President Sirisena Works Hard At Peace, Reconciliation

The political landscape in Sri Lanka continues on its uncertain journey. The Prime Minister was clearly for having an early dissolution whilst his current political partner of sorts, President Sirisena insisted on achieving the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. The problem with that was that the President also said that there was no need for the 20th to be made an ‘urgent’ bill and that ‘there was time for these matters’ indicating on one hand an unhurried approach whilst on the other keeping his political partners hopeful of early dissolution of parliament. In the meantime President Sirisena was beginning to address the contentious and vexed issue of peace and reconciliation.

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Ever since the nation achieved independence there have been contentious communal issues which politicians from time to time utilised for their own narrow gains. There was an almost complete lack of resolve to address these issues. Steadily these issues became polarised and the thirty-year terrorist action was a mere by-product.

No serious attempt was made to bring in unity, in fact SWRD Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only policy was a disaster of epic proportions. Disunity was allowed to permeate all levels of society with an almost gay abandon. The northern parts of the island were mostly forgotten under any development programme and even politicians local to those areas lost focus of what they had to do at the time.

In terms of the war the human cost was undeniably immense. Many of those who lost their lives were youth in the prime of their life – from the armed forces and the terrorist side. Scores of civilians quite unconnected to the terrorists or the armed forces and therefore ‘the cause’, lost their lives. In economic terms the financial cost of the 30+ year war was hugely significant. One estimate was that the government of Sri Lanka had spent in excess of USD 200 billion on the war. The amount spent by the LTTE will of course never be known although they certainly did spend. It may well be that they spent more given that as terrorists they would have had to pay a premium for their equipment mixed with perhaps ‘free’ donations of equipment from sympathetic persons and countries.

Pointedly, during the war years, there was zero growth in the leisure sector for example. There would have been little need to resort to Chinese loans or other funding agencies if one was to calculate the raw financial cost of the war. For comparative terms Sri Lanka could have built 400 ports the size of Hambantota port with that money! The opportunities lost is perhaps incalculable in monetary terms. In actual fact, the development that we see today may well have been at least 100 times greater had there been no war. There is no gain saying that this was entirely the fault of the LTTE – when in fact short-term thinking and planning by legislators are also party to the issue.

In recent history the largest mandate to secure peace was given to President Chandrika Kumaratunga who secured nearly 62% of the vote – a record that is yet to be beaten. She failed, for whatever reason, to resolve the problem. With a very slim majority Mahinda Rajapaksa obtained the Presidency and made a start towards peace and reconciliation by winning the armed battle. His efforts undoubtedly set the tone for achieving a sustainable peace. However even though his second term mandate was in the backdrop of the victory over the terrorists, with much of the country buoyed by that victory, it was significant and telling that his margin was a modest 58%. Even then, back in 2010 the people of the country were reaching out for a message: that they were war weary, they were thirsty and hungered for a peaceful coexistence having seen firsthand the effects of a war and that in essence they really sought the Buddhist ‘middle path’. Sadly Mahinda Rajapaksa misread the message and his undoubted popularity started to nosedive.

After the victory the task for Mahinda was development and reconciliation. Whilst he did remarkably well in terms of development his attempts at reconciliation were half hearted at best. The reasons for the war – the frustrations of the minorities – were never addressed in any way other than paying lip service. It is significant to examine the voting pattern of the former conflict areas at the last election to fully comprehend the people’s dissatisfaction with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s performance at reconciliation. After the war, amidst the triumphalism, there appeared to be a license to print money, to ignore the rule of law, to dismantle the independent judiciary and to look askance whilst unfettered corruption took place. The Foreign Service, key to projecting a positive image of our country, was filled with people with little or no expertise. Public corporations were coerced into entering contracts without approvals or budgets or allocation of funds. Amidst all this however parts of the economy blossomed and the per capita GDP rose according to the Rajapaksa economic plans. Reconciliation however was a disaster.

President Sirisena has realised that reconciliation cannot be obtained through bags of cement and ballast. Development alone could not be the catalyst for reconciliation is a message the new president understands clearly. The biggest plus point that Sirisena has is that he is conducive to listening. Senior advisors find in him a receptive president, able to understand and willing to act. He understands clearly that his mandate was to achieve change for the better.

The President is being advised closely to ensure that he is in charge of the reconciliation process. Advise he has been given is that whilst Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera and others have good intentions at heart, one cannot afford the luxury of splitting the reconciliation effort in several directions. The reasons they have cited are many but principally the main reason is an issue of credibility.

Mrs Kumaratunga had her opportunity and for whatever reason, she failed to deliver. Mr Wickremesinghe played a key role in bringing the war to a close when he worked the virtual surrender of Karuna in the East to the government side. Yet, when it came to credibility he was an electoral loser therefore does not enjoy the credibility that is so important to sell the reconciliation process to the masses. President Rajapaksa got it wrong when he allowed his younger brother to flirt with the BBS – alienating the minorities rather spectacularly. It proved to be his downfall.

President Sirisena has the mandate – the majority of that is from Sinhala Buddhists – and he is able to sell the reconciliation process like no other is now able to. Slowly but surely he is bringing in the Rajapaksa followers in the SLFP back towards the party – in so doing he is also gaining the grudging respect of the minorities and significantly of the majority Sinhalese who recognise that the politics of nationalism simply does not hold water in the ‘modern’ world that we now live in. No superpower will be willing to aid, help and encourage Sri Lanka without ascertaining for themselves that the people of the country – all the people of the country – feel secure, know that opportunities are available equally and that they are able to live their lives and go about their business without let or hindrance.

President Sirisena appears to be at the cusp of victory over a matter that is now far more potent than the war victory. He enjoys the succinct support of some countries, the encouragement of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and of course our regional superpower India. Once he personally sees to it that the Colombo Port City project is permitted to restart, he will also have the fullest co-operation of China too.

The immediate task for President Sirisena is to create a Peace and Reconciliation Secretariat which he must be the head of. He must personally control this arm of government. It will be essential for Sirisena to proclaim to his colleagues – Wickremesinghe, Kumaratunga, Ranawaka, Samaraweera, Athurelia Thero and others – that he intends to play a pro-active role in this matter and that this matter will be his sole preserve. He will thus send a message of providing leadership to the peace and reconciliation process and that he is mindful and fully aware that the international community – having given him the time – are watching his progress.

President Sirisena is no stranger to the horrors of the war. He was himself a target and has been a Minister in the government that helped defeat terrorism. He has the benefit of not being associated with allegations of sleaze, corruption or any intolerance of minorities. In essence he has an unblemished record to go forth on this journey of seeking solace, of peace and tranquillity quite like no other. In the event that he rises to this challenge he will be an eminent choice for a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. In the event that he misses out on this opportunity the full process of the BBS will rear its ugly head of communalism with the most far reaching consequences including the real possibility of anarchy.

Former presidential confidante and co-ordinating secretary, Sajin Vass Gunawardena has filed a Fundamental Rights motion in the Supreme Court seeking its intervention. Gunawardena maintains that he has been unlawfully and unfairly incarcerated, that he is being virtually singled out for a matter that he is not and has never been responsible for. He maintains that his health has been affected and that his continued incarceration is inconsistent with the rights that are assured him under Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

In a rare and almost unheard of move the former Governor of the Central Bank Ajith Nivard Cabraal wrote to the Chairman of COPE (The parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprise) and volunteered to provide clarification on matters connected to some operations of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Speaking exclusively to Newsfirst Sri Lanka, the former Governor explained that he had indeed been to COPE and assisted with various questions they had.

COPE has been looking into maters connected with the 30-year Treasury bond which has caused very much more than a ripple throughout the capital markets. Arjuna Mahendran, the beleaguered Governor of the Central Bank was to appear on ITN, the state owned television station, and denied many of the claims of wrong doing. Previously he had agreed in a telephone interview with Newsfirst that he was ‘responsible for not informing the primary dealers of the increased requirement (from Rs 1 Billion to Rs 10 Billion)’. The Governor also maintained that his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius had resigned from the Board of Directors of Perpetual Treasuries Limited, one of sixteen primary dealers as soon as he was appointed Governor to avoid conflict of interest issues. The Governor however did not point out what other parliamentarians and the media have found out from publicly available documentation. This information was to reveal that Aloysius had indeed resigned from the licence-holding company Perpetual Treasuries Limited but that he was a director of the holding company and that he was also a significant shareholder there. That gave rise to the possibility that Aloysious, even though he was not a member of the Board of Directors of that company by virtue of his resignation, nevertheless retained a direct influence over the company by being a director and significant shareholder of the holding company.

Some analysts pointed out that under the Companies Act he may well be deemed to be a Shadow director meaning that by virtue of his position at the holding company he could in effect control the Board at Perpetual Treasuries Limited. Our information is that Mr Cabraal articulated the facts of quite how the Public Debt Department operated in a way that left members at COPE appreciative of his frankness and the confidence with which he had spoken. Cabraal for his part has revealed to those close to him that he feels that the Prime Minister and Mahendran have both been at best, economical with the truth. Another member was to later remark on how erudite and fluid the former Governor was. On the same subject we learn that the Cabraal family were amused to hear Eran Wickremaratne claim in parliament that Cabraal was responsible for the lack of interest in the latest international bond the Central Bank had sought. A source close to the family revealed that Mr Cabraal had been confronted by his family demanding to know why he had not disclosed to them that his influence was so wide internationally that he was able to stop investments being made in Sri Lanka.

The Ranbhumi Unity rally, that visited the length and breadth of Sri Lanka including over 100 villages and cities, came to a spectacular close at Galle Face Green. The rally was hugely successful and attracted large crowds along the way – many declared that they were there because they wished to show affinity and support for the cause of togetherness and unity. President Sirisena felt it sufficiently significant and supported the cause by being present at Galle Face Green where he symbolically placed the brick representing Colombo on top of the pile of the other bricks collected from around the country.