By Shreen Abdul Saroor –
“We see only Muslim villages have been developed, but not the Tamil villages. The only way for Catholic and Hindu villages to get developed is to vote for Gota.” Namal Rajapaksa in Mannar.
“We have to act against Muslims. We Tamil youth have to think and act.” – leaflet by Kiran youth front for SLPP.
If Muslims do not vote for Gota they will get it properly – Ali Sabri, PC
Mannar voters who are living in Puttalam are banned to come in hired private buses to cast their vote – Assistant Election Commissioner, Mannar.
Whatever the reason given, in 2005 the vast majority of the Tamils from the North and East and even in Colombo did not go to the polling booths to exercise their franchise. The result, as they say, is history. Yet it is imperative for that history to now be reflected upon seriously. The President who got elected partly due to Tamils’ decision not to exercise their franchise ruled over the entire country for the next 10 years, with grave effects for all. On the eve of another Presidential election, where some are calling for new boycotts or putting up candidates deliberately to draw votes from the main contenders, the lessons of the 2005 boycott are particularly worth considering.
We have only five more days before we know, what fate lies ahead for minorities in this country. In every campaign platform in the north and east, what I see is racism and hatemongering centered around minorities. Divide and rule has been the norm of Sinhala governments since independence, but in this election it has reached to a level we have never seen before.
The frontline campaigners of SLPP, especially in the north and east, are collecting voters for Gota through outright hate mongering. Their campaigns are all about asking people to not support Sajith because Muslims are with them, or to support Gota because he will put the Muslims in their place. In areas where Karuna, Pillaiyan et al are campaigning, venom is being spit against the Muslims, with appeals to Tamils to vote for Gota if they want to keep the Muslims under control. The irony is that the very same pro-SLPP forces have successfully gotten Hisbullah to use the same language to woo the extremist Muslims against the Tamils and even Sinhalese!
Such tactics are made possible this time in large part because the “yahapalanaya” government failed to deliver the reforms it promised and left so many in desperate plight as a result. In the north and east, war-affected communities are being urged not to cast their vote, being told by TNPF and Sivajilingam kinds that whether it is Sajith or Gota, neither is going to solve their issues.
On another front, the Muslims are either ridiculed or threatened about the negative consequences of voting for Sajith and the NDF – warnings often given by their own community’s scare mongers. One of the ongoing scare tactics, to keep voters away, is the confusion created around Muslim women’s dress code. There was a request apparently from the police that the Muslim women wearing burkha and nikkab can create panic at the booths thus banning it is vital for peaceful election. One wonders why this is an issue to begin with, because Muslim women before Easter suicide bombing did go to the polling stations, stood in lines and removed their face cover to reveal their identity before voting. They did so in every election without any issues. Given the recent harassment they faced based on their attire in places like government buildings and public transportation these women, especially those Muslim women living in the areas that were attacked by mobs after the Easter bombing are really frightened and may not turn up in the same numbers as before.
The October 26th 2018 coup was a nerve-wracking reminder – especially to the 6,217,162 voters who rejected MR – that the Rajapaksas are willing to bulldoze our most basic democratic institutions to regain what they unexpectedly lost in 2015. Defeating that backdoor entry of MR was possible only because the minority parties – TNA, SLMC, ACMC, and TPA – stuck together and defended democracy. Now the SLPP is trying proactively to break that minority grouping from helping get Sajith elected, by pitching the Tamils against Muslims. Knowing well that the war-affected minorities will never deliberately wish to bring back to power those whom they blame most for the large-scale atrocities they endured, their tactic seems to be to prevent anti-Gota voters from going to the polling booth by persuading minorities voters that there is no use in electing any Sinhala leader.
The third tactic is to hoodwink the voters who will never mark 1 or X to Gota by getting them to spoil their vote. One group allied to Gotabaya’s campaign in Batticaloa has told a group of Tamil women to put three Xs to fully exercise their preferential votes knowing that these women will never vote for their candidate. To begin with almost 2 feet long ballot paper and 35 candidates itself is creating confusion and then the preferential vote of marking 1 to 3 and the option of using X or 1 to 3 is compounding the confusion.
The minorities; Tamils and Muslims are not really convinced by what the candidates are promising and have little enthusiasm to go to the polling station. However, they should drag themselves to the polling booths on Nov 16th to exercise their right of franchise. They might not want to elect any candidate. But they must vote to prevent the worst candidate from being elected. If they don’t vote for the lesser evil, the greater evil will win. Abstaining is as bad as helping the greater evil win.
It’s almost a cliché now that ‘the people get the government (President in this instance) they deserve’. Juxtapose another; ‘that the masses are never wrong.’ Abstention dents the ‘masses’. Abstention helps the adversary. Further, it is of paramount importance that diabolical lies, misinformation, intimidation and distortions propagated by mischievous and self-serving elements be exposed and debunked. Each citizen must ensure by voting that they play their role in shaping their own destiny.
*Shreen Abdul Saroor is a human rights activist and founder member of Women’s Action Network.