Comparing Contentious Post-war Politics in Nepal and Sri Lanka

By Jonathan Goodhand and Oliver Walton, ‘East Asia Forum,’ Australia, October 27, 2016

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.

Nepal's newly elected Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal waves towards the media after he was elected Nepal's 24th prime minister in 26 years, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 3 August, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar).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 multi-layered 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 sub-committee 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

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 of Bath.

This article is based on research conducted as part of a 2-year ESRC-funded research project ‘Borderlands, Brokers and Peacebuilding in Nepal and Sri Lanka: War to Peace Transitions viewed from the Margins’

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