bred and maintained the BBS”. What is known about the BBS, in the past, is certainly that they had overt state patronage under the Rajapakse Administration. From a foreign policy standpoint, the BBS had established links with the 969-anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar and when the BBS chose to have a high profile national convention during the Rajapakse years, they received the Sugathadasa indoor stadium for their hate festival and invited Ven. Wirathu, the demagogue of Myanmar as the Chief Guest. All this was done with full state patronage, including PSD security and other state courtesies. Such was the Rajapakse regime.

Reconciliation and the rise of anti-Muslim violence under Yahapalanaya

 

On the contrary, reconciliation has been a key aspect of the Yahapalanaya Government’s agenda. Dealing with the effects and causes of our violent and conflict ridden past while ensuring non-recurrence and a sustainable and durable peace has been repeatedly a stated objective of both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. None doubt their sincerity and it is further reinforced by the rather obvious political dimension, which is that the minorities, both ethnic and religious, look up to, depend on and are a key constituency of the Yahapalanaya Administration. Hence, it is in the Government’s own enlightened self-interest to not allow the rise of anti-minority political violence on its watch.

It is only the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Rajapakse comeback project which stands to gain from a new wave of anti-minority violence. Domestically, hate speech, conspiracy theories and fear mongering within the majority community could radicalize the majority driving them in greater numbers towards the Rajapakse JO and its agenda of social division and its barely concealed racism, for partisan political gain. It is only the JO which stands to politically gain from the BBS hate mongering.

Furthermore, in the event that minorities are attacked and harassed under the current Yahapalanaya administration, they will lose faith in and grow disillusioned of the current government leaders, resulting in a loss of minority political support for Yahapalanaya. Hardly, what one needs when provincial council elections are due later this year. Internationally Sri Lanka is closely watched, because of our past history of decades of conflict and our stated commitment to turn a new leaf and chart a new course. It is certainly not in Sri Lanka’s best interest internationally, when we seem either unwilling or unable to nip in the bud and nab the purveyors of hate and the perpetrators of anti-minority violence.

A critique of Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system, in the past, has been our failure to protect our minorities. Whether it has been the perpetrators of the Aluthgama violence, the Trinco five (school children) or the seventeen ACF workers, violence against minorities has not really found judicial redress. During the war years, society perhaps accepted this in the rationale of ancient Roman Senator Cicero, that in the “fight of good against evil, the laws are silent”. However, post war, Sri Lanka can and must reform and have a new social compact between her government and her people, that the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their race or religion would be protected and promoted.

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