The National Peace Council (NPC)

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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

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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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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TEAMWORK AND MEASURED APPROACH TO MEET CHALLENGE OF 100 DAY PROGRAMME--Jehan Perera

The government is proceeding with its 100 Day programmme that President Maithripala Sirisena presented as part of his election manifesto. This plan promised a national government and new cabinet with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as its Prime Minister after the presidential election. It also contained a promise to change from a presidential to a parliamentary system, to repeal the 18th Amendment, to come up with a 19th Amendment to the Constitution, restoring independent commissions, setting up a national advisory council and also presenting an interim budget. The detailed plan also included setting up a special investigatory mechanism to probe corruption and passing legislation on right to information and a new health policy.

Previous presidents made big promises that they did not keep and their promises ended up being seen as gimmicks simply to win votes and the election. Viewed in the context of promises made by previous governments, the 100 day programme is impressive in both the national consensus it has obtained and also in being implemented. The first promise that was fulfilled was the appointment of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. The promise to establish a National Advisory Council has been fulfilled by the appointment of a National Executive Council thought still without the civil society representation that was promised, but it still is an impressive body having the participation of virtually the entire range of mainstream political parties, including the ethnic minorities.

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POPE’S VISIT IS ONE OF FOUR BLESSINGS OF THE NEW YEAR--Jehan Perera

The Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph has been a strong critic of the government in the past. He was made out to be a supporter of the LTTE both by government leaders and the media. But he was also a strong critic of the LTTE and its violations of human rights, especially forcible recruitment of children and attacks on civilians. At various times there were apprehensions that he was being targeted by one or the other side. This was due to his striking an independent path as is expected of a true religious leader. This was also in the tradition of Joseph Vaz who was canonized by Pope Francis during his visit to Sri Lanka. When he came to Sri Lanka in the 17th century to Fr Vaz did not involve himself in the internal power struggles of the Catholic Church of those times, but stood for the interests of the people he had come to sustain. This has also been the case with Bishop Joseph who has been a strong advocate for the rights of the Tamil people but without losing sight of the interests of the people of the entire country.

Prior to Pope Francis’s arrival in Sri Lanka, there was a concern that the visit of the Pope would be utilized for the political agenda of the then government. Some sections of civil and religious society even urged the postponement of the Holy Father’s visit, on the grounds that its proximity to the elections would unnecessarily involve mixing politics with religion and that the hurly burly of politics would distract the people from the sanctity of the occasion. Bishop Rayappu Joseph speaking on behalf of the Church explained why it did not seek such a postponement. He said, “We cannot dismiss the fears posed by some individuals, that the elections would disrupt the visit. But we had to balance these fears with the understanding of what is good for all the Catholics of Sri Lanka. The Church of Sri Lanka has decided to put aside any differences and stand by the decision that the Holy Father should visit Sri Lanka. The Papal visit is a visual visit of Christ on earth ...”

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SHARING CREDIT FOR THE PEACEFUL TRANSITION--Jehan Perera

Even as late as last week the visit of Pope Francis scheduled for January 13-15 was in question. There were doubts whether the post-election period would be conducive to a papal visit. The situation in the country in the run-up to the presidential election was an unpredictable one. Both main presidential candidates promised to ensure a peaceful election and peaceful transition to facilitate the visit. But on the other hand there was widespread violence. This was almost entirely directed against the opposition campaigners. In one instance, the opposition candidate had to flee the stage due to a stone attack. Civil society groups canvassing for the opposition were not spared either. Some artistes and human rights activists had to be hospitalized after another attack.

Although Election Day was peaceful these elections it failed to meet the test of free and fair elections. In addition to the violence, there was a denial of places for the opposition to hold their meetings. The government used the state machinery to the maximum. This was against the election law. Although the media was expected to give equal coverage to all candidates, the state media gave virtually full coverage to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government’s campaign. When it covered the opposition it did so only to show its weaknesses. The government has also used the state welfare system to give benefits to the voters and linked this to the benevolence of the President. In addition, the government used the military to distribute and exhibit government election propaganda.

At stake at these elections was whether Sri Lanka continued on the path set by the Rajapaksa government or on a different path. The most important features of the Rajapaksa path was the concentration of power in the Presidency , the breakdown of the system of checks and balances which saw the Chief Justice being sacked by the government, even though the Supreme Court and Appeal Court both disagreed with the government, the increasing role of the military in civilian affairs both in the Tamil areas and in the rest of the country, and the growing economic and political dependency on some countries, especially China, where the government took huge loans from the international community for projects of uncertain economic value.

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KEEPING MISGOVERNANCE AT BAY AFTER THE ELECTIONS--Jehan Perera

The prominent role of civil society in the polity has been highlighted during the course of the elections by the activities of the election monitoring organizations. However, even before the declaration of elections, civil society was in the news. The government media used to regularly vilify sections of civil society and non-governmental organizations as engaging in anti-national activities. Although this was not their intention, the state media highlighted the important role that civil society was playing in the polity, by keeping alive ideas of good governance, ethnic and religious pluralism and reconciliation to mention the ones that were most under threat. In the election campaign the debates of the political parties took up most of the space in the media. But there was also frequent reference in the media to the findings and opinions expressed by the election monitoring organizations with regard to the violations of electoral laws and the remedies that were being pursued.

The government has accused some of the election monitors as being biased and working for the agenda of international powers. All the main election monitoring organizations have pointed out that the lion’s share of the election violations have been committed by the government. In particular they have highlighted the enormous abuse of state resources. But the government still permitted these organizations to do their work unimpeded. This is to the credit of the government. It is also to the credit of all involved, especially the Elections Commissioner and his staff, and the police, and the election monitoring organisations that the level of violence did not rise as sharply as the ferocity of the political debate. During the election campaign, the area of weakness that could not be adequately addressed was the abuse of state resources by the government. PAFFREL for instance reported that the abuse of state resources was three times greater this time than at the previous presidential election.

The issue of civil society participation, and partisanship, in the political process was addressed by the head of the country’s largest civil society organization at an urgently convened media conference on New Year’s Day by Sarvodaya leader A T Ariyaratne. There was no endorsement of either candidate as might have been expected. Dr Ariyaratne made it clear that his organization would not be taking a partisan position or endorse either of the candidates. But it would continue to address issues of governance through its field activities and educational programmes. He added that the Sarvodaya Movement would launch its Deshodaya Movement for National Awakening after the election. It was an important affirmation that civil society is heterogeneous and not uniform. And also that the work of civil society organisations in complementing, supplementing and holding government to account will not end with the announcement of the election result on January 8.

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