- Created on 27 July 2015
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.
- Created on 20 July 2015
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.
- Created on 13 July 2015
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.
- Created on 06 July 2015
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.
- Created on 29 June 2015
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.
- Created on 22 June 2015
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.
- Created on 15 June 2015
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.
- Created on 08 June 2015
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.
- Created on 03 June 2015
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.
- Created on 25 May 2015
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.