The National Peace Council (NPC)

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In their public statements those in the political firmament close to the president spoke with confidence that the dissolution of parliament was still far off. Some even said that parliament would only be dissolved next year nearer to the April 2016 deadline for the term of parliament to end. But the long anticipated dissolution of parliament finally took place last Friday. It ended weeks of uncertainty that saw financial markets plunge, economic investments being put on hold and the slowing down of investigations into the alleged acts of corruption and violations of law by members of the former government. But still when it happened, the dissolution of parliament took even the president’s close associates by surprise if anecdotal evidence is to be believed.

The sequence of events shows that President Maithripala Sirisena took the decision to dissolve parliament after it became evident that his desire to see the 20th Amendment obtain the approval of parliament was not going to materialise. The ethnic minority parties took umbrage that the 20th Amendment did not take their concerns into account. It was the ethnic minority vote that enabled the president to defeat his opponent who had sought to win the elections on tide of ethnic majority nationalism. President Sirisena acted according to his publicly stated view that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, which means that the consent of the ethnic and religious minorities too is necessary when fundamental change is being contemplated.



The demand for the dissolution of parliament is getting increasingly compelling. Civil society leaders, such as the Ven Maduluwave Sobitha, who led the movement for good governance during the presidential elections have come out strongly to insist that President Maithripala SIrisisena should use his presidential powers to dissolve parliament and hold the much anticipated general elections. Public opinion surveys and everyday conversations on the topic indicate that the general population is getting disillusioned with the present situation and agree that general elections to elect a new government with a parliamentary majority are necessary. There is recognition that the present minority government led by the UNP cannot deliver the changes that the people want for the reason that it does not command a majority in parliament. The UNP is alive to this problem and has been demanding the dissolution of parliament.

Initially in the aftermath of the presidential election it was expected that President Sirisena would dissolve parliament sometime in April in keeping with his election manifesto that laid out a 100 day plan of action which was to be completed by the end of April. However, the president has been showing a reluctance to dissolve parliament. There are likely to at least two reasons for this. The first is that prior to going to the polls, the president is keen to heal the rift in his party that has come about because of the bid by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to obtain a position of leadership within the SLFP. Along with the rest of his party, President Sirisena realises that going in for general elections with a divided party is a recipe for defeat that can undermine his own credibility as the new leader of the SLFP. He has said there is no room for two leaders.



The opposition political rally held by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week in Matara is being described as the largest such rally so far. Over 75 opposition parliamentarians amounting to one third of the numbers in Parliament attended the event. The SLFP contingent amongst them who constitute the vast majority, attended the rally in defiance of the decision taken by the SLFP hierarchy including President Sirisena that no member of the SLFP should take part in a campaign to bring back the former President as the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate at forthcoming general elections. Time and again President Sirisena has declared his unwillingness to permit such a comeback. But he has been unable to prevent his party members from attending the rallies that are being held primarily to support such a comeback.

The continuation of the campaign to bring back the former President into government is an indication of his fighting instincts and political resilience. It is also due to the weakening of the political campaign against him after the presidential election, which saw the former President’s opponents go all out against him and his government. But now there is an increasing tendency to gloss over the charges of corruption and other abuse of power that are alleged to have taken place during his presidential period. Although several leading members of his government, including one of his brothers has been taken into judicial custody following charges of corruption, the legal proceedings that have followed have been desultory.



President Maithripala Sirisena has announced his intention to seek the passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution as a priority. The reforms envisage an electoral system in which the majority of parliamentary seats will be obtained on the first-past-the post system, while keeping to an overall proportional outcome. The experience at elections held under the present proportional system with a preferential voting option has been a negative one. It has been marked by heavy expenditures by candidates who have to contest much larger district-sized electorates and has also led to in-fighting by candidates within the same political party for the preferential votes that will get them elected.



The resettlement of the war-displaced Muslim population became national news on the issue that settlement was taking place within the renowned Wilpattu National Park. The controversy broke out when media reports alleged that there was illegal forest clearing and settlement of people taking place within the park. Environmental groups raised the issue about where the displaced Muslims were being resettled. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said “We have to preserve our national heritage. Wilpattu is one such heritage and we cannot allow such national assets to be destroyed. This appears also to have taken place even when I was in power but we did not know that such a thing was taking place at that time.” Not only politicians, but also environmentalists and representatives of Muslim civil society have got involved in the debate. There is a need to be clear about the issues.

In 1990 the entire Muslim population of the North, amounting to nearly 90,000 people were ordered to leave by the LTTE which saw them as an obstacle to its goal of militarily carving out a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Most of those expelled made their way to the district of Puttalam which borders the North. During the years of the war the Muslims could not go back safely to the North. The LTTE never gave a clear signal or guarantee of their security should they return. As there was no indication when the war would end, many of the displaced Muslims were provided with or purchased land in the areas of their temporary location. When the war finally ended in 2009, nearly two decades after their displacement, it was natural that many of the displaced Muslims had settled down in the areas of their temporary settlement.



The mob violence that suddenly burst forth in Jaffna has given rise to multiple interpretations, both in Jaffna and elsewhere. Opposition politicians have claimed that the displaced Sinhalese who have been resettled in parts of Jaffna were being targeted. Others claimed that national security had been jeopardized by the demilitarization taking place in the North and the entrusting of security measures to the police. They saw in the unrest the footprint of the Tiger seeking to stage a comeback with support from parts of the Tamil Diaspora who continue to harbor separatist ambitions. In these analyses of the happenings in Jaffna there seemed to be a certain nostalgia for a return of the old days when the former government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled the North with an iron hand. But this was not the reality in the North nor the desire of the people there.



May 18 has been a day of divisive sentiment since the year 2009. This was the day the war ended on the battlefields of the North. This meant the dawn of peace and an end to terrorism that had plagued the country for nearly three decades. But to the Tamils who had supported the campaign of the LTTE to separate the North and East of the country, it was the bitter end of a struggle that had gone nowhere. British Tamil Forum president Fr S J Emanuel framed the dichotomy as “The end of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE meant two entirely different things with different rationale to justify their actions. For the Government it was a victory over Tamil terrorism, end of a war and beginning of peace. But for the Tamils it was the culmination of another mass massacre of militants and civilians and the beginning of incarcerations and further militarization, robbing of lands and missing of persons.”

Remembrance can be an act of union or of division. The Victory Day event organized in Colombo on May 18 by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa titled “Protect the Motherland Liberated by Heroes” was to counter “efforts to undermine the service rendered by our valiant troops in liberating the motherland from terrorism” according to organizers of the event. The government of the former president made the victory over the LTTE the centre piece of its political programme. Its success in achieving victory over the LTTE was used time and again at election campaigns to generate nationalistic pride in the majority of people which translated into majority support at elections. May 18 became an occasion to remind the people of the war victory.



President Maithripala Sirisena has revoked an agreement with the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka to allocate 800 acres of land for investment projects in Sampur and released the land to be used to resettle people who had been displaced from the area. He had also directed that a navy camp set up there should also be relocated to enable the resettlement of the displaced people. The people were displaced in 2006 when the Sri Lankan military retook the Sampur area, which had been under LTTE control. The LTTE used the strategic location at Sampur to fire artillery into the nearby Trincomalee Harbour and naval base. Thereafter the land was taken over by the government for its own purposes including a naval camp and high security zone.



US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the conclusion of the government’s 100 Day programme which had just ended on a high note. The virtually unanimous passage the 19th Amendment to the constitution was a triumph to the government. The vote in favour was 212 to 1. The reform of the executive presidency, which formed the core of the 19th Amendment, was a promise that had eluded successive governments for over two decades. During the latter half of the 100 day period it seemed that the government was not going to be successful in implementing the most important of its election time pledges. There was increased public skepticism about its willingness and ability to tackle issues of past corruption and abuse of power. The opposition led by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared to be gathering in strength.

However, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were able to lead their respective political parties to an unprecedented bipartisan consensus that saw all other political parties fall in line. The emergence of a reformed presidency shorn of its extreme powers was an outcome of their leadership. In a statement to the media, the visiting US Secretary of State acknowledged the government’s commitment to reform. He said, “One thing about this Sri Lankan government seems clear. The President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister are not afraid of tackling tough issues. They are willing to make difficult decisions and they are committed to keeping their promises. We have seen that in the 100 day plan.”



With the debate over the 19th Amendment to the constitution entering its final phase this week, the country is entering a decisive phase. The passage of this constitutional amendment will set in motion a process whereby Sri Lanka will become subject to the Rule of Law and not the rule of men as was advocated by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in its report after having consulted a wide swarth of the country's intellectuals, decisionmakers and community leaders. The presidential system in Sri Lanka was flawed at its very inception, as it did not provide for an adequate system of checks and balances found in democratic countries with successful presidential systems. The 19th Amendment will go a signficant part of the way to create conditions for better governance in the country.

The abolishing of the presidential system has been part of the election manifesto of previous presidents. But it has been President Maithripala Sirisena who has been most committed to shedding his powers. He has had to endure barbs that he is not a strong leader. But he has shown strength in being committed to reform the presidency as he promised during the presidential election campaign. While most other political leaders will fight for their own powers, he is being true to the Buddhist ethos of his upbringing to transcend that fight in which he prevailed for a higher purpose. The President's efforts to push through a constitutional amendment that will reduce his own power is a rare example of statesmanship, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide.

There is a great deal of international expectations about progress in Sri Lanka. The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry will be taking place the following week. Sri Lanka is able to position itself as a post-war country with a message to other countries that are struggling to come out of their own conflicts. The Sri Lankan model of changing governments, even very powerful and seemingly entrenched ones, through the democratic process is one that the international community would wish to support in other parts of the world where change of governments are necessary. The Sri Lankan model of a president from one major party running a government with a prime minister from a rival major party, and a government that has almost all parties in Parliament represented in it is unique.



The inability of the government to force through its decisions, and the appearance of opposition forces supportive of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gaining ground, has generated concerns about the government’s longer term stability. The defeat of the government’s money bill in Parliament has highlighted the structural weakness of the government. The difficulty that the government has been experiencing in fulfilling its main election promises, catching the corrupt and passing the 19th Amendment, has eroded public confidence in the government’s strength. Currently the SLFP has a majority in Parliament with 126 seats while the UNP plays the role of a ‘minority government’ with 41 Parliamentary seats from a total of 225 seats. Without the assistance of the SLFP, the government is unable to obtain even a simple majority of votes to implement its plans. If the opposition parliamentarians could have their way it would be former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who would be the Prime Minister.

The anxiety about the government’s stability is especially articulated in the ethnic minority-dominated North and East. Whether in Jaffna, Mannar or Batticaloa the question that people worry about is whether former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is about to stage a comeback. Those are the parts of the country that delivered the biggest majorities to President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections held four months ago. The Tamil voters of the North and East in particular had to contend with boycott calls from within the Tamil polity itself. They also had to overcome the apprehension that the incumbent government would take some action that would prevent them from expressing their will at those elections. But the voters there were prepared to take risks in voting against the incumbent government because they strongly desired change.



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