By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“We are totally unconcerned about the outcome of this election.” – SP Tamilchelvan, LTTE Political Head (on 2005 Presidential election)[i]
The Opposition needs Tamils. Tamils need the Opposition.
The Opposition cannot win without Tamil votes. Tamils will be stuck with Rajapaksa rule, if the Opposition fails to win.
The Rajapaksas do not need Tamil votes to win. They just need Tamils to abstain from voting.
The Rajapaksas understood this in 2005. That is why they did a deal with the LTTE to impose an election-boycott on Tamils.
So the Rajapaksa camp raising hell, about a rumoured alliance between the Opposition and the TNA, is logical and comprehensible. Typical of this frenzied reaction is an article by an organisation called ‘Sri Lankans Against Terrorism’ (and verbosely titled, ‘Shame on you CBK! Shame on your ancestors! Determined to fracture the nation!!! You belong in Paris!’), which castigates the former president for ‘wheeling and dealing’ with the TNA and the SLMC[ii].
But it is not only the Rajapaksas (and their Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist allies) who are terrified at the prospect of an Opposition-TNA alliance. A segment of Tamil polity is equally opposed to such an agreement. For instance, the Tamil Net, in an article titled, ‘Sampanthan suspected of a clandestine deal’, accuses the TNA leader of forming an alliance with the Opposition and argues, “The debated question within the TNA is whether it should support any of the presidential contesters of the genocidal state or to keep quiet leaving the choice of the next government to the conscience of the Sinhala nation…”[iii]
That was what the LTTE did in 2005, possibly after receiving a substantial bribe from the Rajapaksas – left the ‘choice of the next government to the conscience of the Sinhala nation’. And as M. Karunanidhi pointed out in 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa won by 181,000 votes because the LTTE-imposed ban prevented 700,000 Tamils from voting. “What is the outcome today of that hasty decision?”[iv]
Tamils, by abstaining en masse, can allow Sinhalese (and Muslims) to choose the next president. But that President will then make decisions which affect the day-to-day lives and the future of every single Lankan Tamil living in Sri Lanka. Abstaining – or even spoiling the vote – will therefore become an act of self-disenfranchisement.
Tamils can stay away from the election. But they cannot prevent the election – and its outcome – from profoundly affecting their lives. Grand rhetoric apart, the real choice confronting Tamils is no different from the real choice confronting Sinhalese or Muslims – do they want a continuation of the status quo or do they want a change? Do they want to live under the Rajapaksas or not?
If Tamils want to help the Rajapaksas to gain a third term, they can either abstain from voting or spoil their vote. If they do not want the Rajapaksas to gain a third term, they can vote for any candidate other than Mahinda Rajapaksa or his proxies.
If Tamils boycott the elections, they will be doing in 2015 what they were forced by the LTTE to do in 2005 – help Mahinda Rajapaksa win.
Maithripala Sirisena is not very forthcoming about the ethnic problem and other Tamil issues. The country does not know, as yet, what sort of policies he will implement vis-à-vis the minorities.
But there is no doubt about what the Rajapaksas will do to the minorities, especially Tamils, if they win. They will continue to implement – faster, more comprehensively and with greater vigour – the policies they implemented in the last five years.
The de facto occupation of the North and the East will continue. The expropriation of private lands by security forces will continue. The militarization of the economy will continue. The building of Buddhist temples in areas without a single civilian Buddhist will continue. Demographic reengineering will continue. The building of cantonments will continue. The use of the PTA to crack down on dissent will continue. The prioritisation of massive physical infrastructure projects and the de-prioritisation of income and employment generation will continue. The disembowelling of the 13th Amendment will continue. Sabotaging the Northern Provincial Council will continue.
Is that what the Tamil hardliners who are advocating an election boycott want?
The current situation of the North is both alarming and pathetic. Poverty is extremely high – according to the Headcount Index, it is 28.8% in Vanni, 12.7% in Killinochchi, 20.1% in Mannar and 8.3% in Jaffna. Only Vavuniya. at 3.4%, has a poverty-ratio lower than the national average of 6.7%[v]. Unemployment is high as well. As Amantha Perera reports, “Economists blame a lopsided policy framework that has poured millions into large infrastructure development without paying adequate attention to revitalising local income generation….”[vi]
Brewing social issues compound the economic malaise. Drug addiction, especially amongst youth, including school children, is becoming a major problem. “….The young generation in Jaffna society is being addicted to drugs…. A cross section of the fishermen interviewed by the Sunday Times said gold is being smuggled out of Jaffna in exchange for cannabis from Kerala. The exchange is carried out mid-ocean.”[vii] Another problem with long-term consequences is addiction to alcohol. “More than 15,000 litres of alcohol are being consumed daily…. Drinking patterns in the province had totally changed: heavy drinking had become a trend among youth….”[viii]
This in a province, with a heavy military presence and a Navy-ringed coastline. One does not have to subscribe to conspiracy theories to surmise that the Rajapaksas will not mind a new generation too-stoned or too-drunk to worry about social, political and economic issues, be it in the North or the South.
The Rajapaksas are consciously and methodically emulating the Israeli practice of using state power to alter facts on the ground. If they win this election, their plan to change Northern (and Eastern) demographics will be speeded up, until the existing ethnic contiguity in the North is totally destroyed and devolution becomes a democratic impossibility. Who is to stop them, once they win, especially if they win without de-legitimising levels of violence and rigging thanks to a Tamil election-boycott? It will give the Diaspora hardliners something to yell about but the real price will have to be paid by ordinary Tamils who have to live in a Rajapaksa run Sri Lanka.
As the International Crisis Group pointed out, “With the northern and eastern provinces still under tight military control, security forces could, as in last year’s provincial election, be used to restrict campaigning by opposition parties and intimidate Tamil and Muslims voters to reduce turnout.”[ix] Ensuring a low voter-turnout in the North and the East will be a key Rajapaksa aim. Therefore a Tamil election-boycott will be a dream-come-true for the Siblings.
The Opposition, despite the prominent presence of the JHU, has so far managed to avoid the racist-trap. But non-racism will not suffice to persuade Tamils to brave Rajapaksa-terror and vote. They too must be given a real stake in the Opposition-project. Like in 2005, this time too, the Rajapaksas and Tamil maximalists are working in tandem to persuade Tamils to disenfranchise themselves. The combined effect of the regime’s terror-tactics and Tamil maximalists’ siren-songs can be countervailed only by making ordinary Tamils stakeholders of the Maithripala-project.