Colombo Telegraph

An Opportunity For Amity In Sri Lanka

By G K Nathan

Dr. G. K. Nathan

President Maithripala Sirisena delivered his inaugural address to the people of Sri Lanka from Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) in Kandy, a place well venerated by past Sinhala and Tamil Kings who ruled the Kandyan Kingdom and by all the people of Sri Lanka who visits the temple, the most appropriate place to deliver a speech seeking unity in diversity in the Island. President Sirisena “called on all political parties and members of Parliament to co-operate with him in setting up a National Unity Government to build a new Sri Lanka, where there would be multi-religious and multi-racial unity in diversity”. Probably, this is the first time, since Independence on 4 February 1948, a head of the Government of Sri Lanka has delivered such an all encompassing speech, openly acknowledging the differences among the people and the need to find unity in diversity. Not surprisingly many world leaders, taking note of the deteriorating political situation in Sri Lanka under the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and who was heading towards authoritarianism, have called upon the new President Sirisena and emphasized the importance of accountability and reconciliation to build a strong and democratic country. World leaders conveyed their message, prior to his inaugural address and also called on the new President of Sri Lanka to cooperate with the International Inquiry on Sri Lanka, to bring all people together. Knowing the truth about what happened during the military conflict would help to heal the wounds of all people to come together. To complement the calls from world leaders, Pope Francis visiting Sri Lanka, immediately after the Presidential election and at the interfaith meeting said We must be forthright in interfaith dialogue and added on “for too many years the men and women of this country (Sri Lanka) have been victims of civil strife and violence. What (is) needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division. Surely the fostering of healing and unity is a noble task which is incumbent upon all who have at heart the good of the nation, and indeed the whole human family.” Similar messages of Amity between Sinhala and Tamil peoples have been repeated in other Public functions by Pope Francis. After six decades of communal politics which was exploited by a number of politicians in the past to gain power, a new President “a country boy” has emerged with humility, compared to past presidents most of them belonged to legendary political dynastic families in our short history, post independence. He has stressed the need for unity in diversity, good governance and democracy; hopefully he will call upon his countrymen to respect and follow the path set-out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. President Sirisena has declared that he would be only a one term President, something unique and contrary to history of Sri Lankan politicians to date. No doubt that President Sirisena is best placed to achieve his goal in finding unity in diversity compared to past Presidents who were more interested in themselves, the last one, worst of all wanting to establish a family dynasty, like in present North Korea. Sri Lankans under the new leadership of President Sirisena, supported by all, should make use of the opportunity and become one of the mature democratic countries in the World that respect human rights of fellow human beings and equals, irrespective of differences among the people and turn a new leaf in the history of Sri Lanka.

Presidential Election and Outcomes

President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for the Presidential election on 8 January 2015, two years ahead of the scheduled date for three key reasons: the first one, as a counter measure to challenge his falling popularity among Sinhala Buddhist people, as Tamils and Muslims have already abandoned him for failure to recognize their rights as equal citizens; the second to throw a challenge to the leading opposition, the United National Party (UNP) believing that they are divided and unprepared to face a presidential election compared to his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which had a two-third majority in the Parliament and the third, the most spurious reason of all that the astrologer predicted that this specific date is the best one to face an election and be victorious in the election. Little he expected that the challenge to his ambition will come from the General Secretary of his own party the SLFP. People of Sri Lanka, dashed his hopes by convincingly defeating him and now there are allegations against him that military intervention was on the card to stay in power. Patterns of voting at the Presidential election show that Rajapaksa was convincingly beaten at the election, because a very high percentage of Tamil and Muslim voters and a good proportion of the Sinhala Buddhist voters went against Rajapaksa at the election. The serious allegations from different sources that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa attempted to use the military power to stay in power; the New Government is pursuing allegations of diabolical conspiracy to stay in power , only time will reveal the truth.

Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the Presidential election together with that the immunity enjoyed from the office of Presidency, the double wham adverse impact must have shaken him to the core, the most powerful authoritarian ruler of Sri Lanka to date, since Independence has been dethroned, peacefully by people power. Furthermore, Mahinda Rajapaksa during his tenure as a President refused to cooperate or to abide by the successive resolutions passed at the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at 19th session in 2012, 22nd session in 2013 and 25th session in 2014. Findings based on the resolution passed at the 25th session which called upon the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) that report will be released at the 28th session of UNHRC on 25th March 2015. The conclusions will determine whether Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the former Commander in Chief of Armed Forces of Sri Lanka, is liable for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The other combatant being Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), from the evidence available in the international media, most of the senior leaders have been eliminated without any trace by the outgoing regime of Rajapaksa. The OISL findings will confirm to what extend both combatants were responsible for alleged breach of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said his willingness to cooperate with the process to know the truth of what happened, but has said there are reservations about the judicial process that will be followed for Sri Lankan citizens. Majority of Sri Lankans are for knowing the truth which will lead to reconciliation between peoples, in particular Sinhala and Tamil who have lived in this Island for more than two millennia. Will the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena cooperate with OHCHR so that justice is done to all people under the International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law and set a new path among other democratic countries?

Dilemma of President Sirisena

President Sirisena won the election as a “Common Opposition Candidate” supported by a section of the SLFP, the UNP, the two major parties in Sri Lanka and other minority parties. Though he was announced as the common opposition candidate, he still maintained that he is a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), but he was kicked out as a SLFP member by the ex-President Rajapaksa who was then the Chairman of the SLFP. Not surprisingly, the new government that was formed has majority of the ministers from the United National Party (UNP) as the major opposition party and other minor parties, but members of the SLFP who supported the new President Sirisena at the election were also appointed as ministers, but make-up only, about a third of all the ministers. After the election increasing number of SLFP members crossed the floor of the Parliament and joined with President Sirisena and other SLFP defectors. Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the dethroned president taking note of his unpopularity among his party members and people of Sri Lanka, voluntarily transferred the Chairmanship of the SLFP to President Sirisena, before being kicked out of the chairmanship of the SLFP. At the same time one section of the SLFP, which remained with Mahinda Rajapaksa formed the opposition group in the Parliament and Nimal Siripala de Silva was nominated by the SLFP, as the Leader of the Opposition. Probably, for the first time in the democratic world,   a strange phenomenon in which both the Head of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition are from the SLFP has occurred. The “powerless” Prime Minister under the present constitution is from the UNP. The new President being an honourable man, the 19th Amendment will be passed soon and the transfer of most of the administrative power from the President to the Prime Minister will happen. The current Parliament will be dissolved on 23 April 2015, following the General election; the new Prime Minister, leader of the largest party will have the executive power in the country. The new Prime Minister whether from the UNP or the SLFP, will be decided by the voters, in which minority parties will have a significant influence on the outcome, if the Sinhala voters are divided between the two.

The first speech delivered by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the Parliament, on 20th January 2015, reminded the 13th amendment that followed the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 1987 signed between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene envisaged the devolution of powers to the provinces in the midst of the island’s bitter ethnic conflict. He went on to say that “Finding a solution is not only a responsibility of the TNA, but also of all of us including the government, opposition, JVP and everybody. It is our responsibility and duty. We should show the country that we all can sit together and iron out our differences to find a solution.” The Prime Minister said “We will implement the 13A within a unitary framework” is a contradicting to what the President Sirisena said in his inaugural address quoted at the beginning of this article. Prime Minister being prescriptive of what should be the framework for a solution is not a good start, this approach being the main cause of military conflict in the past and he belongs to a the oldest political hierarchical family in Sri Lanka. What needed is a solution within a unified country suitable a for multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual country like Sri Lanka, to avoid the repetition of what happened as the result of ethnic, military and lastly religious conflict among different Nations in the country since independence. There are small and large countries with similar size population like Sri Lanka, which have found political solutions and “unity in diversity” as said by President Sirisena. On the same day Mr R Sampanthan leader of the TNA said in the parliament that “The Tamil question needs to be addressed so as to evolve a permanent, reasonable, workable and durable solution within the framework of a united, undivided Sri Lanka.”

One Hundred Day Program

Mr Maithripala Siripala was declared as a winner by the Commissioner of Election who conducted a free and fair election; being aware of the uncertain political situation in Sri Lanka because of talks of “military coup” from the defeated candidate, Mr Maithripala Sirisena as President and Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister were sworn-in, the next day. Following this the cabinet was formed with members of the people who formed the “Common Opposition Front”, which had less than half the Members of Parliament, going for the presidential election. The TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, a few days prior to the Presidential election, said that the TNA was prepared to fully cooperate with the new government, in resolving the Tamil question within a United, Undivided Sri Lanka, after the election, but declined to be part of the government. It is commendable that President Siripala honoured his original agreement, even though more of the SLFP members joined him after his electoral victory. He was also made the Chairman of the SLFP, after the defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa, surrendered his position as the Chairman of the SLFP. President of Sri Lanka, as Chairman of the SLFP and the UNP leader as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the post election government is best placed to find a solution to the long standing conflict and recognize the rights of the minority Nations. The combination of both the SLFP and the UNP occurs for the first time in the post Independence era, in the current parliament; and both agreed that the 100 day program will be implemented within three months. An opportunity to include the 13th Amendment plus, to honour the promises made to India by various governments in the past, as well as to restore the lost rights of minority Nations in the last six decades, with the combined forces of the SLFP and the UNP is a possibility that should not be ignored, when the 19th Amendment is introduced. Unfortunately this has been left out of proposed plan below.

Key points of 100 day program with targeted dates are:

  • Abolishing of the authoritarian executive presidential system and replacing it with an executive of a Cabinet of Ministers responsible to Parliament, and of repealing the 18th Amendment, reinstating the 17th Amendment via the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which will be presented to Parliament and passed as swiftly as possible. (21 Jan 2015)
  • An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with an Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportional representation too (28 Jan 2015)
  • An Ethical Code of Conduct will be introduced legally for all representatives of the people. (2 Feb 2015)
  • Independence Day will be celebrated with re-establishment of Democracy and Good Governance and the Sovereignty of the People. (4 Feb 2015)
  • Special Commissions will be appointed to investigate allegations of massive corruption in the preceding period (5 Feb 2015)
  • Independent Commissions will be established and required appointments made (18 Feb 2015)
  • The Right to Information Bill will be introduced and passed within 3 weeks (20 Feb 2015)
  • New elections laws will be prepared in accordance with the proposals put forward by the all party committee (2 March 2015)
  • The Constitutional Council will be set up and the process of making appointments to and establishing Independent Commissions will begin (23 March 2015)
  • A Parliamentary system will be put in place instead of the Executive Presidential system. (20 April 2015)
  • Parliament will be dissolved and free and fair elections held under a caretaker government. (23 April 2015)

Following that election, the Prime Minister will be appointed from the party getting the highest number of seats at such an election, with a Deputy Prime Minister from the party getting the next highest number. Most probably, the two key positions will be occupied by the SLFP and the UNP, if so the scenario will be almost same as the current one, after the Parliamentary election too. Meeting the targeted date is impossible. Therefore, should both the SLFP and the UNP with agreement with the parties representing the minorities resolve now the rights of minority Nations and the election and the referendum held at the same time?

Rights of Minority Nations and Justice for the Victims

The proposed 100 day program do not say a word about minority Nations, Tamils and Muslim within Sri Lanka more than what is in the current constitution, furthermore nothing is said about the 13th Amendment plus that was promised to India. The 13th Amendment was introduced because of the intervention from our immediate neighbour India. A National Government of all parties represented in Parliament will be established to govern for a period of at least two years, after the General election. Once again the minority rights will be at the mercy of Sinhala Buddhists majority who can amend the constitution, because the 60/40 representation between majority/minority Nations guaranteed under the Soulbury Constitution was done away by disenfranchising a section of the minority community, immediately after independence in 1948. Furthermore worsened by the removal of the clause 29 (2) in Soulbury constitution from the 1972 Republican constitution. This is the reason why there were peaceful followed by military struggle over the last six decades to establish the Tamils’ rights. This has resulted in the International intervention through the UNHRC process for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, with great uncertainty which can cause more economic disadvantages to all the people in Sri Lanka.

It is in the hands of the majority Nation willingly coming forward to correct the wrong done to the minority Nations, ignoring and hoping it will go away will not bring any happy outcome. An African American with about 13% of the population in the USA could be elected as the President of the country, as well as in India many of their Prime Ministers and Presidents have come from ethnic groups of less than ten percent of the population, even though about 40% speak Hindi dialect; if Sri Lanka is going to emerge as a true democracy the country has to go a long way for a real shared democracy. The Presidential election has demonstrated, even though minority Nations Tamils and Muslims were denied some of their democratic rights and there are numerous victims in Sri Lanka because of bias against minorities, particularly in the last decade; as a sign of goodwill, minorities exercised their votes at the Presidential election and influenced the outcome, which brought to end; the establishment of a dynastic rule in Sri Lanka. That would have brought worst disaster than what the country has experienced so far. The same minority Nations, who are willing to be part of Sri Lanka, should be allowed to exercise their rights under ICCPR to determine their own future, which will demonstrate that Sri Lanka is a true democracy with that the opportunity for rapid economic growth of unified and not unitary country will be assured with more international support.

Dear President Sirisena, many world leaders congratulated on your remarkable victory; some are from democratic countries. Those leaders sent messages reminding and emphasizing the importance of accountability and reconciliation in a war torn country; also called on to cooperate with the ongoing OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL).   Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka at an opportune moment, a sign of blessing to the country soon after your victory. Pope Francis reminded all of us in Sri Lanka that: “too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence. What needed now is healing and unity”. The US President Barack Obama’s final words in: the State of the Union Address delivered on 20th January 2015 to the American people; “A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter — together — and let’s start the work right now”, also a message to all in Sri Lanka. Hope Sri Lankans pay heed to this message and have a good beginning with goodwill among all; starting the process immediately, rather than wait for another General Election later in the year, as said in your 100 day program.

*The views expressed are that of the author and he can be contacted via email: ticpl@ozemail.com.au 

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