The National Peace Council (NPC)

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INTERNAL CHANGE IS THE BEST AND MAYBE ONLY HOPE --Jehan Perera

With a month remaining before Provincial Council elections to the Northwestern, Central and Northern provinces, the trends are clear.  In the two ethnic majority Sinhalese provinces, the main battle appears to be within the government alliance itself.  Most if not nearly all of the incidents of election-related violence being reported by election monitors are intra-party ones.  It appears that the government candidates see each other as being the bigger threat to their personal victories rather than the opposition parties.  This also indicates how marginalized the opposition parties continue to be in the larger part of the country in the face of the government juggernaut.

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WHICH BUDDHISM WILL THE GOVERNMENT SUPPORT? -- Jehan Perera

The latest attack on a Muslim mosque in Colombo is a further sign that the Buddhist nationalist upsurge is continuing to grow and not diminish with the passing of time. While the police belatedly acted to bring the situation under control, its lax approach to apprehending the aggressors indicates the continuation of an apparent government policy to treat them with deference. The six Muslim ministers of the government have appealed to it to take effective action noting the “lukewarm and ineffective measures taken by the law enforcement agencies on previous occasions.” In the latest attack on a mosque in Grandpass, the attackers had gathered as a mob, thrown stones, shattered windows, and also attacked adjoining Muslim houses in the same way. Although the attackers were clearly identifiable there are no reports of any deterrent action by the police in regard to apprehending the aggressors. The pattern of incidents that have taken place in the recent past is an indication of the threat to pluralism, multi-culturalism and religious tolerance in the country. 

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DIVISIVE ROLE OF RELIGION GROWS DESPITE BUDDHIST TEACHINGS -- Jehan Perera

The most likely point of new inter-community conflict at the present time is between those who espouse nationalist Buddhism and the Muslim community. Although not widely reported, the attacks against Muslim places of worship and Muslim owned businesses are continuing. In a six month period from January to June this year, at least 155 anti-Muslim incidents were reported by the Secretariat for Muslims. The attitude on the part of those who are aggressors is that they can with impunity disrupt the activities of others even in violation of the freedom of association and freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution. These rights need to be upheld in a practical manner to prevent the fomenting of religious and ethnic tensions in post-war Sri Lanka. However, the attitude of the police and other law enforcement agencies to permit those who break the law and get away without legal sanction undermines the credibility of the government as a secular one. 

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FIRST PRINCIPLE OF GOVERNANCE MUST BE GOT RIGHT FIRST--Jehan Perera

The crossover of UNP Parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera to the government is being seen as yet another example of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political power and acumen that is proving difficult to resist. It is also seen as an example of political opportunism and venality. More than adding to the strength of an already over-powerful government the crossover of the former UNP stalwart will further demoralize an already demoralized opposition. It will also serve as a warning to any potential dissenters within the government that they can be replaced by the President if need be. The President continues to be the dominating figure of Sri Lankan politics. Therefore those who are concerned about the political direction of the country, have to find ways to work with the President and his government. This is the justification that many of those who join the government have given. 

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ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY TO OVERCOME 30 YEARS OF MISTRUST -- Jehan Perera

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the worst manifestation of inter-ethnic conflict that set Sri Lanka on an irreversible path of civil war that pitted two armies representing the state and rebels against each other. Inter-ethnic trust and social relationships were sundered, it seemed for all time, when violent mobs went on the rampage, and the security forces of Sri Lanka stood by inactive for the most part. As the days of that fateful week past, most of the Tamil population living in Colombo fled to welfare centres or were shipped off to the north and east where the Tamil people lived in greater numbers. The city of Colombo resembled a war zone in which buildings and vehicles were in flames and lifeless bodies could be seen on the roadsides. But the considerable number of hapless Tamils who were protected by their Sinhalese friends and colleagues testified to the human bonds that transcend ethnicity and continue to lead to inter-ethnic cohabitation and give hope of a Sri Lanka that is united in heart and mind and not only in territory. 

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SUFFICIENT CONSENSUS TO MAKE PSC MEANINGFUL -- Jehan Perera

The government’s determination to show progress in regard to a political solution and to improving its human rights image is evident in recent developments. During his recent visit, the Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon is reported to have urged government leaders to keep its promises to India. The Indian government’s position that the government should deliver on its promise to go beyond the 13th Amendment poses a major challenge. It is obvious that a country like India, which is no less than a global great power, and quite possibly a superpower in the near future, cannot accept being made to look being taken for a ride by its close neighbour in the eyes of the world. With President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the verge of taking over the Chairmanship of the Commonwealth, it appears that the government is desirous of demonstrating to India and to the international community that it is taking its international responsibilities more seriously. The government is now making a renewed effort to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict through the process of a Parliamentary Select Committee. 

The government has appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to find a political solution that would “empower the people to live together as one nation.” The initial meeting of the PSC was attended only by government members and not attended by any of the opposition parties. The government’s disappointment at this boycott is evident from its appeal to the visiting Indian national security advisor to persuade the TNA to join the PSC. The government appointed 19 members representing the spectrum of opinion on the subject including both hard line nationalist Sinhalese and progressive leftist parliamentarians but with some surprise exclusions, including its own alliance partner the SLMC and Prof. Tissa Vitarana who headed the government’s last attempt to arrive at a political solution. The opposition parties which were allocated 12 members did not appoint a single member and so the first meeting of the PSC could be described as a meeting of a government sub-committee rather than a PSC.

Both the UNP and TNA have set pre-conditions for the government to meet prior to their nominating any members to the PSC. These include the UNP’s demand that the government should accept to base the discussions on the government’s international commitments, agreements and also on restoring the independence of state institutions such as the public service, judiciary and elections commission from the government’s political interference. The independence of these institutions which was upheld by the 17th Amendment to the constitution of 2000, was effectively nullified by the 18th Amendment passed by the government in 2010 using its 2/3 majority. The TNA has demanded that the government should make known its position on the devolution of power to them in bilateral negotiations prior to joining the PSC. The burden of proof is on the government to show that the PSC is not going to be one in which the government once again displays its bulldozer majority or becomes a time buying exercise until international pressure on the country gets reduced.

GOOD START
One of the main criticisms being leveled against the government internationally is its failure to make any progress towards a mutually agreeable political solution even four years after the end of the war. On the contrary, the present appearance is one of growing political polarization that is dividing the country in heart and mind, even while its territory has been unified. In this context, there are several advantages that would accrue to the government in the event the opposition parties join the PSC. It would enable the government to showcase the reconciliation process within the country to the international community by pointing out to the bi-partisan participation of both government and opposition in the search for a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

However, the present political context within which the present PSC has been appointed does not inspire confidence. It sends a message that the soon-to-be-elected Northern Provincial Council is actually vulnerable to having its power curtailed. The origin of the PSC can be traced back to the government’s concern about facing a Tamil-run provincial council in the Northern Province. From the time when the government decided that it had to go ahead with holding the election to the Northern Provincial Council, it has been expressing its desire to reduce the devolution of powers to the provinces. There were many indications that the government was about to seek the passage of a 19th Amendment to the Constitution that would reduce the powers of the provincial council system as a whole. It is generally believed that pressure from the Indian government, and the threat of a boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, forestalled such plans to pass the 19th Amendment into law.

The reluctance of the opposition political parties to join the PSC needs also to be seen in the context of the last PSC to be appointed by the government which investigated charges against the former Chief Justice. The last PSC had 11 members of which 7 were from the government and 4 from the opposition. On that occasion government members utilized their majority within the PSC to do exactly as they wanted in disregard of the wishes of opposition members. Eventually opposition members withdrew from the PSC in protest, as the government members continued to do what they wanted despite the protests of the opposition representatives in the PSC.

NECESSARY COMPROMISE
The difficulty in getting the opposition to participate in the present PSC is that its composition is stacked in favour of the government. This will once again permit the government to decide exactly as it wants in the PSC, just as it did in the case of the former Chief Justice. There can be no incentive for the opposition parties to join the PSC unless the government demonstrates a seriousness of purpose that includes a fair decision making process. If the government is serious about getting the opposition parties to participate in the PSC it is necessary that it should convince them that the debacle that occurred at the last PSC that investigated the former Chief Justice should not recur. If the government is serious about getting the opposition parties to join the PSC it needs to assure them that they will not be bulldozed through the system of majority voting, but that decisions will be taken on the basis of consensus.

The South African example of negotiating a peace agreement between those who controlled the government and the opposition is instructive in this regard. In South Africa, decisions were not taken on the basis of a majority vote. Rather it was taken on the basis that the main parties to the conflict agreed with the proposals that were on the table. They came up with the useful concept of a “Sufficient Consensus” which meant that the parties that really mattered had to agree. In general, the practice of consensus requires the majority to reach out to smaller groups and take their interests into account. In South Africa, sufficient consensus meant consensus of all the parties at the table when that was possible, but it also meant that if the ANC said no, another proposal had be put forward, while if a less important party dissented, the process generally continued to move forward.

In South Africa a practice developed in the constitution-making process of accepting “sufficient consensus,” which meant the agreement of the two main political parties. In Sri Lanka, this would certainly mean the ruling party and UNP, but also the TNA and SLMC as the two main parties representing the ethnic minorities. There has to be a reassurance to the ethnic minority parties that the fate of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake will not be their fate as well, as it very well could be if the unbridled power of majority rule is made to apply to the PSC. The root cause of the ethnic conflict is the imposition of the will of the permanent Sinhalese ethnic majority upon the ethnic minorities. It will be counterproductive, and get the country nowhere, to reproduce this same inequity within the PSC that is aimed at “empowering the people of Sri Lanka to live as one nation.” The practice of “Sufficient Consensus,” on the other hand, could lead to a meaningful political outcome that is sustainable and leads to national reconciliation.

COMMONWEALTH PEOPLE’S FORUM CAN ENHANCE GOVERNMENT’S CREDIBILITY - Jehan Perera

The significance of international pressure in directing the government along the path of good governance can be seen in several recent developments. As a member country of the international community, Sri Lanka has many obligations to fulfill, even as it seeks the benefits of being a member of the international community. But for the country, and its political leadership, to reap these benefits that accrue from being an integral part of the international community, it has also to subscribe to international rules and norms. It now appears to be starting to do so. The government’s decision to conduct the long delayed election to the Northern Provincial Council is also, without doubt, primarily due to international pressure. 

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TRANSFER OF MILITARY’S ROLE IN CIVIL AFFAIRS TO ELECTED COUNCIL CAN PROMOTE RECONCILIATION IN NORTH -- Jehan Perera

The government is continuing to give indications of its reluctance to establish a provincial council in the Northern Province with the devolved powers as provided by the 13th Amendment. The main concern articulated by government spokespersons has been the danger that a Tamil-led provincial council in the former war zone of the North might pose to national unity. This would account for the question being referred to the other eight provincial councils by the government, in which they are being asked to approve the dilution of their own powers as well as those of the soon-to-be-elected Northern Provincial Council. The ruling party headed by the President has taken the decision to proceed with the amending of the 13th Amendment. The only question remaining is when will the amendment be approved by Parliament and passed into law.

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DELAYED 19TH AMENDMENT HIGHLIGHTS ROOT CAUSE OF ETHNIC MINORITY PROBLEM -- Jehan Perera

There has been an unexplained delay in the government’s plan to present a 19th Amendment to the constitution as an urgent bill to Parliament. As a result there is speculation that the government might have postponed its presentation, at least for the time being. There had been opposition from both ethnic minority political parties and the government’s own left wing parties to the passage of the 19th Amendment which seeks to weaken the 13th Amendment. It is possible that internal dissension is the cause of the delay. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa also declared he knew how to obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament. He repeated this assertion at the Government Parliamentary Group last Monday at the Presidential Secretariat. He also added that if needed he would also be able to get some votes from the main opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians. 

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GOVERNMENT MUST ALSO CONSIDER ETHNIC MINORITY CONCERNS--Jehan Perera

The government is getting ready to pass a 19th Amendment to the constitution as an urgent bill. For the past several weeks, the government has been engaging in internal debate about the powers of the provincial councils and how they should be reduced. The urgency arises from the government’s much debated decision to finally hold the long-postponed elections for the Northern Provincial Council in September. The proposed constitutional amendment seeks to take away the power of two (or more) adjacent provincial councils to decide to merge together to form one merged province. The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces has been a sore point for successive governments and Sinhalese opinion leaders. They see the possibility of a merged North East province to be a threat to the unity of the country. Such a province would have a non-Sinhalese majority, and being about 30 percent of the country, could also become a viable independent state in which the majority of the population would be Tamil and Muslim. 

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PREPARING FOR ELECTIONS AND WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS IN NORTH - Jehan Perera

The A9 highway that bisects the Northern Province and leads to its capital of Jaffna would be the best advertisement for the government in its election campaign to win the provincial council elections scheduled to be held in September. The dramatic improvement in the highway and the network of roads that connect to it have enhanced the quality of life to all who make use of them, be they the businessman or landless labourer, northerner or southerner.  But the A9 highway, which was once called the highway of death on account of the thousands of lives it consumed during the war, also shows why the government cannot win those forthcoming elections unless there is a change of course.

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