Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The role of civil society

Prez polls 2015 and beyond



Purawesi Balaya and a Collective of Civil Society Organizations called a public meeting at the Mahaweli Center on Monday (April 9) to discuss the failure of yahapalana leaders to deliver their promises and remedial measures in the wake of the abortive bid to oust PM Wickremesinghe. From left: Saman Ratnapriya, Gamini Viyangoda, Vikramabahu Karunarathe and Ven. Dambara Amila at the head table. (pic by Saman Abesiriwardena)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A Collective of Civil Society organizations played a significant role in the UNP-led campaign that brought an end to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, in January 2015.

In spite of some differences among those who had been involved in the high profile exercise, the grouping vigorously campaigned to thwart war-winning twice President Rajapaksa’s bid to secure a third term. Whatever the differences, they were united in ousting the Rajapaksas.

The group also played a critical role in introducing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to rescind provision for a person to seek a third presidential term. The Amendment also barred Sri Lankans, having dual citizenship, from contesting presidential and parliamentary polls.

Rajapaksa assumed presidency in late November 2005 at the expense of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Had the LTTE and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) allowed the Tamil electorate to exercise their franchise in the Northern Province, Wickremesinghe would have comfortably secured the presidency.

Rajapaksa secured a second term in January 2010 beating war-winning Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka. The TNA backed Fonseka.

Rajapaksa lost his bid to extend his rule in January 2015 when longstanding SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena defeated him. The TNA made Sirisena’s victory possible.

Political parties debated the TNA role in the run-up to No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against Wickremesinghe debated and voted on April 4. The discussion is continuing with the Joint Opposition (JO) alleging Wickremesinghe-TNA agreement to defeat the NCM. The entire 16-member TNA parliamentary group voted against the NCM.

The National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS) led by the late Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, Purawesi Balaya, Left Center affiliated to the LSSP, Chamara Nakandala’s Parapuraka Balaya and Akalanka Hettiarachchi’s Aluth Parapura campaigned against the previous government and after the change of administration in January 2015. Although, various civil society groups had been engaged in politics, Sri Lanka never experienced what can be described as the collective power and influence of the civil society grouping until the late Sobitha, chief incumbent of the Kotte Naga Viharaya, took on the Rajapaksas.

In fact, the UNP couldn’t have carried out the political project without the support of the civil society grouping that mercilessly attacked the previous government. In spite of Ven. Sobitha’s demise in November 2015, within weeks after the parliamentary polls, the NMSJ, under Prof. Sarath Wijesooriya, continues to play a role. However, Wijesooriya hadn’t been able to sustain the operation at the late Sobitha’s level though, as an individual, the academic took up contentious issues, efficiently.

However, Purawesi Balaya has come to the forefront in the wake of the recent JO-led bid to oust UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through a NCM moved with the tacit understanding of President Sirisena. Purawesi Balaya tirelessly campaigned to save Wickremesinghe and the UNP-led administration though it, too, is also really disturbed by the UNP’s conduct. The civil society has been compelled to take a stand to prevent former President Rajapaksa gaining ground.

Actually, other civil society groups had been largely silent on the high profile political project to throw out the UNP leader. The role played by Purawesi Balaya should be examined against the backdrop of the other groups being largely silent in the run up to vote on the NCM on April 4. Purawesi Balaya Co Convenors, veteran literally translator Gamini Viyangoda and health worker Saman Ratnapriya as well as former Ravaya editor K.W. Janaranjana attacked the JO project.

Ven. Dambara Amila, who had been originally with the late Ven. Sobitha, too, addressed some media briefings organized by Purawesi Balaya at the Center for Society and Religion (CSR), Maradana, where he strongly defended Wickremesinghe and the UNP. Ven. Amila also addressed media briefing organized by Buddhist clergy supportive of the UNP, also at the same venue, where he blamed Sirisena 99 per cent for the failure on the part of the administration to fulfill its obligations. That assertion was made in response to a query posed by the writer. Evidently, Ven. Amila and Purawesi Balaya are not on the same page on all matters though they fully cooperate on strategy to keep the former President out of Temple Trees and the President’s House.

Purawesi Balaya on TNA’s role

In the run-up to the vote on the NCM, Viyangoda flayed Sirisena for being harshly critical of Wickremesinghe for seeking the TNA support to defeat the move in parliament against him. Viyangoda emphasized that Sirisena had absolutely no right to be critical of Wickremesinghe’s strategy as the TNA played a significant role in the 2015 operation to change Rajapaksa’s government. Recollecting how the LTTE boycott of the 2005 presidential polls enabled Rajapaksa to defeat Wickremesinghe by less than 200,000 votes, Viyangoda reminded Sirisena hat he was the BIGGEST BENEFICIARY IN THE 2015 TNA INVOLVED PROJECT.

The writer was present on that occasion. Viyangoda missed two critical points - the TNA’s role in the polls boycott ordered by the LTTE and the TNA’s role in Fonseka’s presidential bid. Many an eyebrow was raised when the TNA declared its support for Fonseka in the wake of war crimes allegations directed at the Sri Lanka Army.

Viyangoda strongly defended the TNA right to reach consensus with major political parties on whatever issues it desired. Viyangoda is quite right that Sirisena shouldn’t play politics with the issue after having received the TNA support to defeat Rajapaksa.

The role played by the US embassy, since 2009, in the overall plan to bring an end to the Rajapaksas rule in now in the public domain. The TNA, in June 2016, revealed in Washington the US role in a controversial agreement on foreign judges in war crimes court. The revelation was made several months after Sri Lanka co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1 in October 2015.

A tripartite agreement

In spite of Sirisena repeatedly assuring foreign intervention will not be allowed, there is still a tripartite agreement on the inclusion of foreign judges and other international experts in the proposed war crimes court.

Addressing the Congressional Caucus for Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka, on June 14, 2016, Jaffna District MP and TNA spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran named the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), the US and the TNA as parties to the agreement. The parties to the agreement also agreed that the proposed arrangement is in line with the Constitution.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government never contradicted Sumanthiran’s statement made in the presence of the then Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Washington Prasad Kariyawasam. Kariyawasam is now back in Colombo as the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sumanthiran’s statement should be examined against the backdrop of the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s call for the participation of foreign judges and other experts in the proposed domestic inquiry. Hussein has repeated the call for foreign judges.

Sumanthiran declared that Geneva adopted a watered-down resolution in respect of accountability issues on the basis of the tripartite understanding.

Declaring that the Geneva Resolution had been adopted on Oct 1, 2015, following tripartite negotiations involving the Sri Lankan government, the US and the TNA, MP Sumanthiran declared that they had agreed for a hybrid court with foreign judges, prosecutors, defence attorneys and investigators.

The Washington event was moderated by Sadhanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. The Caucus is an initiative launched by the United States House Representatives Bill Johnson of Ohio and Danny Davis of Illinois, in November, 2013.

The writer had an opportunity to raise Sumanthiran’s statement with Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, in August 2017, at the Foreign Ministry when he succeed disgraced Ravi Karunanayake. With Kariyawasam standing by his side, former Attorney General assured that foreign judges couldn’t be accommodated under any circumstances, in accordance with Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

Sumanthiran verbatim

Let me reproduce the relevant section of Sumanthiran’s statement in Washington verbatim which the writer received from TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s Office. Had Sampanthan didn’t release it, the country would have been in the dark as to the existence of the agreement. The Sri Lankan Embassy conveniently refrained from referring to Sumanthiran’s bombshell, in its statement.

The TNA, in a statement, issued on June 16, 2016, quoted MP Sumanthiran as having told the congressional hearing: "I was personally involved in the negotiations, with the United States of America also participating in that particular process. There were some doubts created, as to whether the Constitution of Sri Lanka would allow for foreign nationals to function as judges and we went into that question, clarified it, and said yes they can and that is how that phraseology was agreed upon. And so, to us having negotiated and compromised and agreed that there would be a hybrid tribunal to try these mass atrocities, it is not open for the government now to shift its stance and say "well, international involvement yes, but it’s in a different form, now...’. That is not acceptable to us all."

Rajapaksa’s failure

Strangely, the Rajapaksa administration never made an attempt to inquire into the conduct of the TNA during the war and the period the Norway-managed Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was in operation. Having recognized the LTTE, in late 2001, as the sole representative of Tamils and worked closely with the LTTE throughout the war, the TNA emerged unscathed in the wake of Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism.

Actually, the previous government surely owed an explanation to the country as regards its unpardonable failure to inquire into the TNA. Today, the TNA leads high profile campaign overseas and here to pressure Sri Lanka. The writer recently (April 6) raised the TNA warning to current dispensation over what he described as delay in implementing the Geneva accord with President Sirisena as well as his failure to robustly defend Sri Lanka at the UN body. Sirisena side-stepped the issue. Failure on the part of successive governments to examine the TNA wretched past has allowed Sampanthan or Sumanthiran for that matter to act as if he is paragon of virtue.

The TNA-LTTE relationship, partnership or whatever one may use to describe the destructive alliance, is a fact even pointed out by the European Union, way back in June 2004 in the wake of the April 2004 general election. Unfortunately, successive governments, the Election Commissioner/National Election Commission and foreign-funded election monitoring bodies never took up the issue.

The EU blamed the TNA for securing the lion’s share of the electoral seats in the northern and eastern districts with the backing of the LTTE. The EU directly blamed the LTTE for unleashing violence on candidates challenging those who had been fielded by the LTTE. All TNA candidates had been cleared by the LTTE at that time. Successive governments never bothered at least to comment on the EU report. Shame on spineless and useless politicians and the Election Commissioner who failed to act on the EU report.

They did nothing when the TNA, on behalf of the LTTE, ordered Tamils not to exercise their franchise at the Nov. 17, 2005 presidential polls. The LTTE-TNA move which was meant to deprive Wickremesinghe of certain victory at the presidential poll, helped Rajapaksa to win and to set the stage for an all out war. It was to be their final war. Those who claim that Rajapaksa bribed the LTTE to ban northern Tamils voting for presidential candidates should ask Sampanthan, MP, whether he was aware of the clandestine transaction.

So far, those who had accused Rajapaksa of bribing the LTTE are yet to ask Sampanthan and his parliamentary group whether they were aware of the transaction.

Parliament should consider appointing a committee to inquire into the complicity of the TNA in the LTTE’s November 2005 presidential polls boycott. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) never examined the TNA’s complicity in mayhem.

My friend Viyangoda, probably forgot to mention how in the run-up to the January 2015, presidential polls, UNP turncoat Tissa Attanayake alleged that Sirisena reached a secret agreement with the UNP that encompassed the TNA’s demands. Having switched allegiance to Rajapaksa, soon after Sirisena declared his presidential candidature, Attanayake released the alleged agreement. Now the matter is before courts.

A comprehensive examination of political alliances is necessary to establish the truth and the circumstances leading to Sumanthiran’s declaration in Washington. That statement cannot be compared with any other alleged agreement between the onetime mouth piece of the LTTE and registered political parties. The JO never bothered to raise Sumanthiran’s statement in parliament though the writer personally brought it to the notice of the top leadership. Either the JO didn’t care or lacked interest to pursue the matter. Over one and half years after Sumanthiran’s statement in Washington, the country remains in the dark as to the negotiations leading to the tripartite understanding involving Sri Lanka, the US and the TNA. The US Embassy never disputed The Island reportage of this matter.