Sirisena’s 100 days of sincere initiatives
Ashok K Mehta
The sixth War Heroes’ Victory Day held last Tuesday on May 19, at Matara marking the end of Eelam War IV, was the first under President Maithripala Sirisena – but it was different. It was renamed War Heroes Remembrance Day, as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – with Mr Sirisena saying that development alone could not achieve reconciliation; it needed truth, transitional justice and removing fear and mistrust arisen during the armed conflict. Before the war was won, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa used to mention four Ds: Demobilisation, Demilitarisation, Democracy and Devolution. After the war, Devolution was replaced with Development. In the North and the East, memorials were allowed for the first time to remember the martyrs. The Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam consisting of the diaspora under its Prime Minister Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, held a Mullivaikkal memorial meeting at Berlin. Not to be left behind, Mr Rajapaksa held a rally of his nationalist supporters, condemning the LTTE for assassinating former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
While the coalition Government’s first 100-day programme ended on April 23, it almost unanimously adopted on April 28 the 19th Amendment, trimming the powers of the executive presidency promulgated in 1978. Key features of the Bill are reduction of terms of President and Parliament from six to five years; President’s powers to dissolve House only after four and a half years, not one year; revival of the two-term cap on presidency; and resurrection of the constitutional council for establishing independent commissions. The abolition of the executive presidency was disallowed by the Supreme Court as it ruled that certain provisions like making the Prime Minister head of the Cabinet and empowering him to determine the size of his Cabinet would require a referendum. The President, therefore, retains his primacy as the head of the Cabinet but must appoint Ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister. 19A has repealed 18A as well as re-introduced provisions of 17A which had made the President very powerful.
The date of the elections could not be announced within the 100-day deadline due to differences over the mixed electoral system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation as well as the United National Party wanting early elections as opposed to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party wishing to delay them to maximise its current term in office. The life of the present House is till April 2016. Moreover, unresolved differences within the SLFP could be a disadvantage for the Sirisena faction of the party if elections were to be held now. That is why Mr Rajapaksa would like an early election to stage an improbable comeback. Differences over electoral reforms are to be resolved through a Select Committee before the 20th Amendment is listed in Parliament.
The present parliamentary arithmetic in a House of 225: SLFP (126); UNP (41), and the rest minority parties like the Tamil National Alliance, Jathika Hela Urumaya and others. In a quaint situation, two historically competing parties are cooperating, with the SLFP providing the President and the UNP the Prime Minister. It is hard to tell how the SLFP will pan out to accommodate Mr Rajapaksa in a leadership role. Not even the most astute electoral crystal-gazer can foretell the outcome of a likely September election.
Mr Sirisena’s strategic priorities are dealing with alleged war crimes and accountability to satisfy the Tamils in the North and the East. In the South he wants to show results on corruption. While former Economy and Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa is in jail, his brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is being investigated for fraud.
Mr Sirisena has taken incremental steps towards bridging the trust deficit with the Tamils. Military Governors in the North and the East have been replaced by civilians. The national anthem is being sung now in Tamil also. Besides land in the high security zone, 7,000 acres of land was taken by the previous Government. Lands in Jaffna, Sampore, Mannar, Mullaithivu and Panama have been or are being returned to original owners. The military is less visible and less intrusive in the North and the East, though its big-brother-is-watching image has not ended. The military has been asked to wind up its businesses like running hotels, resorts and golf courses, and revert to soldiering. For now, Mr Sirisena has not addressed devolution, saying that an all-party meet will discuss it after the elections.
Mr Sirisena has asked service chiefs to work on a new national security plan. The dilemma confronting him is on demilitarisation and downsizing a war-winning force. One of the key architects of the war victory, General Sarath Fonseka, who was incarcerated by Mr Rajapaksa, has deservedly been made a Field Marshal. A civilian Defence Secretary has been appointed, which may bring down the military a notch or two, though it must be admitted that it has played a stellar role in post-conflict relief and rehabilitation in surrendered Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and nation-building. The fear of the LTTE, real or imagined, is being kept alive. Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith Perera recently noted: “Even though the LTTE was defeated on the ground there is real danger of it re-grouping.”
Other 100-day achievements include a new legislation for good governance and the passage of a Right to Information Act. Sri Lankans are being encouraged to live, speak, congregate and agitate without fear. The plan to bring back 30 journalists who fled Sri Lanka is progressing. The Presidential Commission on Missing Persons is a work in progress, with 2,500 persons from the North and the East having given evidence. The Presidential Task Force on Truth and Reconciliation is being headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga – the glue holding the coalition together. She is being guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; social activist Desmond Tutu has visited Sri Lanka to share its experience.