By Laksiri Fernando –
TNA and SLMC/NMF support is a welcome development for the common opposition candidate although this move was partly anticipated from the beginning. While the TNA previously announced that they would take a decision by the end of December, it was not clear whether they were simply going to ask the people to vote ‘as they prefer’ or for the ‘best candidate,’ without committing themselves clearly for the opposition. Supporting the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was completely out of the question and a boycott of the election also was rightly perceived as unlikely. Among those scenarios, the present position taken by the TNA to actively support is not only positive for the opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, but also good for the future prospects for reconciliation in this badly battered country by animosity, conflict, differences of position and misunderstandings, not to speak of the war or the atrocities committed therein by both sides.
Major reasons for the continuing obstacles for reconciliation in the country since 2009 have been triumphalism and unwarranted fears propagated mainly by the government, and particularly at this very moment for temporary political and election gain. The government could have been magnanimous in victory. There is no question that even on the part of Tamil politics, there were equally strong obstacles related to separatist feelings and intransigent policies. On the part of the President, it may be possible that he had some good will initially to resolve the problem amicably. He even learnt Tamil and spoke in Tamil at the UN General Assembly. But soon he got caught up with the theory of ‘melting pot’ and the illusion that economic development would automatically resolve the problem. Undoubtedly, there were constituencies within the UPFA, such as the JHU, and particularly President’s brother, Gotahaya Rajapaksa, in the Defence Establishment who were contributing to this adverse situation. Professor Rajiva Wijesingha MP has outlined some of these events and influences, and lackadaisical policies during the discussions between the government and the TNA.
The position of the SLMC or the National Muslim Front (NMF) is different as they were part of the government. For some time, they were forced to remain in the government irrespective of atrocities committed to their community and religion, because if they had left the government on those issues, the situation could have become worse. It was like blackmailing and keeping the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The BBS actually was the sword. The common opposition candidate and his winning prospects have given them some hope and hence is their departure. While the SLMC undoubtedly has a discreditable record on changing sides, some of these predicaments are understandable given the precarious situation that their community was/is placed within the political situation in Sri Lanka.
Aftermath of the announcements of the TNA’s and the SLMC’s positions, the government has accelerated its propaganda machine to discredit the opposition candidate about a betrayal of the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and the Sinhala Buddhist heritage to a foreign conspiracy and to the minorities. While the Daily News is at the forefront of this despicable propaganda campaign along with the government controlled TV stations such as Rupavahini and ITN, unfortunately some other newspapers and media outlets also have become part of this campaign through the agents planted or cultivated in these institutions.
One thing that the Tamil and the Muslim communities and their political parties should realize is that those Sinhalese who would vote for the opposition candidate, this time particularly, are going against these propaganda, of course with some assurances, in order that some settlement to the country’s national or ethnic question should be reached through alternative and negotiated means. If Maithripala could invite the TNA to join hands in defeating authoritarianism, family rule and nepotism towards democracy and good governance, he or his supporting parties could also invite the TNA and the SLMC for a negotiated settlement for the ethnic question in the future.
Likewise what the Sinhalese voters and their political parties including the JHU who are in the opposition should realize are that (1) if not for the support of the TNA and the SLMC, the brutal Rajapaksa regime might not be defeated and (2) particularly the TNA has extended its support to the opposition candidate irrespective of the pressures from within and outside not to do so from extremist sections. The support is a good will gesture on moderate policies without any condition and therefore it should be reciprocated in order that peace and tranquillity in the country is firmly established.
The Opposition’s Nallur meeting in Jaffna on 30 December was a good omen for future reconciliation, if Maithripala Sirisena wins the presidential race on the 8th January. All indications are promising so far. By the time of the meeting, the Tamil translation or version of the Manifesto was available. Before his long speech, Maithripala has released a white pigeon as a good will gesture for peace and friendship. His main thrust of the speech was to highlight the breakdown of rule of law all over the country and to underline the corruption and mismanagement in the Rajapaksa administration. He has emphasised the grievances of the peasants, famers and ordinary people of both communities who are facing considerable economic difficulties. He did apologise for being part of that government in the past but emphasised that he was waiting for the right opportunity.
Maithripala apparently didn’t make any cheap overtures to placate the Tamil voters, as Tamils, to win over votes or sympathy. On the TNA support, he has said “I did invite the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to support the opposition and President did the same. But the TNA has accepted my invitation.” He has also categorically stated that “there is no written agreement between myself and the TNA.” It is at this meeting that he revealed that there are over 40 political parties and organizations supporting his candidature now. He also said the following.
“By stopping the sounds of guns you cannot establish unity and full fill the needs of people. All religions in Sri Lanka stress about the importance of creating peaceful minds among people. We should aware on problems faced by our own people and need to solve them.”
Above is a very clear statement or sentiment for reconciliation and acknowledgement of grievances of the Tamils.
It is very clear from the statement issued by the TNA that they have not unduly taken the opportunity to place demands or make claims on behalf of the Tamils or on their own interests. At this election, they have taken a firm stand first and foremost on the overall national issues.
Explaining the reasons for their decision, they have said “The values of democracy, good governance and rule of law have suffered unprecedented assault under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.” Then they have highlighted major deviations from those cherished norms in the country under the present regime: (1) Inexorable move towards dictatorship under the presidential system particularly after the 18th Amendment (2) Subversion of the independence of the judiciary and the impeachment of the Chief Justice (3) Devaluation of Parliament as the country’s main legislative body (4) Abolition of the 17th Amendment and thereby subverting the independence of the state institutions and commissions and blatant political interference in appointments and (5) Subversion of the free media and civil society organizations.
Therefore the main conclusion of the TNA has been that “it is essential for the health of Sri Lanka’s democracy that the authoritarian and dictatorial trajectory on which the Rajapaksa regime has set the country be reversed urgently.” This is particularly why they have decided to support the common candidate at the presidential elections.
The statement has nevertheless underlined that the “The Rajapaksa regime has been particularly harmful to the wellbeing of the Tamil speaking peoples of Sri Lanka.” Referring to the discussions that they have had with the government on reconciliation or more precisely on a political solution, the statement says “Despite the opportunity presented by the end of the armed conflict, the Rajapaksa regime has signally failed to engage genuinely in a process of evolving an acceptable political solution, except to engage in deceitful and dilatory exercises.”
The above is something that Maithripala Sirisena and the Common Opposition should particularly note down for their own future dealings, hopefully not in the distant but short to the medium term. It is true that the main thrust of efforts in the first 100 days would be on what is outlined in the candidate’s Diary. However some of the basic grievances of the displaced Tamil community as outlined in the statement with respect of resettlement, rehabilitation, housing and livelihood could be addressed parallel to the major reforms during the 100 days. These are the challenges for the opposition learning from the Rajapaksa mistakes. Maithripala has vouched for the full implementation of the LLRC Report.
Reconciliation is not something that one could achieve overnight or within a short duration of time. Sri Lanka may have to go for a parliamentary election by April. What is important before that is to show the political will and resolve to achieve reconciliation and perhaps take the first steps in friendly talks and establishing goodwill between political parties and among the people while addressing the urgent issues. The civil society organizations that are behind the common opposition could undoubtedly play a major role in this respect at the people’s level – on bridge building, consciousness raising and education.
One may say that I am expressing wishful thinking and there is almost a week to go for the presidential elections and in between anything could happen particularly in the context of government’s propaganda against the so-called ‘Maithripala-TNA Secret Agreement.’ But my bet is that people in the South, by and large, will not listen to that nonsense. Not that they are completely or largely free from those xenophobic fears, but different issues have come to the election forefront.
At the political level, people are opposing the third term, family rule, corruption and violence by the government goons at various levels. They want to free themselves of those evils. The opposition has given a promise to abolish the presidential system in addition to establishing rule of law and good governance. There is a clear roadmap in the opposition candidate’s Diary for the first 100 days. The Rajapaksa manifesto in contrast is a repetition of the old slogans and promises. On the issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity or unity of the country, the people in the South would consider the credentials of Rajapaksa and Sirisena to be almost equal. They would not see an imminent danger of separatism. One may say that the voters are not that rational. But they are not that irrational either.
At the socio-economic level, although some developments have taken place, the vast majority’s basic needs are not addressed and corruption impinges on the benefits as the people feel or perceive. The opposition’s rather exaggerated propaganda on corruption (2/3 commission!) has been effective. The decisive sections of the election undoubtedly are the rural voters both in the South and the North. They are traditionally concerned about two main issues: Land and Education. Here land does not mean ‘real estate,’ but land for cultivation and other related essential needs such as water, fertilizer, marketing etc. These are completely unaddressed issues by the Rajapaksa development trajectory particularly during the last five years with obsession for mega projects and large commissions.
Who is worried about ‘Lowa Dinana Maga’? (The way to conquer the world). That is the thoughtless title of the Rajapaksa manifesto this time. It shows the mentality of a megalomaniac. This election will be won, on the contrary, by the opposition candidate on the basis of ‘basic needs’ and ‘basic rights’ of the people.
The opposition has put forward the strategy of an all-party and a national government. If this strategy materializes and put into practice with care and caution, it may pave the way for reconciliation at the political level. It would be left for the civil society organizations to prepare the people, educate them and change their consciousness in order that this golden objective is achieved.