The National Peace Council (NPC)

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TAKING RECONCILIATION PROCESS FORWARD AFTER CO-SPONSORED RESOLUTION IN GENEVA--Jehan Perera

The government took a major step forward in rejoining the international community on equal terms when it reached agreement with the United States and other Western countries in the UN Human Rights Council to co-sponsor the resolution on the future its post-war accountability process. For the past six years Sri Lanka was on the defensive internationally for its conduct of the last phase of the war. From 2012 onwards it was at the receiving end of increasingly adverse resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution in 2014 mandated an international investigation into the past. Each year the meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva became the occasion of confrontation abroad and for political mobilization within the country in which ethnic nationalism took the centre stage.

The new government’s agreement with the United States to co-sponsor the draft resolution that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday is an indication that both sides sat together to sort out the problem. Unlike its predecessor the present government has acted on the rational basis that a policy of confrontation would not solve the problem but only aggravate it. Although the confrontational approach of the previous government was popular at home it was leading to an internationally imposed outcome which would have made a bad situation worse. The government’s problem solving approach enabled it to convince the United States, and other Western countries, to drop the specific reference to a hybrid judicial mechanism. This was the most controversial feature of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka.

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HYBRID MECHANISM NOT A FIRST OPTION WITH NEW GOVERNMENT--Jehan Perera

The long anticipated UN investigation report into alleged war crimes committed during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war was released last week by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The investigation team has made strong indictments against both the government and LTTE forces for war crimes. The most contentious aspect of the report is likely to be its recommendation that the government should “adopt a specific legislation establishing an ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, with its own independent investigative and prosecuting organ.”

The Sri Lankan government is reported to have requested the UN and members of the UN Human Rights Council to allow it to carry out a domestic judicial probe rather without setting up a hybrid court with international personnel. Public opinion in Sri Lanka amongst the Sinhalese majority is decidedly against any international investigation into the past. The UN investigation is seen as instigated by those who wish to reverse the outcome of Sri Lanka’s three decade old civil war that came to an end with the defeat of the Tamil rebellion by government forces. Last year, the United States which sponsored the resolution that established the investigation called for an international investigation. The draft resolution that is now being circulated amongst the member countries of the UN Human Rights Council refers to the need “to involve international investigators, prosecutors and judges in Sri Lanka’s justice processes.”

The release of the UN Report on alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka’s war is an important step in the country’s transition to reconciliation as it requires the government and people to give their attention to the unhealed wounds of the past that continue to fester in the body politic. It is to be noted that even prior to its release, the government had developed a complex and well thought out mechanism to be led by Sri Lankans. Last week the government announced a mechanism to deal with the past that will be based on a four tier system which will include a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, an Office of Missing Persons, a judicial mechanism with special counsel to be set up by statute and an Office of Reparations.

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GOVERNMENT’S CREDIBILITY SUFFERS DESPITE ONGOING TRANSITION TO BETTER GOVERNANCE--Jehan Perera

The virtual non-existence of an environment of threat, especially pertinent to ethnic and religious minorities, and the non-stifling of dissent by opposition and civil society groups is continuing, much to the credit of the new government. However, the dawning of a society in which good governance alone will prevail continues to remain in question. Soon after the general election came the first blow to the new government’s credibility with the appointment of defeated candidates on the national list. This was followed by the appointment of a jumbo sized cabinet. The latest appointment to ministerial positions of politicians of dubious repute has dealt yet another blow to the government’s credibility.

Amongst the new ministers appointed to further swell the ministerial ranks of the government are those accused of having engaged in the trade of narcotics, using ethanol for alcoholic beverages and providing false evidence regarding the life of missing persons. These appointments would be particularly difficult to justify, especially to a government leadership that contested the general elections, and the presidential election before it, on a platform that was predominantly based on establishing good governance in the country. The credibility gap is made worse by the absence of serious efforts by the government leaders to justify their choices or even explain the constraints that induced them to take such a course of action.

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COMPROMISES TO STABILISE GOOD GOVERNANCE --Jehan Perera

Following the initial relief amongst those who wanted to see the change of government that took place in January sustained, the aftermath of last month’s general election is not generating the euphoria that accompanied that of the presidential election earlier in the year.  The presidential election saw an immediate change of government, in terms of both personalities and policies.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had undermined systems of government to impose his will on the polity was removed from power.  There was a palpable lifting of the sense of threat from an oppressive government which was getting increasingly lawless and acting with impunity.  The new government team began to swiftly implement the 100 Day Action Plan that they had promised during the presidential election campaign. 

However, three weeks after the general election the new government has still to be finalized with nearly half of the ministerial slots still remaining to be filled. Almost all of the cabinet positions were filled last week, but all of the other ministerial positions remain undisclosed and unfilled.   In the background  of the delay in the appointment of ministers is the decision of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a national government through an alliance of the two largest political parties in Parliament.  The slim majority that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s alliance obtained made it politically pragmatic for the two main parties to work together in Parliament rather than separately. 

If the UNP and SLFP had not agreed to enter into an agreement to work together in a national government there would have been a danger of political instability due to the prospect of cross overs from one side of parliament to the other.  This danger was magnified due to the proven ability of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to engineer defections in the past.  He first showed this ability after becoming president in 2005.  At the previous parliamentary election held in2004, the UPFA alliance won only 105 of the 225 seats, allowing it to form a minority government. Upon winning the presidential election in 2005, President Rajapaksa engineered defections from the opposition and increased the number of government MPs to 129, almost all of whom were rewarded with ministerial posts. 

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SECOND CHANCE TO DEAL WITH THE PAST--Jehan Perera

Within a week of former government’s second electoral defeat, this time at the general election, two senior representatives of the United States paid a rare joint visit to Sri Lanka. They were the first representatives of foreign powers to visit the country after the elections. They came even before parliament has met and the new government has been formed. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was one of only three ministers to be appointed at the time of their visit. The speed of his appointment may have been due to the rapport he has demonstrated with the hitherto alienated sections of the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka after the presidential election and referred to him publicly as a friend. It can only help that Sri Lanka is viewed by the US positively at this time and not negatively.

The visit of US Assistant Secretaries Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski was a reconfirmation of the importance that the world’s dominant power places in Sri Lanka. At the height of the Rajapaksa presidency in 2009 when the confrontation between the former government and the US-led international community was building up, a visiting US Senate delegation recommended that Sri Lanka was too important a country for the US to lose. This was when the United States was leading the campaign to compel the Sri Lankan government to accept an international investigation into human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s internal war. The Rajapaksa government responded by mobilising anti-West sentiment both within the country and internationally to protect the Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to conduct investigations into itself.

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THIS ELECTION HAS ALSO OFFERED VOTERS A MIDDLE PATH--Jehan Perera

It is just a week more till the general elections. Two salutary features have stood out at this election. Both are evidence that the principles of good governance are getting more deeply embedded in the minds of the electorate as well as in the political system. The first is the decrease in the level of violence and generally low profile of the election campaigning. This has not been due to any lack of passion or eagerness to win on the part of individual contestants or their political parties. Rather, it has been due to the strict implementation of laws by the election authorities and the police, without interference from the government. The credit for this sharp turnaround from the no-holds barred nature of previous elections must go to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who have been true to the adage that the rule of law and not the rule of men should prevail.

On this occasion the Election Commissioner and police have been strict in implementing the law. It can now be seen that the election law is quite restrictive and limits the space for election campaigning. Election posters, streamers and hoardings can only be put up near election offices and at election meetings only for a specified period of time. The subdued public manifestation of the election campaign has been so marked that some of the international election monitors have been struck by the absence of walls inundated with posters and streets clogged with cut-outs and hoardings of the contestants which they had come to associate with democracy in Sri Lanka. This has made them wonder whether there has been a diminishing of the vibrancy of Sri Lankan democracy and whether the electorate has lost interest in the elections.

On the other hand, to most Sri Lankans who were subjected massive overdoses of election propaganda in the past, and which was heavily weighted in favour of the government in power this discipline being imposed on the political contestants has come as a welcome break with the past. The contesting politicians may be unhappy that they cannot make themselves easily known to the electorate via street posters and hoardings. But to the people whose vote they seek, most of them are glad to have a respite from the propaganda warfare of the elections of the past which frequently degenerated into violent clashes in which members of the ruling party invariably had the upper hand.

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GOING BEYOND THE ELECTION MANIFESTOS IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST--Jehan Perera

There are two attributes of election manifestos. One is for a political party to place its vision for the future and programme of action to achieve it before the electorate. Virtually all political parties have revelled in making excessive promises during election time. The election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena during the presidential election in January was different. As it focused on a 100 Day Plan, its promises were realistic. Many of the promises made have been implemented to a substantial degree. The main achievement was the passage of the 19th Amendment which reduced the president’s powers and strengthened the independence of institutions, such as the police, judiciary and public service, which are essential features of a well governed society.

The second attribute of an election manifesto is to provide the political party that forms the government to be able to refer back to its electoral mandate and justify its activities in the future. This would be especially applicable to those actions that are in the national interest, but are not so popular with the country’s people. Examples of this are hard to come by in Sri Lanka although there are examples from other countries. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, apart from promises such as to even get rice from the moon to fulfil election manifestos, hardly any political party is willing to inform the electorate about the bitter medicine that is needed to resolve problems that adversely affect society.

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UPFA’S NEGATIVE ELECTION CAMPAIGN WILL NOT WIN VOTES--Jehan Perera

The nascent rejuvenation of institutions since the change of government was demonstrated in an unexpected manner with the apprehension of a white van. These vehicles have obtained a notoriety that peaked during the last years of the war with the LTTE. The circumstances under which this particular white van came to light had all the classic features that made the white van an object of fear and intimidation during the previous decade. It had false number plates. It had army personnel in it. t was being driven in a manner that caused the policemen on duty to decide to stop it, and the occupants had behaved in a sufficiently suspicious manner to prompt the police to thereafter search the vehicle. This led them to find a pistol that belonged to none of the occupants of the van.

During the previous decade there were constant reports of the existence of white vans and their possible connection with the security forces of the state, but this was strenuously denied by them as well as by government leaders of that time. But although there was no official confirmation of their existence, and only repeated denials, the accounts of the white vans and their doings by those who claimed that their family members or colleagues had been taken away in them became a legend. They were much like ghosts that so many are afraid of, but which most have never seen. But we have heard so many stories of ghosts that many of us cannot help but believe they must indeed exist.

This time around, however, seven months into the new good governance programme of the new government the white van was caught beyond doubt. Now we can be sure that it exists, and not only one but possibly a large number of them. The fact that the policemen on duty felt themselves to be sufficiently empowered to stop a white van, question its occupants and publicise the event is something new. It is a new and welcome development. According to media reports, and police statements following the detention of the vehicle, the army personnel apprehended in it have denied that they were on any underground mission. They have said that they were on a routine journey, and the pistol that was found in it belonged to their commanding officer.

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DERAILING FORMER PRESIDENT RAJAPAKSA’S COMEBACK BID--Jehan Perera

Shortly after his unforeseen defeat at the presidential elections of January 2015 by an alliance of opposition parties, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa began to campaign for a comeback that was backed by more and more members of the UPFA. Although President Maitripala Sirisena made clear his unhappiness, and initially resisted the comeback bid, he finally yielded on the grounds that it was the only way to prevent the division of the former ruling party. President Sirisena’s decision to go along with the former president’s nomination to the UPFA was viewed as a betrayal of all that the joint opposition, civil society and the president himself had campaigned for at the presidential election. They had all highlighted the corruption and abuse of power that they pointed out had become a norm under the leadership of the former president and his government.

President Sirisena faced a difficult choice. If he had not given nomination to the former president, he would have fed a perception that the former president was being unfairly kept out of the UPFA and that the UPFA was being unfairly weakened. It would have enabled the former president and his allies to claim that he continued to be immensely popular and beloved of the people and that the decision to keep him out of the electoral contest was injurious to the interests of the former ruling party. This would have given an opportunity to political forces that failed to obtain representation or power at the general elections to use the former president’s name and fame and seek to get him back to a position of power through other means.

President Sirisena’s rationale for agreeing to the grant of nominations to the former president was to preserve the unity of the former ruling party. By acquiescing in the UPFA’s decision to include the former president and almost all of the members of his government, even those accused of corruption and abuse of power, President Sirisena appeared to give to the UPFA virtually everything it wanted. By following the democratic process and acceding to the wishes of the majority within the UPFA President Sirisena also effectively negated the role of undemocratic forces. Instead he permitted the former president to contest from within the UPFA and to prove his popularity and the extent to which he is beloved of the people.

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CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES FAVOUR GOOD GOVERNANCE COALITION--Jehan Perera

President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to nominate his arch rival former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the general elections from his party came as a major shock especially to the president’s closest supporters. To make matters worse for them, the president also gave in to the demand that the former president’s allies also be given nomination despite the poor reputations most of them suffer from on account of their conduct during the previous ten years of their period of government. There was a vain hope that the president would reverse his decision at the last moment. One of the civil society groups that campaigned for the president at the presidential election in January met him and reported that he had asked them to wait until the day after nominations closed.

The belief that President Sirisena would act at the last minute to upset the former president’s comeback bid had a rational basis to it. Soon after his election victory, President Sirisena was widely reported to have said that he would have been six feet underground had he lost the presidential election. He followed up on this statement by rejecting the former president’s comeback bid as prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP. He had said that this would give an opportunity to those who had failed to win the presidential election by the ballot to accomplish their objective through a bullet. President Sirisena even prohibited members of the SLFP from attending the” bring back Mahinda” rallies organised by the former president’s supporters.

There are many theories about why President Sirisena suddenly changed his mind and gave nomination to the former president. These include inducements from China and even blackmail. But the more likely explanation is the president’s growing sense of isolation from the two major political formations in the country. By crossing over from the SLFP to contest the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate, President Sirisena lost his legitimacy with the SLFP voter base which, by and large, remained with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. But thereafter President SIrisena found to his discomfiture that the UNP-led government that he had appointed in fulfilment of his election campaign promise was making decisions without taking him into confidence.

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THE PURSUIT OF GOOD GOVERNANCE MUST CONTINUE--Jehan Perera

The coalition of political parties and civil society groups that came together to ensure victory for President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of January 2015 under the theme of good governance is no more. The distancing started soon after the formation of the new UNP-led coalition government and the implementation of the 100 day programme. Sharp disagreements began to emerge within the political parties in the government on issues such as the extent of power to be taken away from the president and given to the prime minister in terms of the 19th Amendment. The practice of good governance itself came under scrutiny due to the problem of the bond issue by the Central Bank that has continued to fester with damning disclosures coming to the fore. The inability to pass the 20th Amendment despite the commitment of the president showed the waning of his influence in parliament.

However, the desire of people of all walks of life to have a government that acts according to principles of good governance continues to find its expression in civil society. The better educated sections of the voting population especially in the urban areas, and the ethnic minorities who were at the receiving end of lawless rule continue to value good governance. The March 12 Movement, which intends to hold political parties to their promise to only nominate candidates who abide by the values of good governance, and who are not corrupt, violent or contravene basic standards of political conduct is an expression of this. During the past fortnight they have been going around the country collecting signatures to meet their target of one million. This is a declaration that has also been signed by the leaders of all major political parties, including the president, prime minister and leader of the opposition.

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