President Maithripala Sirisena will be completing a year as President on January 08, 2016. A year ago he was the Minister of Health in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet. He was first elected to parliament in 1989 representing Polonnaruwa and was re-elected in 1994, 2000, 2004 and 2010. In 1997, he was appointed as the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but was beaten in 2000 following which he became one of the Deputy Presidents of SLFP. He staged a come back as General-secretary of the SLFP in October 2001 following Dissanayake’ s defection to the United National Party (UNP. President Kumaratunga appointed Sirisena as Minister of River Basin Development and Rajarata Development in the new UPFA government in April 2004. He belonged to a family which settled down in Polonnaruwa as colonists during DS Senanayake’s time and, therefore, not a politician from the political elite and socialites. Throughout his political career, he remained an unflashy and a low profile politician.
In November, 2014 Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from his post as President and announced his candidature two years ahead of schedule. The news of his resignation took everyone by surprise, including his close confidants, advisors and even the opposition. The only exception was Rajapaksa’s trusted Astrologer of over 30 years who gave him the go ahead telling him that according to his horoscope he is an invincible personality and a blessed man. He will win a third term resoundingly.
Since first elected as President in 2005 by defeating Ranil Wickremesinghe from the UNP, Mahinda Rajapaksa has consolidated his political power beyond anyone’s expectation. The 18th Amendment virtually made him an elected dictator more powerful than JR Jayewardene the godfather of the executive presidential system of government. The 18th Amendment further strengthened the presidency at the expense of the legislature, the judiciary and the citizens, thereby exacerbating the imbalance inherent in the system. Mahinda Rajapaksa did away the two terms limit to continue his rule in perpetuity. As executive president he along with his siblings, controlled 80% of the budget expenditure. His cousins and nephews who had little education were appointed as Ambassadors, Heads of Corporations etc. Some one produced a Rajapaksa’s facility tree that depicted about 250 relatives working at the Temple Trees.
Not only the Astrologer, had many people thought is Rajapaksa invincible in an election. He saw no opposition candidate capable of defeating him anywhere in the horizon. He was confident he will make history by winning the presidency for a third time. . From the opposition ranks, he only saw Ranil Wickremesinghe as the likely opponent. Ranil Wickremesinghe cajoled the UNP to nominate him as the presidential candidate. When he approached the leader of the Thamil National Alliance for support, R.Sampanthan politely declined. He told Ranil Wickremesinghe that he cannot ask the Thamil people to vote for a losing candidate. He asked him to look for a strong candidate, likely someone outside the UNP, to contest Rajapaksa. It was then the hunt for a presidential candidate gathered pace not within the opposition parties but right inside the ruling UPFA. It ended in Maithripala Sirisena pitted against Rajapaksa who least expected the turn of events.
A relatively low profile Cabinet minister stunned the country by winning a bitterly fought election against his former boss. On the day of the election, Sirisena has gone into hiding with his family in a coconut estate owned by one of his friend from Dodangaslanda. Emerging from his hiding next day, he told the press that had he lost the election he and his family would have been murdered by Rajapaksa.
Sirisena (63) was elected president of Sri Lanka after polling 6,217,162 (51.28%) of the total vote cast as against 5,768.090 (47.58 %) polled by Rajapaksa. In predominantly Thamil and Muslim populated 5 districts in the Northeast provinces, Sirisena polled a staggering 978,111 (74.35%) of the total votes. Thus the 332,705 (1.26%) votes lead Rajapaksa had over Sirisena in the predominantly 16 Sinhalese districts was more than off-set by the votes polled by Sirisena in the Northeast provinces plus Nuwara Eliya district (272,605 – 63.88%) votes as against 468,939 (31.64%) votes polled by Rajapaksa. Sirisena won by an overall majority of 449,072 votes.
In the 2010 presidential election Rajapaksa polled 6.015,934 (57.88%) as against 41, 731, 85 (40.15%) giving Rajapaksa a majority of 1,842,749. Thus compared to 2010 presidential elections, Rajapaksa’s vote bank decreased by 247,844 (10.88%) in 2015. There was an increase of 955,990 registered voters in 2015 compared to 2010. At the parliamentary elections held on August 17, 2015 history was repeated. Rajapaksa’s desperate attempt to stage a come back as Prime Minister failed. The UNP won 106 seats and the UPFA 95 seats. UNFGG polled 5,098,916 (45.66%) votes and UPFA polled 4,732,664 (42.38%). Together with the SLFP (Sirisena) the UNFGG was able to form a national government.
Following the defeat of Rajapaksa, democratic space has increased in the Northeast. Thamil people still have daunting problems that remain unaddressed and unresolved. Foremost is the return of lands grabbed by the army during and after the war ended in May, 2009. Though about 3,359.5 acres of land in the Northeast have been released, still there are many thousands of acres of land still occupied by the army. The army is resisting the re-settlement efforts of the government and there is reluctance on its part to vacate occupied lands.
As of November 01, 2015 in the Jaffna district a total of about 7,075 acres of land belonging to 10, 495 families in 7 Pradesha Sabhas (See Table 1 below) are occupied by the army. These displaced people are living in 31 welfare centres, with relations and friends for over 25 years. More over 172 houses, 16 schools, 19 temples, 12 public places, airport, fishing port, hospitals, banks and bus stands continued to be occupied by armed forces. In Jaffna where IDPs have been allowed to resettle, they need 39,770 houses, 31,845 toilets, including 729 toilets for the handicapped. Additionally, 2,713 toilets and an unspecified number of schools, hospitals have to be renovated. A total of 627.517 kms of road within the re-settled area have to be re-constructed.
On December 30, President Sirisena handed over 701.5 acres of land to the original owners and thus the balance is now 6,373 acres. He has since promised to release all private lands seized by the armed forces within 6 months.
There are 13,487 acres of land in Mullaitivu district, 501 acres of land belonging to 123 individuals in Kilinochchi and 4,000 acres of land in Mannar and Vavuniya still under army occupation. Thus 14,361 acres of private land is still occupied by the armed forces in the North. This does not include several thousand acres of privately owned paddy lands, lands belonging to the Agricultural department, Forest Department and other departments continued to be occupied by the armed forces. The inordinate and inexcusable delay in releasing private lands owned by the people is exacerbating tensions among the IDPs. People are losing patience after waiting for 25 long years that include 6 years after the war to go back to their own lands.
In contrast to the pathetic and gloomy situation in the North, the government went the extra mile in the East to release 818 acres of land belonging to 1,250 families and another 237 acres owned by 634 families, but occupied by the Sri Lanka navy. Many temples and a well known school Sampur Maha Vidyalaya were located in land. The re-settlement is now in progress with the help of UNHRC, NGOs and help from Thamil Diaspora to build temporary shelters.
One of the glaring and autocratic mis-use of state power was the taking over and vesting of 818 acres of land in Sampur belonging to displaced Thamils in 2006 following army offensive in Mavilaru. The poor Thamil refugees who were mostly peasant farmers and fisher-folk hoped they can go back to their lands and homes or what remained over after the war ended in May, 2009. Promises were made in parliament by the then powerful Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa that the displaced people will be resettled after de-mining. That was a misleading statement and an attempt to keep the Thamil politicians and the IDPs in good humour.
What the government did was to vest the said land with the Board of Investment (BOI) by a presidential gazette notification. A further presidential gazette notification gave away the land to a private limited company styled Sri Lanka Gateway Industries on 99 years lease. This company established in June, 2010 had an ambitious plan to develop an Industrial Zone with necessary physical and social infrastructure, in a land extent of 36 sq.kms (9000 Acres) in Sampur in the Trincomalee District. This location was chosen because the industries targeted for the proposed Industrial Zone require direct access to a dedicated and a deep water jetty to cater to Cape–Size vessels. The project location also has a vast stretch of un-inhabited land and is considered most suitable for this purpose.
The Rajapaksa cabinet approved the project on 23 February 2011. The industrial project will include an Oil and Petrochemicals Refining Facility, Vehicle Manufacturing and Assembling Plant, Fertilizer Plant, LNG degasification and storage facilities. Power Generation, Transhipping Coke and Thermal Coal etc.etc. The project was expected to cost US $4 billion and will take place over three phases. And who owned the shares of Sri Lanka Gateway Industries? It was none other than Prabath Nanayakkara who was the Chairman and sole director! Prabath signed the agreement with BOI on June 13, 2012. And who is Prabath Nanayakkara who was ready to invest US$4 billion?
A little known businessman, Nanayakkara Prabath’s meteoric rise ran parallel to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ascent to power. Prabath’s mainstay is Dilshan Wickremasinghe (38) who is the son of the President’s brother-in-law, Nishantha Wickremasinghe, who is also the Chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines. This shows Mahinda Rajapaksa was not lily white and he ran the government to the benefit of his own family members and others close to them.
The gross injustice done to the hapless Thamil refugees was redressed by none other than President Maithripala Sirisena. Through a gazette notification the President revoked the BOI agreement on 07 May 2015 and released the land held by the BOI and leased to Sri Lanka Gateway Industries (SLGI) to the rightful owners. The SLGI petitioned the Supreme Court and obtained an interim restraining order on May 15, 2015 suspending the release of lands. But after a full hearing on May 21, the Supreme Court lifted the stay on the transfer of land in Sampur to the rightful owners.
I am writing at length about SLGI simply to demonstrate the magnanimity and the sense of justice displayed by President Sirisena, in stark contrast to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s arrogance and total contempt for the rights of ordinary and underprivileged Thamil citizens of the country. He punished the people of Sampur once during the war and then after the end of the war by robbing their lands.
More serious problems faced by the Thamil people in the Northeast is the release of political prisoners, tracing involuntary disappearances during and after the end of the civil war, resettlement of 89,000 war widows, the reduction of the army, decentralization of power etc.
The number of political prisoners held in prisons for decades has been progressively reduced during the last 6 years. Yet, a total of 217 prisoners remained in prison. Out of this 39 prisoners have opted to under go rehabilitation in army camps. But, the fate of the remaining 188 prisoners remains in limbo. President Sirisena gave an assurance that his government will find a solution before November 7, 2015. However, this assurance was not kept. Apparently, the Attorney General Department is placing road blocks against the release of prisoners. A Special Court was established to expedite the cases, but the Attorney General Department is asking for time to file charges.
Despite wide spread pessimism among the Thamil people, there is light at the end of the tunnel that a new constitution will be drafted within 6 months or within one year in 2016. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will move a resolution in the parliament on January 9 to coincide with the first anniversary of President Sirisena’s presidency for converting the House into a Constitutional Assembly, marking the formal inauguration of the process of making a new Constitution in the place of the 1978 Constitution. Once the Parliament adopts the draft Constitution Bill with a two-thirds majority, the Bill will be sent to Provincial Councils for opinion and eventually, tested through an island wide referendum among the people. If this process succeeds, it will be the fourth constitution after independence.
The constitution is best described as a bundle of compromises. This statement is very true because everyone at the Constitutional Assembly had to compromise because there was no way everyone could get what they wanted. US constitution enacted in 1787 AD work even in the present day. During the last 228 years the US constitution has been amended only 33 times, that is roughly one in seven years!
Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 and the Charter of Rights enacted in 1982 created power sharing at federal, provincial and municipal levels. Prior to 1982 only 32 minor amendments have been made to the constitution. In each of the 10 provinces in Canada, the provincial government is responsible for areas listed in the Constitution Act, 1867, such as education, health care, some natural resources, and road regulations. Sometimes they share responsibility with the federal government. There are three territories populated by aboriginal people (First Nation) who have their own governments, with responsibilities that are delegated to them by the federal government. The sharing of powers as outlined in the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982 is the glue holding a vast country like Canada together.
In Sri Lanka the first autochthonous Soulbury constitution lasted for 25 years, Mrs Bandaranaike’s unitary republican constitution for just 6 years and Mr. Jayewardene’s executive presidential constitution may be for 38 years with 19 amendments!
The 1972 and 1978 constitutions were aimed at Sinhalization of the Sri Lankan state. It assigned foremost place to the religion and language of the majority at the expense of the national minorities. The framers of these constitutions aimed at consolidation of a power structure and were opposed to the Thamil people’s demand since 1949 for power sharing and a regionally decentralised state system based on federalism.
The year 2016 will be the make or break of Sri Lanka among the comity of nations. Therefore, all eyes are on President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Head of Office for National Unity and Reconciliation Chandrika Bandaranaike, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan who together brought about the January 8 revolution.
The year 2016 is also the year of reckoning for TNA Leader R. Sampanthan who has given an assurance to the Thamil people that there will be a reasonable, workable and a durable political solution within the framework of a united, undivided Sri Lanka. He has appealed to the government the recognition of Northeast provinces as the historical habitat of the Thamil people and the Thamil speaking people. The Thamil people are entitled to the right to self-determination and shared sovereignty over land, law and order, enforcement of the law so as to ensure the safety and security of the Thamil people and socio-economic development.
The year 2016 provides the last chance for settling the festering ethnic question satisfactory to all three communities and take Sri Lanka on the road to prosperity and lasting peace.