The National Peace Council (NPC)

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BEST TIME TO PASS 19TH AMENDMENT IS NOW

President Maithripala Sirisena has been making a unique contribution to political developments in Sri Lanka.  He backed the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution to transfer a significant portion of the presidential powers he enjoys back to Parliament and to the Prime Minister.  Since the presidential election of 1995 the winning candidate at all successive presidential elections has promised to abolish the executive presidency.  But once they won, the winners deemed it opportune to keep the institution going.  They used the very powers of the presidency that they had condemned when contesting the elections to govern the country and safeguard themselves in power.  President Maithripala Sirisena is the exception.  The difficulties encountered in passing the 19th Amendment through Parliament have not been of his making.

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CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT BY NORTHERN PROVINCIAL COUNCIL WILL BENEFIT PEOPLE MORE--Jehan Perera

The resolution passed by the Northern Provincial Council accusing successive Sri Lankan governments of committing acts of genocide against the Tamil people came a few weeks before the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March this year. It also asked the UN to set up an investigation into Genocide in various forms alleged to have been perpetrated on the Tamil people from the time of Independence. The resolution also called upon the UN to release the report of its investigation panel into alleged war crimes committed in the final phase of the country’s internal war, and to also set up an international process to ensure accountability for those crimes. However, the UN did not release the report of its investigation panel. It heeded the Sri Lankan government’s appeal that the release of the report should be postponed to give the new government time to make its own domestic accountability procedure more concrete. The UN report is now expected to be released later this year in September when the UN Human Rights Council gathers once again in Geneva.

The visit to Sri Lanka of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Truth, Accountability, Reparations and Guarantees of Non- Recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, gave the Northern Provincial Council another opportunity to present its case on genocide before the UN. It is reported that the Genocide Resolution was given to the UN Special Rapporteur. However, once again, it does not appear that the Genocide Resolution has had the desired impact. The Tamil media reported that “the UN Special Rapporteur was advocating for an internal mechanism during his visit. He was urging more time and space to be given to the new regime in Colombo. However, the Tamil representatives have explained in detail on the failure of all successive regimes in Colombo in delivering internal mechanisms capable of addressing the crimes committed by the SL State itself and its armed forces in the past.”

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RECONCILIATION REQUIRES THE FULL COMMITMENT OF A SUDU NELUM MOVEMENT--Jehan Perera

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his recent visit to Jaffna, reiterated a statement he made at a media conference in Colombo that the government would deal with issues of the past through a truth and reconciliation process. He said that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga would lead the process and that it would be supported by South Africa whose advice was being sought. The Prime Minister’s announcement in the capital of the Northern Province, which was the main battleground of the three decade long internal war, demonstrated his decisiveness on a controversial issue, even in the run up to anticipated general elections. The pressure from the international community with regard to human rights and war crimes issues has continued despite the change of government, which is why the new government is focusing on a truth and reconciliation process at the outset.

The selection of the former president to lead the reconciliation process brings to it a champion who, in the 11 year period of her presidency, showed her ability to take on any political challenge without backing down. She did not give up on publicly upholding the importance of Tamil and minority rights even after her peace initiative with the LTTE was rejected. Although she was forced to wage a high cost war which yielded mixed results in terms of regaining territorial control, she will be remembered for her valiant effort to build the political foundations for peace through political reform. She was also able to win elections while holding to her position that a political solution was necessary.

Former President Kumaratunge’s great contribution to the unification of the Sri Lanka polity came through her two-pronged strategy of meeting the LTTE’s challenge. While waging war, she gave political leadership to the “Sudu Nelum” (white lotus) movement which was a mass-based educational campaign that was intended to enable each ethnic community to understand each other’s political aspirations and engaged in mutual accommodation. This educational campaign was politically led by the present foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, and took place through seminars, workshops and street drama, among other methods in which top university academics wholeheartedly participated.

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FREEDOM TO SPEAK AND HOLD TO ACCOUNT IS BASIS OF GOOD GOVERNANCE--Jehan Perera

Public criticism of the government has been growing. The opposition’s criticism is to be expected. With general elections around the corner it is in the opposition’s interests to look for opportunities to find fault with the government. However, it is not only the opposition that is criticizing the government. There is public criticism even by those who supported the government to win the election that brought it to power. One of the major issues at the presidential election was that of corruption and abuse of power. This was the issue on which the unity of the former government split when the presidential elections were called.

Most of the criticism has been on account of the government’s failure to take action against those from the former government who stand accused of corruption and abuse of power during their term in office. Those alleged to be amongst the worst offenders continue to be free, along with all others, even though some of them have been taken in for police questioning. But now a new factor has entered to make the criticism more serious. The issue of insider trading in the sale of government bonds by the Central Bank at huge profit to the beneficiaries and at an equivalent loss to the government has damaged the government’s credibility. Ironically, it has also led to opposition politicians who are accused of corruption and abuse of power leading public protests against those implicated in the deal.

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GOVERNMENT MAKES PROGRESS IN REBUILDING CONSTRUCTIVE RELATIONS--Jehan Perara

The election of President Maithripala Sirisena and the appointment of a government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have seen a turnaround in relations with those within and outside the country. The improvement in international relations has been notable. The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi who won election on a nationalist platform decided to be the first Indian prime minister in 28 years to visit the country. The last Prime Minister of India to visit, Rajiv Gandhi, was almost killed by a blow given to him by a member of the guard of honour who was angry about the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord which Sri Lankan nationalists felt was an affront to the country’s sovereignty. In the last few years, relations between Sri Lanka and India became strained, particularly on the issue of the post-war political solution promised by the former government, but which was not delivered as promised.

The visit of Prime Minister Modi to Sri Lanka, and the welcome he received from the government was echoed by virtually all sections of the polity. In his speech to the Sri Lankan parliament, the Indian prime minister said that India expected the government to go beyond the 13th Amendment to the constitution which devolved power to the provinces. However, he did not spell out what this would mean, leaving this to the Sri Lankan polity to address. There was also the pledge of greater economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. The grant of visa-on-entry facilities to Sri Lankans will be a boon to those who wish to visit India. In recent years there is hardly any country to which Sri Lankans can travel to without obtaining a prior visa. It is to be hoped that the period in which a traveler with a Sri Lankan passport was viewed with suspicion by immigration officials abroad is coming to an end.

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TAMIL DIASPORA IS BECOMING PART OF LARGER SRI LANKAN COMMUNITY--Jehan Perera

President Maithripala Sirisena is reported to be seeking to build relations with the Tamil Diaspora while in London to participate in the Commonwealth Day celebrations as chair of the Commonwealth. Along with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, the president is expected to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron to explore ways and means of securing the support of the Diaspora groups. This signals a paradigm shift in the approach of the government towards a group that is important to Sri Lanka’s future wellbeing. The Tamil Diaspora is generally portrayed in Sri Lanka as being hostile to the country and seeking its division. During the war funding and weaponry came to the LTTE from abroad which contributed to their becoming a formidable military force and a threat to the unity of the country and to the lives of its citizens. When the LTTE’s defeat became imminent the Tamil Diaspora actions in mobilizing in huge protests in the Western countries against the Sri Lankan government in the final stage of the war showed that they could take on the LTTE’s cause to themselves. However, after the presidential election that saw the unseating of President Mahinda Rajapaksa there are increasingly close ties between the new government and the TNA, which represents the mainstream Tamil polity within the country. This is causing a change in the Tamil Diaspora in a manner that bodes well for national reconciliation. It is better to have the friendship of the Tamil Diaspora than its enmity. The new government has very reason to be grateful to the Tamil voters. The huge majorities for President Maithripala Sirisena that were notched up in the northern and eastern electorates where the Tamil and Muslim voters predominate made the difference between victory and defeat for the president. During his recent visit to Jaffna, President Sirisena made his gratitude known through the words he spoke. He said, “Everyone should work in a spirit of brotherhood irrespective of differences. The task of bringing together the minds of the people cannot be achieved only through physical development. It is this government’s hope to bridge the North and South through friendship and understanding.” President Sirisena showed his gratitude in visiting Jaffna despite negative signals that came from the Northern Province after the presidential elections. The resolution accusing successive Sri Lankan governments of practicing genocide against the Tamils that was passed by the Northern Provincial Council a mere three weeks before the President’s visit to Jaffna was not in keeping with the improvement in relations between the TNA and the government. Nor did it correspond with the positive changes that have been taking place on the ground in the north and east. The most important of these is the lifting of the fear of arbitrary arrest and disappearance by government forces. The mismatch between the improvement in ground realities and the resolution on genocide by the Northern Provincial Council indicated a Tamil Diaspora hand.

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CHAMPIONS NEEDED, NOT ONLY TECHNICAL SOLUTIONS --Jehan Perera

The new government is coming in for a lot of criticism on the grounds of inaction with regard to issues of high level corruption and abuse of power under the old government. At the presidential election one of the main issues raised by those who sought the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the acts of corruption alleged to have been committed by members of the former government. There were photographs of allegedly ill gotten properties, some of it being wheeled into aircraft. There were figures given of infrastructure costs that had been allegedly inflated several times over. There were cases of political and even criminal killings that were laid on the door of the former government.

However, nearly two months after the change of government there has been no high profile arrest of former government leaders who were alleged to be responsible for these crimes. This is causing misgivings amongst those who voted for a change of government. There is concern that the new government is proceeding too slowly on matters of past abuse of power and corruption. This is seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the government or even worse as an indication that members of the new government have been bought over by corruption themselves. This can have the consequence of demoralising those who voted for a change of president in the hope that this would lead to a country in which corruption would no longer be mainstreamed or even tolerated.

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MODERATE MAJORITY WILL CONTINUE TO GROW DESPITE MISGIVINGS--Jehan Perera

There is a popular perception that the new government’s performance so far shows that it is not a strong government. This would lead people to hedge their bets, as they are unsure how long the government will continue under its present leadership. The business community in particular requires stability to make investments in the future. They need to know that government policy would be stable and there will not be sudden reversals which can be very costly to them. The perception that the government is not strong is partly due to the fact that it is a coalition government in which the dominant party, the UNP, does not even enjoy a majority in Parliament. But the larger part of the reason for the perception of a weak government is that the government is not taking strong action against its opponents.

The unexpected defeat of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election led to high expectations amongst those who voted against him that the new government, and its anti-corruption crusaders, would soon put things right. During the election campaign they accused former members of the government of being terribly corrupt, of engaging in the trade of narcotics and the sale of illegal spirits to manufacture alcohol, among others, and of padding up contracts to build infrastructure, with massive kickbacks to themselves. However, the actions of the new government up to now have not justified these popular expectations.

More than six weeks after the change of government those accused of wrongdoing in the former government remain free of formal charges. They are also free to organize political rallies and find money to bus the crowd in from all parts of the country. The long arm of the law has not caught them, and as a result there are stories being spread that some of those in the former government are maintaining corrupt links with those in the present government. But this can be explained. The reason is that the new government pledged to bring in good governance, and key to this is to follow established procedures and the rule of law.

The government would be wary of taking precipitate action that they cannot sustain in a court of law. It is common experience that cases of fraud taken to court in ordinary circumstances will take months to start and years to conclude. This would be more so in cases where files have been destroyed, evidence tampered with and the wrongdoers are prominent in public life. In addition in situations such as the present one, in which the former government members are accused of spiriting out their ill gotten gains to foreign climes, the expertise to probe such crimes is also lacking in the country. An example of precipitate action that was counter-productive was the police raid on one of the former president’s home backfired against the government when nothing incriminating was discovered.

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INCLUSIVE ACTIONS NEEDED TO REUNIFY THE POLITY AT MULTIPLE LEVELS--Jehan Perera

The government appears to be making a greater effort than previous ones to be inclusive in its approach to governance. This inclusive orientation is a heritage of the election campaign that saw the ouster of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was the rallying round of virtually the entire opposition, and a section of the ruling party itself, around a common candidate that could withstand the power and resources of the Rajapaksa government. Although these political parties had different political ideologies and ethnic affiliations, they were able to pool their combined strength to win the election by a narrow margin. One of the promises of their election platform was to hold general elections after implementing their 100 day plan. This has kept the alliance together.

Perhaps it is the positive feeling of working together that motivated Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to affirm that he hoped to form a government of the entire parliament rather than govern the country through a single party or coalition of parties. There is a precedent for this model of government in the Donoughmore constitution of 1931 during the British colonial period. The salient feature of this constitution was the assignment of every legislator to a committee, which was headed by a minister. The minister and the legislators assigned to that committee decided on government policy together. The process of decision making was slow but it obtained the participation of all.

Sri Lanka has paid a heavy price since is independence for its failure to ensure that all sections of the polity feel a sense of participation in the governance of the country. This failure led to the alienation of the ethnic minorities, in particular the Tamils, from governance of the country as a whole. The two republican constitutions of 1972 and 1978 which were home-grown failed to ensure that governmental decisions would be taken by the ethnic minorities together with the ethnic majority. It was for this reason that the mainstream Tamil political leaders boycotted the Independence Day celebrations of successive governments from 1972 onwards. These celebrations this year were unique in obtaining the participation of the leaders of the TNA which is the main Tamil political party.

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ETHNIC NATIONALISM WILL REMAIN A POTENT FORCE UNTIL SUPPLANTED--Jehan Perera

In the immediate aftermath of the change of government and government policy following the presidential election there has been a flurry of visits to Sri Lanka by representatives of foreign governments. The representatives of the foreign governments who are presently visiting Sri Lanka come with a broad mandate to get acquainted with the new situation and to assess the prospects for sustained change. Sri Lanka has several unique factors that give it an importance that is disproportionate to its size. Its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and its large and active Diaspora in many countries would be two of the issues that cater to the self-interest of those countries. There are also more altruistic explanations too.

The peaceful transition from an increasingly authoritarian government that appeared to be entrenched in power to a multi-party government in which there is cohabitation between a president and prime minister who come from rival parties has few if any precedents. The new government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the international community is another positive change of direction. The constructive engagement of the present time in contrast to the approach of the former government whose lack of engagement with the international community was based on an emphasis on Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. In their eyes, engagement accompanied by change was equated as giving in to international pressure. The former government feared that any accommodation on issues of human rights would open the door to an international probe on war crimes.

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BALANCING CHANGE WITH CONTINUITY TO ENSURE PUBLIC SUPPORT--Jehan Perera

The Independence Day celebrations this year will be significantly different from those of the recent past. The government has said that the ceremony will be simple. There is an emphasis on cost cutting. The previous government spared no cost to make its celebrations grand affairs. One of the main issues on which the presidential election was fought over was corruption and waste, and the misdirection of economic resources away from the poor to those at the helm of the government. The opposition parties leveled charges against the former United People’s Freedom Alliance government that it led the country into massive debt due to its white elephant projects, waste and corruption.

There will also be another significant difference. Over the past five years since the end of the war in 2009, the previous government emphasized the war victory at the Independence Day celebrations. There was a display of the country’s military power. The previous government believed it had an unbeatable formula to obtain the support of the majority of people due to its constant mobilization of Sinhalese ethnic nationalism. It constantly reminded the ethnic majority of the military victory it had obtained over the LTTE and the militancy of the Tamil ethnic minority. It also claimed that the international community was seeking to revive the LTTE and used that justification to bolster the strength of the military and rule the ethnic minorities with a heavy hand. Even the Independence Day celebrations were used for this purpose.

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