Com­par­ing con­tentious post-war pol­i­tics in Nepal and Sri Lanka

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - JONATHAN GOODHAND OLIVER WAL­TON newsroom@mm­ Jonathan Goodhand is a pro­fes­sor in Con­flict and De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies at the SOAS South Asia In­sti­tute, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. Oliver Wal­ton is a lec­turer in In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment at the Uni­ver­sity o

SRI Lanka and Nepal may have turned their backs on pro­tracted and bloody con­flicts but the fault lines that fu­elled these wars have not gone away. One key chal­lenge now fac­ing po­lit­i­cal elites is that of con­sti­tu­tional re­form. But long-stand­ing cen­tral-pe­riph­eral ten­sions threaten to resur­face in con­sti­tu­tional de­bates, and shape con­tentious pol­i­tics in both coun­tries.

In Sri Lanka, for­mer pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s 10 years in of­fice came to a sud­den end last year with a de­feat in both pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. Nepal’s pre­vi­ous prime min­is­ter K P Sharma Oli’s Com­mu­nist Party of Nepal-led gov­ern­ment was also forced out in May 2016 and re­placed by the Maoist leader Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal or “Prachanda”. The lat­ter now heads a new coali­tion with the Nepali Congress and Mad­hesi par­ties based along the south­ern bor­der with In­dia.

Both these newly elected gov­ern­ments are strug­gling to craft new con­sti­tu­tional agree­ments. In Nepal, Prachanda is seek­ing to amend the 2015 con­sti­tu­tion to ap­pease Mad­hesi de­mands. In Sri Lanka, the gov­ern­ment is hur­riedly draw­ing up a new con­sti­tu­tion, which it plans to fi­nalise be­fore the end of the year and put to a pub­lic vote in 2017. This is a high-stakes game, with the fu­ture char­ac­ter of the state and its ad­min­is­tra­tive ar­range­ments up for grabs.

At one level this is a strug­gle in­volv­ing elected politi­cians and lawyers to en­sure a fair and le­gal divi­sion of pow­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But be­neath the for­mal struc­tures and of­fi­cial de­bates is a mul­ti­lay­ered strug­gle in­volv­ing net­works of ac­tors an­i­mated by the drive to cap­ture, con­trol, and dis­trib­ute power and re­sources. New po­lit­i­cal elites jos­tle with older es­tab­lished elites in or­der to gain ac­cess to power and re­sources. In other words, con­sti­tu­tional re­form has as much to do with ex­tend­ing pa­tron­age net­works as democratis­ing the state.

These ten­sions have a strong spa­tial di­men­sion, as claim-mak­ing from the pe­riph­ery in­ter­sects with pa­tron­age pol­i­tics at the cen­tre. For po­lit­i­cal par­ties that have emerged from the state pe­riph­ery, en­ter­ing main­stream party pol­i­tics has been a dis­ori­en­tat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Clear-cut nar­ra­tives of the “cen­tre against the pe­riph­ery” and friend-foe dis­tinc­tions of “jus­tice-seek­ing rebels” have been re­placed by the murky worlds of po­lit­i­cal coali­tions, al­liance mak­ing and “dirty” pa­tron­age pol­i­tics. Both Maoists in Nepal and ex-LTTE (Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam) aligned na­tion­al­ists in Sri Lanka have found that in re­nounc­ing vi­o­lence and en­ter­ing de­bates on con­sti­tu­tional re­forms, they have been un­avoid­ably sucked into the deal mak­ing of “nor­mal pol­i­tics”.

This new car­tog­ra­phy of power is much harder to nav­i­gate than the old wartime land­scape. The new pol­i­tics in­volves sur­pris­ing al­liances, hy­brid in­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ments and blurred zones – all of which cre­ates a promis­ing en­vi­ron­ment for mid­dle­men or bro­kers who are able to nav­i­gate it, find new path­ways and make new con­nec­tions. Dur­ing pe­ri­ods of rup­ture or flux, these fix­ers can jump the synapses be­tween po­lit­i­cal net­works and par­ties to form sur­pris­ing al­liances and pol­icy po­si­tions.

Mus­lim politi­cians in East­ern Sri Lanka, for ex­am­ple, have sought to bal­ance the de­mands of their con­stituents in the pe­riph­ery against the need to ex­tract re­sources from the cen­tre. Mad­hesi po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in Nepal have both en­gaged with and chal­lenged the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, tap­ping into state power by join­ing main­stream par­ties only to switch al­le­giances and or­ches­trate vi­o­lent protests at the bor­der.

Post-war tran­si­tions have led to a re-spa­tial­i­sa­tion of power. Con­sti­tu­tional talks bring into sharp fo­cus these ten­sions be­tween cen­tripetal forces of state build­ing and cen­tralised pa­tron­age, and cen­trifu­gal po­lit­i­cal forces of rebel gov­er­nance and mi­nor­ity claim-mak­ing. These cen­tre-pe­riph­ery dy­nam­ics are made vis­i­ble in mul­ti­ple ways – for ex­am­ple, through the cre­ation in Sri Lanka of a con­sti­tu­tional sub­com­mit­tee for cen­tre-pe­riph­ery re­la­tions, or in Nepal in the ini­ti­a­tion of bor­der de­vel­op­ment pro­grams in the Tarai.

New pat­terns of claim-mak­ing from the mar­gins in turn im­pacts cen­tral gov­ern­ment agen­das. In Nepal, since the sign­ing of the Com­pre­hen­sive Peace Agree­ment in 2006, marginalised tribal groups (the jana­jati) and Mad­hesi par­ties have played a de­ci­sive role in pol­i­tics. In East­ern Sri Lanka, the lead­ing Mus­lim party – the Sri Lanka Mus­lim Congress – is be­ing con­fronted by a more as­sertive re­gional iden­tity move­ment called “the Rise of the East”. In North­ern Sri Lanka, new groups such as the Tamil Peo­ple’s Coun­cil are draw­ing at­ten­tion to a range of is­sues they feel are ne­glected in pub­lic de­bate about the new con­sti­tu­tion, such as on­go­ing state-spon­sored “coloni­sa­tion” of the North, war crimes and the need for a fed­eral so­lu­tion.

There is also an im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional di­men­sion to this scalar ma­noeu­vring. In­dia’s back­ing of Mad­hesi de­mands was in­stru­men­tal in the party’s suc­cess­ful in­cep­tion of power at the cen­tre, while China’s sup­port un­der­girded the Ra­japaksa gov­ern­ment’s war-time and post-war strat­egy. Yet these in­ter­na­tional forces and the do­mes­tic re­sponses to them are con­tin­u­ally shift­ing. Both the new Prachanda-led gov­ern­ment in Nepal and Sirisena’s gov­ern­ment in Sri Lanka are now seek­ing to dis­tance them­selves from pre­vi­ous regimes’ over-re­liance on China.

De­spite these in­ter­na­tional pres­sures, what sets Nepal and Sri Lanka apart from many other coun­tries is that their post-war tran­si­tions have been pri­mar­ily do­mes­tic af­fairs. To a large ex­tent, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have suc­cess­fully kept the in­ter­na­tional peace­build­ing in­dus­try at bay. This has helped cre­ate the space for vi­brant, con­tentious and un­pre­dictable po­lit­i­cal en­coun­ters be­tween cen­tres and pe­riph­eries in the two coun­tries.

– East Asia Fo­rum

Photo: EPA

Sri Lankan Bud­dhist monks ar­gue with po­lice of­fi­cers pre­vent­ing them from pro­ceed­ing to­ward the United Na­tions of­fice in Colombo on Septem­ber 1 dur­ing UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon’s three-day visit.

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