The Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is having a spectacularly bad week.
Technically, with the two assemblies lapsing in late April, March 29 elections for the Western and Southern Provincial Councils took place on schedule. But the polls were also extraordinarily timed – with a little help from the Elections Department – to take place 24 hours after the UN Human Rights Council vote on a US resolution that would launch a war crimes investigation into the last seven years of Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE.
Calls had been mounting for an international investigation to be set up by the Council in March 2014 and President Rajapaksa, who has mastered the art of using international pressure to galvanise support domestically, saw the perfect opportunity.
In Geneva, since early March momentum was building to use the third US resolution on Sri Lanka to set up an inquiry mechanism that would be conducted by international independent experts about allegations that have deeply shadowed the last weeks of the Government’s ‘humanitarian operation’ in the north in 2009.
Election turned referendum
President Rajapaksa, the undisputed king of election-winning strategy and rhetoric, promptly turned the provincial elections into a referendum about the international moves to censure his administration and impose a probe through the resolution. Both provinces polling at last Saturday’s elections were key indicators of Government popularity. The south is Rajapaksa country, the heartland of the President’s support base. The Western Province includes the capital Colombo that has seen the most change in the five years after the war and large belts of Sinhala Buddhist support in the periphery.
So President Rajapaksa campaigned as if he was the ruling coalition’s chief ministerial candidate, becoming the national face of the UPFA election campaign, constantly impressing on the people about the need to “send a message to Geneva”.
The results coming in from early morning on Sunday (30) were not the landslide the Government had anticipated. It won well over 50% of the total vote polled, but even early analyses were acknowledging that jointly, the Opposition parties had made significant inroads into the ruling party base. For the first time in eight years, an election result had revealed a ruling party vulnerability, even with the President at the helm of its campaign.
This is uncharted territory for the Rajapaksa administration which has seen a steady increase of its support base with almost every election, permitting the President to keep consolidating his power. Despite the very respectable 58% win in the Southern Province and 53% in the Western Province, the perception of electoral invincibility had been shattered. In some districts, the joint Opposition accumulatively had polled more or nearly as much as the UPFA. That scenario could have devastating for the present administration at a presidential election, when the entire country polls as a single constituency and talk of an Opposition alliance contesting is already in the air.
There were several crucial indicators about these provincial election results that have been absent in successive polls held before, that have shaken the UPFA.
For one thing, the Rajapaksa administration favourite, hardliner Udaya Gammanpila from the JHU, lost in the Colombo District to Hirunika Premachandra, a candidate who is essentially backed by the SLFP old guard. Gammanpila was appointed the UPFA Group Leader over SLFP strongman Prasanna Ranatunga by President Rajapaksa and backed strongly by the upper echelons of the regime. Essentially, the results proved that the SLFP support base outnumbered that of the fringe elements within the ruling alliance, despite how heavily these fringe parties are backed by the topmost rungs of the administration. Ranatunga’s top showing in the Gampaha District preferential vote count ensured that Gammanpila could not be appointed Chief Minister, having polled a lower number of votes than Premachandra.
Secondly, the result especially in the Western Province is a spectacular indication that the extremist ideologies of the JHU and Bodu Bala Sena that are heavily patronised by the Rajapaksa administration were not resonating with ordinary people – even ordinary Sinhalese people.
Even in Homagama, Maharagama, Kesbewa and Kaduwela, where support for the JHU and BBS is strong, the Opposition parties – none of which have espoused the intolerant ideologies of hardline Buddhist movements – managed not to be washed out electorally, reducing the UPFA’s winning margins significantly in the Colombo District, where it could not muster more than 45% of the vote.
Thirdly, the Southern electorate that endured its Provincial Councillor Anarkali Akarsha for five years since the last election rejected the actress-model and even her Opposition counterpart, Nadeesha Hemamali, outright. Geetha Kumarasinghe however made the cut, but Anarkali’s loss in the south, where she was backed heavily by the President’s own family, reflects the electorate’s growing frustration with the brand of ‘pretty faces’ politics that the Government has turned into a fine art in recent times.
Overall, the Government decreased its numbers by 246,193 votes, losing about 9.8% of its support in the Southern Province and 11.4% in the Western Province (compared with 2009, Source: Dept of Elections). The UNP generally retained its vote in both Provinces, its margins in the West declining slightly because of a decision by the Mano Ganesan-led Democratic People’s Front to contest independently. The major winners at Saturday’s election however were Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party and the rejuvenated JVP under Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The two smaller parties made inroads into the UPFA support base and also tore away some UNP votes. This is different to the two previous provincial elections in the North Western and Central Provinces last year, where the DP clearly eroded the UNP’s base and that base alone.
The UNP’s showing, while nothing to caper about, was not the washout many had expected it to be. The party managed this despite failing to name a chief ministerial candidate, the lack of a national campaign and the continued attacks from two media institutions strongly backing the Sajith Premadasa reformist faction. Premadasa himself made good in the Hambantota District, increasing the UNP vote slightly in the area, but those numbers may have been boosted by the fact that Fonseka was not permitted to campaign in the district due to Government pressure. One of the chief instigators of the UNP reformist movement, former Southern Provincial Councillor Maithree Guneratne, who formed his own party to contest in the south – the Eksath Lanka Podujana Pakshaya – managed to muster 1,623 votes despite heavy backing by a private television broadcaster.
Between the election results and the adoption of the UNHRC resolution setting up an international probe despite the best efforts of Pakistan, China, Russia, Venezuela and Cuba, the regime has had better weeks.
In the Geneva aftermath, led by the defence establishment the Rajapaksa administration has proscribed 16 Tamil diaspora organisations operating overseas as being LTTE or separatist fronts. The blanket ban includes powerful lobby groups like the Global Tamil Forum and the British Tamil Forum and the Australian Tamil Congress and the Canadian Tamil Congress. The latter group recently successfully sued Sri Lankan academic and terrorism expert Prof. Rohan Guneratne for defamation after he referred to the organisation as a LTTE front.
The ban that has been enforced without a presentation of the facts or evidence before Parliament or a court of law, is raising fears that it is a thinly-veiled Government attempt to clip the wings of Tamil political parties like the TNA by cutting off funding and preventing the flow of information overseas. The Government cannot force compliance internationally without the presentation of hard evidence, but locally, it can hold the threat of ‘terror links’ over politicians, activists and civilians.
Under the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights, advocating for self-determination politically is legal, and many of these groups, including the Australian Tamil Congress, in fact call for a solution to the Tamil problem within the framework of a united Sri Lanka, and in effect are not even secessionist in ideology. TNA Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran says it is a unilateral Government ban, born of hubris after the passing of the US resolution in Geneva, and insists that many of the 16 organisations listed have nothing to do with terrorism. “GTF and many of its member organisations are calling for full devolution on a federal basis,” Sumanthiran told the Daily FT.
The Government is yet to brief the diplomatic corps about the proscription, or provide hard evidence about the terror links of the 16 organisations in order to make foreign governments contemplate compliance with the ban, it is learnt. This briefing will take place in due course, but unless the evidence is more than just circumstantial, the Government will have trouble convincing the international community about the need to enforce similar strictures on the diaspora groups.
Shaken by the UNHRC resolution and floundering on how to deal with the latest international developments, the regime is having knee-jerk responses. Outcry over the arrest of three disappearances activists led to a revelation that the LTTE was regrouping in the north, the entry of the character ‘Gopi,’ warnings about terror attacks on the capital and a major security crackdown in the Northern Province. It is a major indictment on the Government’s massive loss of credibility in the five years since the war ended that the international community did not bite in Geneva, despite the timing of the expose. The moves are being viewed as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, to combat the pressure mounting internationally about the need to address the country’s human rights situation. In five years of dealing with the Rajapaksa administration, lessons have been learned about its modus operandi.
While the Government is busy with blanket bans and curbing human rights activism, the fact remains that the greatest catalyst for the LTTE’s regrouping is the Government’s own minority policies post-war.
Nothing renders Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity more vulnerable than the global perception – now growing – that the Tamil and Sinhalese communities in the island cannot co-exist. It is a case that slowly being built by the regime’s disdain for democratic freedoms and human rights post-war and now its reactionary responses to the UNHRC resolution passed in Geneva last week. Nothing will breed discontent and a shift towards extreme Tamil nationalism faster than the continued, oppressive presence of the military in the Northern Province. The refusal to demilitarise the Northern Province is costing the regime electorally and internationally. The situation is nurturing perceptions of discrimination and marginalisation by the Sinhala majority south that have existed for generations.
When Tamil militant groups first banded in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was ordinary Tamil people in the north and east, deeply disillusioned by successive governments of the south, that offered ‘the boys’ shelter and food or hid them from the Sri Lankan armed forces. The moderate Tamil leadership had been trying without success to win autonomy for the north and east, for the better part of 30 years. Angry, weary and oppressed, ordinary Tamils saw new hope in the young militants. Successive Sri Lankan Governments lost the hearts and minds struggle then, and paved the way for the emergence of militant organisations that began to see violence as the only way.
The LTTE would emerge as the strongest of these groups in the 1980s, and proceed to decimate its militant opposition.
Perceived saviours turned to oppressors soon enough. No community has suffered at the hands of LTTE brutalism the way the Tamil population did. Their children were conscripted, their men disappeared or brutally murdered by Tiger squads, they were constantly monitored, constantly measured for loyalty to the Tamil cause. The people of the north and east, who had lived through decades of discrimination and perceived injustice, were now being persecuted by those who had claimed to be their saviours.
The south speaks often of LTTE terror; the bomb explosions, massacres and all-pervasive existential threats. These were horrific, fearful things to live through. But nowhere except in northern Sri Lanka is the war etched on the faces of ordinary people. Forty-year-olds sometimes look 75.
This is history forgotten about the Sri Lankan ethnic struggle in the triumphalist post-war narrative that reigns today. The present political discourse about the country’s ‘national question’ reduces decades of ethnic strife, discrimination and persecution of a community of people to the fight against the viciousness of Tiger terrorism.
In 2013, four-and-a-half years after the war, the Tamil National Alliance won a two-thirds majority in elections in the Northern Province. In early 2011, there was no overwhelming swing towards the Opposition, although the TNA made a decent showing. There was relief in the north then about the silence of the guns and the relative safety in which people were now living. Five years later, residing in post-conflict conditions, the Tamil people have begun to care again about political freedoms.
But consumed by physical reconstruction and development work, the Government has consistently ignored political grievances. Government emissaries to Geneva repeated the call for economic and social rights to be regarded on par with human rights and civil and political rights. But there is a fundamental difference. And it is best articulated by the fact that states are not hauled up before international tribunals or censured for their inability to provide clean drinking water to their citizens. It is the global acknowledgement that human life lived without dignity is no life at all that makes human rights a universal concern, trumping sovereignty and territorial integrity.
A persisting problem
When a people’s suffering is consistently, determinedly ignored, they seek out heroes, sometimes in the most dangerous places. In its latest pushback against the alleged resurgence of LTTE terrorism, the Government is ignoring and overlooking historical context and present-day preoccupations of the island’s ethnic problem.
In war-time, the focus on anti-terror policy was understood and even widely endorsed. But once the war was won, peace-time politics and policy-making required a different approach. Post-war Sri Lanka needed to acknowledge the series of lost opportunities and historical wrong-turns that had driven the country towards unforgiving conflict which lasted almost three decades. Peace-time needed revised military and intelligence policies.
Peace-time needed a hawkish President to shed the ways of war and match action to rhetoric in helping communities of people to heal after the horrors of war had torn them apart. Had he changed the tenor of politics in May 2009 and given reconciliation a genuine shot, President Rajapaksa’s Government would not be facing international censure and a potentially-devastating war crimes inquiry five years later.
A magnanimous Government in Colombo would have stripped residual LTTE elements and diaspora groups operating overseas of legitimacy. And content with the end of war and a measure of political devolution, the Tamil people would have forgiven even war-time brutality and moved on.
And the world community would have moved on with them.