By Jehan Perera –
The issue of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva became the main political issue during the provincial council elections in the Western and Southern provinces. The government’s decision to conduct those elections in the same week as the UNHRC resolution was being voted upon was likely to have been prompted by political considerations. It reflected the government’s continuing belief in the domestic electoral process, and obtaining a renewed mandate, as providing it with the legitimacy to rule regardless of other considerations. The threat to the unity of the country and to its sovereignty was brought to the fore by government campaigners in the run up to the provincial council elections to the Western and Southern provincial councils
While the government has shown resilience in its ability to utilize nationalism to win the support of the general population in relation to electoral politics and defeat the opposition, it has been meeting with increasing resistance and disenchantment on the ground. There are localized pockets of political activity where there is increasingly strong opposition to the government. While the election reflected in the main a continuing trust in the stability and security represented by the current ruling party, it also gave more than a hint of the disenchantment due to governance and insecurity issues faced by the ethnic and religious minorities. While the margin of victory achieved by the government at the provincial council elections was impressive there is unease in government ranks.
Although the government obtained a 55 percent level of popular support which is undoubtedly high it is nevertheless 10 percentage points less than the 65 percent that the government notched up at these same provincial elections five years ago. This suggests that the government’s reliance on nationalism to win elections is getting stale. This was seen in the lack of popular responsiveness to the government’s setback in the international realm. The elections were purposefully timed with the vote in Geneva of the UN Human Rights Council in mind. The government appears to have believed that the resolution would generate a wave of nationalist sentiment amongst the voters. But it did not. This would be a cause for anxiety.
The government has carefully and systematically cultivated Sinhalese nationalism even at the expense of losing the support of the ethnic and religious minorities. The fact that the government has been prevaricating on the singing of the national anthem in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages, as strongly recommended by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and its own Ministry for National Languages and Social Integration makes this clear. The unfavourable result of the government’s pro-Sinhalese stance was demonstrated at these elections with regard to the minority vote. In those districts were the Muslim and Tamil vote was substantial the sharp polarization in the vote on ethnic lines was clearly discernible in the preferential votes for candidates.
What has been disturbing to the government is that not a single member of any minority community who contested from the ruling party was elected in the two provinces. In the Colombo district where the Muslim population is significant, only one Muslim candidate who contested in a government-allied Muslim party got elected. By way of contrast, a Muslim candidate headed the list of the main opposition party in the number of preferential votes obtained and several other Muslim members were elected. This shows that few Muslims voted for the government and most of them voted for the opposition. An even greater lack of support for the government can be seen in the voting pattern for Tamil candidates. It is reported that high levels of the government are deeply concerned about the erosion of their support, especially amongst the Muslim community, and are asking why this is happening.
In the 17the century, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that in a “state of nature” human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. In the absence of political order and law, everyone would have unlimited natural freedoms, including the “right to all things” and thus the freedom to plunder, rape, and murder; there would be an endless “war of all against all”. To avoid this, free persons contract with each other to establish political community through a social contract in which they all gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an absolute Sovereign, one person or an assembly of them.
The diversion of the ethnic and religious minority vote in Sri Lanka to the opposition may be understood in terms of the social contract theory posited above, and the failure of the government to deliver security to them. After the end of the war in 2009, and the total elimination of the LTTE, it was reasonable to believe that the laws of Sri Lanka would once again be enforced from Point Pedro in the northern tip to Dondra in the southernmost part of the country and that all people would be safe and secure. Living with a sense of security is the most important priority to most people. This is especially the case in a country that has experienced decades of bloodshed and where people have had direct experience of the uncertainty of life.
The most common reason given by Sinhalese people when asked why they continue to vote for the government despite its many failings is that it ended the war and brought security back to their lives. However, the situation with regard to the ethnic and religious minorities is more complex. They too appreciate the end of the war and its large scale destruction. But with the end of the war other forms of insecurity have grown. The Muslim community in particular has found itself to vulnerable to attack by mobs who act with impunity. Even if it has been only a few times, this is a few times too many. There have been instances where the identities of the perpetrators have been noted, but not one has been arrested. In one instance a Muslim government minister himself gave the information personally to the police, but no visible deterrent action appears to have been taken.
In February this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, in her report on Sri Lanka after her visit to Sri Lanka summarized the trend of religious intolerance. This report noted that “in many cases perpetrators were readily identifiable in video footage, where police are seen standing as onlookers to the violence.” However, the government has been unprepared to accept this observation. President Mahinda Rajapaksa alleged that those seeking to destabilise the country were now accusing the government of causing religious tensions. Addressing an UPFA propaganda rally at Galle at the end of the election campaign, President Rajapaksa said that it was the latest NGO project directed against Sri Lanka during the ongoing sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The President stressed that there was absolutely no basis for allegations that religious minorities were being targeted in the post-war era.
The President was also reacting to an update of “Muslims’ Concerns” presented by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights titled Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, January 2013 – December 2013. According to this, report over the 12 month period between January and December 2013 there were at least 241 anti-Muslim incidents and at least 69 anti-Christian ones in Sri Lanka. 51 of the anti-Muslim incidents were violent, involving either physical violence against individuals or destruction of property. 15 attacks against Christians were violent. At least 118 of the above attacks were carried out by socio-political movements or politicians.
The unification of Sri Lankan territory that took place with the government’s decisive victory over the LTTE has still to show its reward in terms of the unification of the polity in hear t and mind. Five years after the end of the war, the country continues to be divided in ethnic and religious terms. The government that has failed to listen to the voice of fear and distress of the ethnic and religious minority communities will need to be mindful of their electoral power, which amounts to 30 percent of the national vote, if it is to prevail at future national elections. The most important inducement for the insecure minorities to vote for the government would to ensure that the Rule of Law prevails, and that it protects all individuals and all communities equally, with no favour given to one or the other.