The Presidential Contest and Tamil Concerns… and the TNA’s Dilemma

Jehan Perera

The political campaign for the presidential elections will begin in earnest after nominations close on December 8. With a close contest
expected the ethnic minority vote can be decisive.  However, the main Tamil and Muslim parties have yet to make formal decisions regarding which candidate they will support.  They have said that they await the respective political programmes of the rival candidates before making their choice.  Those parties that have been in the government coalition would hesitate to make their choice in favour of the opposition.  Not only would it lead to an immediate loss of their positions in the government.  The sense of betrayal on the part of the government could lead to retaliation especially in the aftermath of a victory.However, the position of the TNA which is the main Tamil party is more
nuanced.  They have been in the opposition and been totally sidelined
by the government during the past ten years.  There is little that
they have been able to do for the people who voted for them and this
is visible in the rural areas of the North and East.  Some leaders of
the TNA have explained their delay in taking a stance due to concern
that the government will use any public support given by them to the
opposition to discredit the Opposition Common Candidate amongst the
Sinhalese voters.  But there is another reason that may explain the
delay in taking a stance.  This is the concern amongst sections of
Tamil opinion that a victory for the opposition will be a setback to
the gains that the Tamil nationalist cause has been making
internationally in recent times.

At the present time the reputation and credibility of the Sri Lankan
government with the international community is at a low point.  It is
facing a war crimes investigation led by the UN.  The results of this
investigation will be publicised next year in the month of March at
the next session of the UN Human Rights Council.  It could lead to
sanctions being taken against the country, and particularly against
the government members.  However, if a new government is elected, this
build up of international pressure might subside, and it may prove
difficult to revive again in the short term.  The anxiety of Tamil
nationalists such as those found in the Diaspora and even within Sri
Lanka is that the election of a new government will buy time for the
Sri Lankan government.  They fear that even a new government will do
nothing to provide justice to the Tamil people.  Therefore, they would
prefer the international process of accountability to continue without
a break.

COMMON UNDERSTANDING: The thinking that it is better to let a situation get worse, before it
can get better is sometimes rooted in repeated failure to achieve
success by cooperation.  In the past there were many efforts by Tamil
political parties to cooperate with governments and achieve a just
solution for the Tamil people and ethnic minorities in general.  There
was such cooperation in 1957 through the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam
pact, again in 1965 through the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact, in 1987
through the Indo-Lanka Agreement and finally in 2000 with the
constitutional package of Chandrika Kumaratunga.  But all these
agreements came to nought.  The fear is that history will repeat
itself once again if the opposition wins the election with Tamil

However, the experience of 2005 shows that non-cooperation can lead to
worse results.  At that time the LTTE urged the Tamil people to
boycott the presidential election that pitted the government candidate
Mahinda Rajapaksa against opposition leader Ranil Wickrmesinghe.  The
reason that the LTTE gave publicly for their call was that the Tamil
nation had no role to play in the political power struggles of the
Sinhalese nation.  But the ulterior motive was different.  They did
not say it out aloud, and so used the power of the gun to impose their
ideas upon the Tamil people.  They hoped that the victory of the
government would lose it international support due to its advocacy of
Sinhalese nationalism, and this would benefit the Tamil cause.  This
turned out to be a fateful mistake.

It is understandable that not all issues will be canvassed openly
during the election campaign as some of them will felt to be too
politically controversial.  However, two issues in particular need
some agreement within the contesting political groupings, at least at
the level of principle, prior to the establishment of a new
government.   After the election there are bound to be a host of new
and unexpected issues that will emerge to capture the attention of the
new government.  At that point of time there will be no time for
reflection, only for action.  The two issues of critical importance to
the country’s future but which are likely to remain in the background
of the election campaign are the political resolution of the ethnic
conflict and the international probe into war crimes.

A positive development at this early stage of the election campaign is
the statement by the JHU leadership inviting the TNA to join the
common opposition campaign.   JHU General Secretary, Champika Ranawaka
has requested the TNA to support the Common Opposition. He has said
that “All the Parties in the Opposition are uniting to form a national
alliance government. This is not a Sinhala Buddhist government. The
issues we are confronting right now in this country are common to
Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims.”  This is a position that needs to
be taken forward within the opposition alliance if it is to become
truly broad-based. The opposition needs to come together to identify
the principles on which a political solution to the Tamil and minority
issue is to be found and pledge that they will implement the solution
they agree upon soon.

OPPOSITION TASK: The second issue that needs to be discussed is the UN-led probe into
war crimes.  This investigation is advancing to its conclusion.
Opposition parties, including the Common Opposition Candidate, have
given public commitments that they will do their utmost to protect Sri
Lanka’s governmental leaders and military from international war
crimes processes.  Their pledges recognise the sentiments of the
majority of the people who continue to believe that the military
victory over the LTTE even at high cost was necessary for the country
to move forward.  However, those who were directly victimised by the
war, and who lost their loved ones and lost their livelihoods remain
deeply dissatisfied by the present condition where the past is sought
to be buried.  The TNA represents many of these people.

There is a need to find a middle path, that is not merely a
compromise, but a higher path than the two extremes of an
international war crimes probe on the one hand, and a denial of the
past on the other hand.  What happened during the war period in Sri
Lanka needs to be dealt with.  Other countries that experienced
conflict-related human rights violations on a large scale have had to
face similar issues of truth, justice and accountability.  Sri Lanka
is not unique in this respect.  As a result, however, Sri Lanka has
many international experiences to learn from, and even get assistance

Over a year ago, the South African government responded positively to
a request by the Sri Lankan President to assist in addressing issues
of post-war reconciliation.  The process at that time was led by
government leaders who had been closely associated with the war and
who saw the need to deal with the matter sooner rather than later.
The visit of South Africa’s Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa was a high
point in that initiative.  It is unfortunate that the government was
unable or unwilling to continue with that process.  It may still not
be too late.  A South African supported initiative in post-war
reconciliation that is undertaken by Sri Lankans can still offer a way
out.   It is in the interests of the opposition to reach agreement on
this issue now too without leaving this to the government alone, as
they have made promises to the electorate that they will need to keep.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Presidential Contest and Tamil Concerns… and the TNA’s Dilemma

  1. Naga

    Excellent analysis. If the minority (Tamils and Muslims) votes going to be the deciding factor the Rajapakse regime has a catch 22. In fact the Tamil and Muslims leaders have a bigger problem of persuading their vote base either way. For one thing there is little reason for them to listen to the leaders who already supported the regime and achieved almost nothing on behalf of them – other than making their purses a bit fatter. SLMC leadership is in a biggest dilemma for their slip is starting to show and the future party politics is at stake if they support the incumbent. The incumbent on the other hand had committed too many mistakes in handling the issues relating to the minorities. They would like to wish away the BBS factor on account of which the impasse had come into existence.

    The use or misuse of Government resources and the blatant disregard for law and order are peaking out. The political investment in war victory is fading out. The so called development projects that do not benefit the common man is another factor the regime cannot keep on using in their propaganda for more they remind them of these the more people will perceive the reality, colossal waste of money and the obvious corruption involved.

    The Elections Commissioner and the monitoring bodies keep on repeating whatever they are used to time after time with no notice being taken by anybody worth talking about. It has becomea futile exercise.

    One unmistakable thing is the point of tears breaking out when the incumbent talks about the ownership of war victory which has almost faded out in the minds of floating voters and the manner in which Maithri defected surprising even his own intelligence apparatus. This indicates that there is a circle within the circle of the opposition that plans the strategies minimizing leaks. The minus point for the opposition is that they are unable to mobilize their grass-root level organization. There is a great deal of hesitation in those activists coming forward because of fear of intimidation. However evidently there is some movement peopel to people and the voters who earlier abstained from voting seem to be interested.

    All in all I would only have to toss a coin!

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