General election to Sri Lanka’s 15th parliament is less than 3 weeks away. It will be held on 17 August 2015, ten months ahead of schedule to elect 225 members. There is hectic campaign by the two main contenders namely the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) too entice the voters. Each alliance is claiming victory at the polls, but we will know how the voters will cast their vote. Surprisingly the voters have an uncanny knack and sophistication in picking the winning party.
Both the UNFGG and UPFA are facing the electorate as a divided house. UNFGG is facing the poll minus its allies the JVP, TNA and the Democratic Party (DP) led by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. It is not clear why the DP is contesting separately when its leader owes the national government led by the UNP for quashing his previous convictions and rehabilitating him militarily as well as politically. If not for President Maithripala Sirisena‘s magnanimity in reinstating his voting right and right to stand for elections Sarath Fonseka would have remained in political doldrums for many years.
By a twist of fate the UPFA election campaign is led by the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to the discomfort of president Sirisena. Though president Sirisena was forced to give nomination to Rajapaksa against his wish, he has called up on the people to defeat him at the forthcoming polls. He went further to claim he want appoint him as prime minister even if the UPFA wins the elections.
At the presidential elections Mahinda Rajapaksa lost by a margin of only 449,072 votes. And Rajapaksa still feels bitter that his defeat was caused by the vote bank of Thamils in the North, East provinces and in Tamil dominated Nuwara Eliya electoral district. He has been harping on his defeat since 9th January, the day after the elections. Rajapaksa has reason to feel bitter since he won majority of the votes in the remaining 16 districts in the south. He polled 5,299,151 (5,299,151 (50.64%) as against 4.996,446 (48.38%) for president Sirisena.
The forthcoming election offers a chance to bring back Mahinda Rajapaksa together with his cronies who voted for the 18th Amendment which made him a virtual dictator. Despite wide spread corruption, nepotism, fraud and waste he seems to enjoy popular support in the south. This is really baffling to the voters of North and East.
However, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his UPFA are facing an uphill task in their campaign in the absence of state resources which were used by him to the maximum in every election held since 2005. A state controlled and docile state media not only carried out propaganda in his favour, but also it denigrated his opponents in derogatory terms.
In using the communal card this time around, Rajapaksa has completely alienated Thamil voters as never before. At the last presidential elections Rajapaksa polled a respectable number of votes in the North and East though he lost overall in all the 5 districts. The following is the detail outcome of the vote:
In this election the EPDP is contesting separately which means the UPFA votes will be split between the two. In the parliamentary elections held in 2010 the EPDP won 3 seats polling 47,622 (32.07%) votes. But, that election was held less than a year after the end of the war in May 18, 2009. Today, the political landscape has changed completely since the presidential elections held on January 8, 2015. Unlike in the past both the EPDP and UPFA have lost their influence after January 8th. While the UPFA faces certain defeat, the EPDP has to struggle hard to retain even one seat. Traditionally, the bulk of the votes came from the islands which were under the control of EPDP since 1990. So for the first time EPDP is facing the election as an opposition party.
The TNA remains popular with the electorate all though they have not delivered on all their promises. Prominent among them is the release of about 275 political prisoners languishing for up to 20 years in prison without charges or trial. The Hundred Days programme by the National government did not fully address some of the fundamental issues faced by the Thamil people like complete demilitarization and release of thousands of acres of both residential and farmlands. Yet, the TNA managed to wrest some concessions from the government, especially the release of some of the lands grabbed by the army for military as well as for non-military purposes.
Out of a total of 6,382 acres of land grabbed by the army in Valikamam North, about 1,033 acres has been released to the original owners. These lands were occupied by the army following military offensive launched in 1990. Yet the IDPs face the daunting task of rebuilding their shattered lives and destroyed homes without adequate financial help from the government.
In 1983, Valikamam North Division had a population of 83,618 individuals, or 25,351 families, who were all Thamils. About 60% of the population were farmers, and another 30% were fishermen, while the remainder were employed in white-collar jobs, in industries etc.
The eviction of these people was carried out in different phases. The forcible eviction started in 1990, following the withdrawal of the IPKF, and continued until 1993. During this period, the remainder of the population was forcibly evicted and by the end of 1993 the eviction was complete.
In a similar fashion following an army offensive in Sampur in 2006 thousands of people fled empty handed all the way to Batticaloa. When the war came to an end, the army took over thousands of acres of private land in and around Sampur. Expectation the army will allow the IDPs to go back to their homes and farms did not materialise. Instead, a total of 816 acres of land was vested in the Board of Investment (BOI) by a gazette notification issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The BOI in turn handed over the land to a company styled Sri Lanka Gateway Industries on a 99 year lease. A strategic development project to create a special zone for heavy industries at a cost of US$ 4 billion or more than Rs. 500 billion by Gateway Industries was given the green light by the Government. A further 500 acres were earmarked to build a coal-fired Thermal Plant as a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board.
Following the change of regime after January 8th, the 816 acres leased to Gateway Industries has been cancelled and IDPs numbering over 7,000 have been allowed to return. The Sri Lanka navy has also agreed to relocate the camp covering 237 acres. This land belonged to about 600 families before the out-break of hostilities.
The confiscation of lands from poor peasant families in Sampur by the government and handing over 816 acres of land to a development company showed the utter disdain the Rajapaksa government had for the plight of poor ordinary citizens. It is the tears and curse of these poor people that finally ended Rajapaksa’s tyrannical rule spanning 9 years!
President Maithripala Sirisena defended his government’s move to return private land acquired by the security forces during the civil war to its legitimate owners as part of reconciliation efforts with minority communities, including Tamils. He regretted the fact that some political opponents used the internet and media to spread false information that the government is handing over the land to LTTE supporters.
The January 8th revolution has brought fresh hope as opposed to despair to the Thamil people who were suffocating under the dictatorial rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. His government treated the Thamil people shabbily and subjected them to humiliation and shame.
1) Police powers vested in the armed forces under the Public Security Ordinance have been allowed to lapse. This has stopped harassment of ordinary people by the army and police.
2) The military governors in the North and Eastern provinces have been replaced with civilian administrators.
3) The ill-advised ban imposed on singing the National Anthem in Thamil has been removed.
4) There are no more white vans, grease demons, throwing waste oil, stoning houses, attack on media personnel, fear of arbitrary arrest etc. in the North.
5) If the August 17 election ushers a national government, then more powers will be given to the provincial councils. If the national government has a 2/3 majority then a new constitution will be enacted by establishing a Constituent Assembly.
6) To the much exploited Hill Country Thamils the government has launched a scheme to build houses and schools.
The above may seem trivial for some, but Thamils feel relieved and see a light at the end of the tunnel for the first time since independence.
The Thamil people joined hands with the people of the south in electing Maithripala Sirisena as president. That was a historical turning point that changed the political culture of the country. Rajapaksa who deftly played the Sinhala – Buddhist card was defeated. As told by president Sirisena we should not allow Mahinda Rajapaksa and his UPFA to roll back the revolution to pre January 8th dark era.
For the first time after independence, an ordinary, humble and unassuming person has become the president. President Sirisena kept his promise to reduce the dictatorial powers of the president by the enactment of the 19th Amendment. It was a magnanimous gesture on his part. Although his predecessors promised to abolish the office of president when elected they failed to keep their promises. Mahinda Rajapaksa did the opposite by enacting the 18th Amendment. Unlike Rajapaksa who wanted to crown himself as a king, the mild-mannered president Sirisena is not overtly power hungry and has declared he will not seek a second term.
The 19th Amendment keeps the executive presidency virtually intact with just a restoration of the independent commissions that functioned under the 17th amendment. President Sirisena still enjoys executive power and he is still the Head of Cabinet with power over all appointments, ministers as well as Secretaries of ministries.
The Thamils were also beneficiaries of a few achievements of the present government like the restoration of judicial independence, the rule of law, media freedom, battle against corruption, salary increases to government servants and pensioners, slashing of fuel prices and enforcement of human rights. Yet the fundamental problems, for which Thamils have fought long battles, including a liberation war, remain unresolved and unaddressed. The country needs ethnic peace to move forward. The hope is a national government will be formed after the elections to address the long festering ethnic issue.
All right thinking people in the south should vote for UNFGG to help usher in a righteous government free of corruption, nepotism, waste, fraud, extortion, embezzlement and generally the inefficient use of state resources. The government must uphold the rule of law both in word and deed, equality, justice, self-respect and dignity of all citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. As exhorted by President Maithripala Sirisena we must move forward and not allow the January 8th democratic gains to be rolled back by any means.