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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 46 New Delhi November 2, 2019

What does November 16 portend for Sri Lanka?

Tuesday 5 November 2019, by Apratim Mukarji


November 16, 2019 should turn out to be a day Sri Lankans would not forget in a hurry. On that Saturday, Sri Lankans will choose their next President, opting for either the front-runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa or a no-push-over Sajith Premadasa. Rajapaksa’s party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People’s Party, or SLPP) is so certain of a huge victory that their candidate’s and other leaders’ statements are leaving no room for doubt in their predictions. On the other hand, the United National Party (UNP), the major partner in the current coalition government, which has put up Sajith, son of the former strongman and assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa, had already displayed considerable factionalism, hesitancy and conflicting views before zeroing in on the son.

Officially, however, the field is rather crowded with as many as thirtyfive candidates vying for their shares of votes. Almost all of them are mere publicity-hunters but two of  them are formidable in their own ways: Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and the former Army commander General Mahesh Sennayake, who is being backed by civil society groups.

The two candidates thus symbolise the contrasting cultures and purposes behind their different nomination processes. Since February last year when the SLPP stunned the country by winning the local government elections decisively, the Rajapaksas have advanced towards their ultimate goal of regaining the presidency by the next presidential election. That election woud have materialised only towards the end of December 2019 but circumstances forced the government to advance the date for the poll. Besides, ever since winning the local body elections the SLPP has been very vocal in demanding an immediate election to reflect the actual mood of the people. Does one detect a similarity with India?  But that is besides the point.

There was no doubt about what the ‘people’ alias the majority Sinhalese-Buddhists wanted. They were hooting for an absolutist Sinhalese-Buddhist President with a clear mandate to govern the country with an iron hand in order to wipe out corruption in high places, tackle with chilling determination the economy that was going downhill  and finally to rip apart the fast-sprouting extremism and anti-nationalist feelings among the minority Tamil and Muslim communities. Two of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statements have definitely served to exacerbate the minorities’ discomfort level. One was his vow to release all the jailed soldiers after coming to power.  On October 11, he said that he would release the jailed soldiers accused of war crimes the day after he won the presidential election on November 16. His calculation was obvious. At one stroke, the SLPP’s hold on the majority Sinhalese in the south, central and western parts of the country would increase and thus raise the number of his supporters and potential voters. The second statement came on October 15, when he declared that if elected, he would not honour the country’s commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council on post-war accountability and reconciliation. “We will always work with the United Nations, but I can’t recognise what they (UN) have signed with (the) past governments,” he said. He also made the laboured point that  Tamils alone were not missing after the war but “there are 4,000 soldiers who are also missing”.

Why did he take the calculated risk of making these two statements which have directly hit the Tamils’ interests? The only plausible explanation could be that while the Tamils would be further alienated, at the same time he wanted to send the message that he could not care less if that happened. While the minority voters  would be chary of him more than ever and the support-base of Sajith Premadasa would increase proportionately, this development could be channeled towards a further consolidation of Sinhalese votes.

However, the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote-bank is not entirely on his side. The so-called “Colombo elite”, the lesser-exulted Sinhalese who live in the capital city and other towns and civic society groups, professionals and intellectuals (partially) are now part of the “Stop the Gota (baya) Movement” which has made some impact on the election campaign.

Meanwhile, the north continues to have Tamils who are still undecided in their minds as to which candidate they should support, the one who is more likely to win because of a solid majority support-base or the one who is likely to garner votes in a disjointed fashion and thus is the obvious weaker candidate. To them, in the final analysis, both the candidates are Sinhalese-Buddhist and, therefore, have no commitment to look after the Tamils and the Muslims, especially the Tamils. Neither has supported the draft Constitution nor has bothered about a speedy conclusion of the war crimes and meting out of due punishment to the culprit armed force personnel.

As it is, the national unity government has performed miserably in pursuing the war crime allegations despite oft-repeated desires to do so, heightening the Tamils’ suspicion that it is not serious about the matter. It was only after many agitations, roadblocks, media propaganda, and fast-unto-death movements that the Office of Missing Person was established, its members appointed, and the commission began to visit provinces and districts to interview all the sides involved in such issues.

The Tamils have also noted that Premadasa has so far failed to endorse two of their main demands, a quickening of the reconciliation process (which includes the issue of meting out  justice to alleged war criminals) and constitutional reforms. As a matter of fact, the largest Opposition group in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance, saved the government from the no-confidence motion in Parliament on the understanding with the UNP that constitutional reforms would be definitely carried out.

The Tamils, however, also suffered a major loss of trust in the impartiality and effectiveness of the judiciary when the magistrate in Trincomalee released thirteen soldiers imprisoned on the charges of killing five young boys in 2006. Gotabaya Rajapksa was the all-powerful and most feared Defence Secretary in his elder brother Mahinda’s presidency at the time. The Tamils are in no hurry to forget this episode, and whenever they judge the eligibility of the SLPP candidate to get their votes, a stern ‘No’ in place of an undeserved ‘Yes’ is likelier to happen.

The background in which the November 16 poll is going to take place, therefore, is not quite propitious. The minorities are most certainly a worried lot. In contrast, the majority community betrays a sense of reinforcing its supremacy through the election of a proven champion of that supremacy. Disparate groups of serious thinkers are engaged in a potentially futile exercise of “Stop the Gota” call. In an interesting  aside, Basil, another of the Rajapaksa siblings, has significantly predicted that “No outsider will interfere in Sri Lanka polls this time”. In an interview to The Hindu (October 16), he said, “Ethically, that is how it should be.” He was alluding to a shift in the international community’s “role” in Sri Lankan politics. He was clearly drawing a parallel with what happened after Mahinda Rajapaksa, the eldest brother, lost in the 2015 presidential election due to an alleged role of India’s Research and Analytical Wing (RA&W). Since then, the Rajapaksas, especially Mahinda, have con-sciously sought to cultivate the good offices of the Modi Government. “India is our number one friend and neighbour so we have to always go with India, in political and security matters, but in economic  and other matters you can’t forget China,” he said.  He also said, obviously for removing any possible doubt to remain in the people’s mind that “No matter who our candidate or President is, our leader (Mahinda Rajapaksa) will be the head of the government (as the PM). So, this arrangement suits us well. He is our leader, and he is the spiritual leader of our country.”

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs. His third book on Sri Lanka, Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka: An Unfinished Story, has just been published.

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