A message from the Chair

This section was first started by Richard Bourne to give a monthly update for readers and supporters of The Round Table journal on developments leading up to the centenary celebrations of our journal (started in the Edwardian era).

Due to its popularity, it is now being continued by the new Chair of the editorial advisory board, (known since the early twentieth century as the Moot), Stuart Mole.

View the messages by selecting any of the links below:

January 2015

With the dawn of the New Year came dramatic change in Sri Lanka - and much relief for the Commonwealth. In the island’s presidential elections on 8 January, despite violence and widespread intimidation, the challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, won an unexpected and convincing victory. Surprisingly also, the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had called a snap election two years early in the expectation of extending his autocratic ten-year rule, seemed to have accepted his defeat (though reports later emerged suggesting a failed attempt by him to enlist the army and security chiefs in a coup).

Five weeks ago, all of this would have seemed the stuff of fantasy. Rajapaksa, who had earlier forced through changes to the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term, seemed impregnable. He and his family had an iron grip on power. Alongside widespread corruption and nepotism, there was intimidation of judges, hounding of journalists, disappearances and human rights abuses. The regime remained defiant in the face of UN attempts to investigate alleged war crimes in the closing stages of the civil war in 2009. There seemed to be no credible internal opposition. To its shame, the Commonwealth had allowed Rajapaksa to host the 2013 Commonwealth summit (though many Heads failed to attend) and studiously looked the other way at the mention of impunity and accountability. Worse, as the summit host, Rajapaksa automatically became the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, a key leadership position in the battered organisation.

Then, just when Rajapaksa looked certain to coast to an easy win, his Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and announced his candidacy as the common opposition candidate. It seemed unlikely that Sirisena could possibly prevail, given the unequal electoral contest he faced, distorted as it was by state power and violence. Yet, in an 81.52% turnout, the people of Sri Lanka rose up, including many Sinhalese as well as Tamils and Muslims, and voted for a better way.

The new president has promised to cut back state power and abolish the executive presidency, holding fresh parliamentary elections in 100 days. He has also pledged to root out corruption, and build a more inclusive society. He is likely to re-balance Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, seeking better relations with India, the UN and the West. Sirisena’s election also catapulted him into the position of 12th Chairperson-in-Office of the Commonwealth. He will have particular responsibilities as the organisation prepares for its next summit in Malta, in November 2015, and repairs the damage caused by its dalliance with the Rajapaksa regime.

But Sirisena will also have reason to be grateful to the Commonwealth. First, the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) at the elections was trenchant in its criticisms of the widespread abuse of state resources, media bias, bribery, violence and intimidation used against the opposition. Dr Bharrat Jagdeo, the Chair of the COG (himself a former Head of Government in Guyana) declared that although the outcome of the election “reflected the will of the people of Sri Lanka”, the inadequate electoral and legal framework and the unequal pre-electoral environment meant that the electoral contest “did not comply with all the key benchmarks for democratic elections”.

Second, while many doubted the value of the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s protracted ‘good offices’ role in ministering to the Rajapaksa government, Kamalesh Sharma deserves some credit for the emergence of a properly elected and functioning Northern Council in the Tamil north, and the Tamils’ re-integration into the polity. For it was the overwhelming votes of Tamils and Muslims on the island that seemed to have secured Sirisena’s victory – and sealed Rajapaksa’s fate.

Watch this space!

Stuart Mole

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