By Annonymous –
The Provincial Council poll held on 8 September 2012 in three provinces (namely, North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern) ended with a repeated victory to President Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition. Under the Constitution of the Second Republic, the head of state wields the power to call elections in separate chunks, as in the case of the September 8 election. It was held only in three provinces, and in the near future, an election will be held in another couple of provinces. Not unsurprisingly, personalities in government are keen to express their delight over their coalition’s successes.
However, the election is also quite revelatory about a number of disheartening realities in Sri Lankan politics. Its results demonstrate, for instance, that ethnic minority communities are less prone to stand by the ruling coalition. The TNA has fared extremely well in Tamil majority areas in the Eastern Province, while the SLMC has triumphed in Moor majority areas. It should not be forgotten that this outcome was produced in a backdrop in which the ruling coalition also presented Tamil and Moor candidates on its behalf, with the fullest support of the state machinery. If Tamils and Moors in large numbers are prone to prefer members of their respective communities contesting under the banner of exclusively Tamil and Moors parties (and not members of their communities contesting for the ruling coalition), it says something about the reception of the Rajapaksa rule among the majority of citizens from minority communities.
This, if anything, is a disturbing reality. After some thirty years of war and destruction, and some three years into the post-war phase, none of the largest political parties/coalitions have begun to sow the seeds of an ethnically inclusive support base.
The ruling coalition has made efforts on terms its own. Vinayagamoorti Muralitharan, also known by his nom de guerre Karuna Amman, the LTTE’s ex-second in command and head of operations in the Eastern Province, is presently not only a cabinet minister, but also a member, just like President Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main component of the ruling coalition. His deputy in the LTTE, Sivanasaturai Chandrakantan, alias Pillayan, was the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province prior to the elections. The LTTE’s international operations chief, Kumaran Patmanatan, works behind the scenes with the Rajapaksa administration. Key surviving figures in the LTTE’s small political wing, Daya Master and George Master, were both acquitted by the government. Ms Tamara Kunanayakam, a Sri Lankan Tamil Swiss national and confidante of President Rajapaksa, is the ambassador inHavana. The list could continue.
A question worth raising is, why are the leading political parties systematically failing in winning substantive support from minorities?
Impunity and immorality
One way of responding to this interrogation is the fact that, since the end of the war, none of the two main parties have been adequately attentive to the most pressing concerns of minority groups. During the long years of war, displacement and impoverishment were living realities for many Tamils and Moors in the Northern and Eastern Provincesas well as in the north-western coastal belt. Those were years spent in fear, a fear that stemmed from two fronts. The LTTE was thoroughly unsympathetic towards anyone that showed the slightest deviation from its agenda. Its anti-Moor sentiment took fascist proportions. The state military has been a far cry from one that considers Tamil and Moor civilians as their own countrymen. It is, after all, a military with a notorious reputation for paedophilic abuse and rape. The government, the military and diplomats have been going to great lengths to deny accusations of rape during the war, immediately after war’s end and during the long months of internment of civilians in refugee camps. But let’s not forget that the UN once deported a Sri Lankan peacekeeping contingent fromHaiti, over charges of sexual (including paedophilic) abuse. If members of a UN peacekeeping corps, duly trained to execute a challenging duty on behalf of the United Nations, were ruthless enough to behave in such a shameless manner overseas, how can one expect them to be of exemplary conduct within their own country, when they, and they alone were solely in charge, with nobody to monitor their deeds?
It is hard to believe that military personnel were respectful towards displaced young Tamil females, and respected best practice and good morality towards displaced and often times orphaned male and female minors. These are vital issues of concern to the Tamil community, a fact that mainstream political parties have pitifully failed to ascertain.
When photographic and video evidence of atrocious abuse emerged, the government reacted like an ostrich. A dissenting, foreign-based news website that has visibly planted informants within the establishment once reported that a strictly confidential inquiry by the Ministry of Defence had identified the military men who appear in the infamous Channel 4 videos. The Secretary to that ministry, and de facto minister of defence, G. Rajapaksa was reported to have categorically refused to take the slightest action against military men, on the grounds that such action negatively affects the military’s morale. So much for the ‘morality’ of the ruling family…
Missing persons and Tamil detainees
The ruling coalition, as well as (and very unfortunately) the main opposition UNP, have been oblivious to the issue of missing persons. Thousands of Tamils (and a number of Moors) have been abducted before and after the war, and their whereabouts are, strictly speaking, unknown. Parents, siblings, spouses, children and extended family have been left in the dark, with the law enforcement authorities rudely refusing to give a heed to their pleas. There has been no concerted attempt to disclose what really happened to those missing. The government has a tremendous responsibility to attend to the issue in earnest. Thousands are held in detention without trial. If no charges can be filed, such individuals deserve to be promptly released. Those convicted of LTTE involvement, by all means, deserve the freedom accorded to Messrs Muralitaran, Chandrakantan, Padmanatan, Daya Master and George Master.
That the issue of missing persons is the most burgeoning concern for many Tamils has been visible in the recent past. When a number of Tamil prisoners held without trial in Vavuniya protested, one of them was severely beaten, and he succumbed to his injuries. He was a man at the threshold of his early thirties, from a deprived stratum of Tamil society. The government delayed the release of his corps to the family, and caused obstacles to his funeral arrangements. A report on the funeral that graphically portrays the devastation of a mother and father who lost their son at the prime of his youth, published in a dissenting online media outlet, was sickeningly heartbreaking.
When one refers to Tamil civilians in post-war Sri Lanka, it is important to remember that the emphasis is near exclusively on the impoverished levels of Tamil society. In comparison with their plight, fewer Tamils belonging to more affluent social classes are affected by the burning issues of the day – displacement, detained loved ones, poverty, unemployment, and a sense of hopelessness and desperation.
Where the Rajapaksa administration has willingly ignored, and thereby given the TNA an excellent opportunity to thrive in communal politics, is in its unwillingness to establish civil liberties in the war-ravaged areas. The prevalent trend is one of harbouring suspicion, strengthening security and military presence, supporting Tamil armed gangs that work in partnership with the military (such as armed gangs of the EPDP – a member of the ruling coalition – in the Jaffna peninsula), and perceiving Tamil civilians with constant suspicion.
What is warranted, steadfastly, is the restoration of civil life and liberties in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A new security strategy that entails local recruitment (from among Tamils and Moors) to law enforcement bodies is an advisable option. The full restoration of civil administration, and the prioritisation of the rule of law are simply primordial. Yet another crucial task is that of reducing the post-war high security zones created on private land, and returning land to their rightful owners. The government owes a heavy debt to the children and youth of the North and East, and ought to ensure that schools are adequately equipped, and that every school is provided with psychological support centres, due to the high levels of trauma and suffering children and young people have been undergoing. The government does possess the means of accomplishing these tasks, except the political will and creativity to make such changes happen.
As one commentator recently noted in an excellent analysis written in Sinhala, the performance of the voters at the 8 September plebiscite has been appalling. Sri Lanka today is marked by several major social problems. These include, most importantly, an extremely high figure of child sexual abuse. The defence high command has now adopted an ostrich-like posture, instructing the Police to not to release media reports on cases of child abuse. Violence against women is on the rise, and in southern Sri Lanka, a Russian woman was sexually abused and her British boyfriend assassinated at point blank. Cases of abuse of female Caucasian tourists are not infrequent. That alone is reflective of the magnitude of abuse against local women, who (apart from the upper echelons of society), are legally, socially, politically and financially, in much a more vulnerable position. The chairman of a local council in Mr Rajapaksa’s native region is said to have celebrated a humiliating feat – that of sexually abusing some 200 women – by throwing a party attended by top-notch individuals in the Rajapaksa administration.
The ruling coalition has also dramatically failed in a number of vital issues that previous governments have managed with relative success. A prime example is the repeated blunders made by the Department of Examinations in administering the O Level (GCSE) and A Level examinations. Mistakes and omissions, from the setting up of examination papers to grading, have been rampant. The health sector is marred by allegations of importing low quality medication. Despite the magnitude of these issues, voters in the predominantly Sinhala North-Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces have turned a blind eye and have made the ruling coalition victorious. An exit from the present muddle is impossible as long as the broader (Sinhala-speaking, less internationally exposed, provincial) Sinhalese electorate awakens from its apolitical slumber.
A role for the opposition?
What, then, can the main opposition UNP glean from the election results? The best cue comes from Ampara in the EasternProvince, where Daya Gamagé, that party’s National Organiser-cum-business magnet, made a record by winning the highest number of preferential votes. This singular feat was achieved amidst unruly divisions within his own fold. A close confidante of Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr Gamagé’s victory can indeed be regarded as an indirect expression of trust in the former. Despite all the degrading criticism levelled against the UNP leader, he commands respect among a significant proportion of Sri Lankan voters as an educated, intelligent, sophisticated and diligent personality, capable of cautiously handling the national economy, and in helpingSri Lanka reap the dividends of the post-war phase.
However, Mr Wickremesinghe has crucial lessons to learn.
Excessive leaning on Bretton Woods, as in 2002-2004, is the path to nemesis. A consistent foreign policy – and not one of excessive alignment with the West (as he did in 2002-2004) or the East/global South (as Mr Rajapaksa has been doing, 2006 – present) – is the need of the day. No leader can afford to promote those who represent a clear threat to him/her, or whose loyalty is questionable. From among those identified as willing to work with (and not against) him, Mr Wickremesinghe ought to make sure that he has the most gifted men and women around him. The significant middle class, students, first-time voters, young professionals are all segments of the electorate that need to be approached steadfastly and constructively, using new media, the best available technology and sophistication (as opposed to coarse cut-outs, environment-unfriendly posters etc.- the bread and butter of Sri Lankan elections). In sum, the opposition – if it is to overcome its lapses – must approach the electorate with a refreshing strategy that the ruling coalition does not, will not and in its idiosyncracy, cannot deliver. What the opposition presents has to be a different and appealing alternative.
It is indeed of the utmost importance to ensure that ethnic minorities are approached in a more consistent, and actively engaged manner, making the UNP a party in which minorities, especially the Tamils, can feel politically, socio-culturally and ideologically comfortable.
*On the writer’s request, identifying details have been withheld.