By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, October 11: The pledge of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he would release jailed Sri Lankan soldiers accused of war crimes the day after he wins the November 16 Presidential election, will have a great impact on the electoral choice of both the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.
It will strengthen the SLPP’s hold on and even increase its support among the majority Sinhala community in South, Central and Western Sri Lanka. At the same time, it will have the opposite effect on the Tamil voters in the North Province, at least.
As a result of Gotabaya’s statement, the Tamils of the North, if not the East, will swing towards his opponent, Sajith Premadasa, of the United National Party (UNP).
The North has many wavering and uncommitted Tamil voters. They are neither with Sajith nor Gotabaya as these two have made no commitment to finding a political settlement on the basis of the draft constitution of 2018 nor have they addressed war-time accountability issues. This disillusioned section of the Tamil population could now consider Sajith as the lesser evil and use its franchise to teach Gotabaya a lesson for making the brazen statement.
It is not clear as to how many Sri Lankan soldiers are in prison for war time offenses committed when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Defense Secretary of Sri Lanka. But 13 security forces personnel were released by the Trincomalee magistrate in the infamous case relating to the murder of five young boys 13 years ago. The inability to locate witnesses to testify had hampered the investigation by the CID, but rights activists say the case highlights the failure of Sri Lanka’s justice system to hold the security forces responsible for crimes.
In March 2009, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay had said that war time deaths could be “truly shocking “. .The government was accused of repeatedly shelling “safe zones” set up to protect civilians ,though the LTTE was also accused of holding civilians as human shields and firing on those who tried to flee to the government lines.
The Times of London claimed that more than 20,000 people had been killed in the closing stages of the war. But the government had put the civilian dead 8000.
Several resolutions were passed by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at Geneva since 2009 calling for accountability through prescribed mechanisms. But till date, none of the resolutions (incidentally co-sponsored by Sri Lanka) has been implemented whether by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government or the successor pro-West UNP government.
The present UNP regime, even appointed the controversial war-time divisional commander Maj.Gen.Shavendra Silva as Army Commander and invited the disapproval of the UN which decided to ban a section of Sri Lankan peacekeepers on the ostensible ground that they were non-essential.
Since neither Sajith nor Gotabaya has filled the bill for Northern Tamils, they are at a loss. A section of them say that boycotting the election should be considered. Others are votaries of Sajith since supporting him will keep Gotabaya out. A section of intellectuals belonging to the Tamil Peoples’ Council want to present the candidates with a set of demands and vote for the one who agrees to meet these demands. The Jaffna Students Union is also said to be engaged in drafting demands.
But these groups are divided between moderates and extremists. While the extremists headed by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam want the candidates to recognize Sri Lanka as being “One State comprising Two Nations” (Sinhalese and the Tamil speaking people), the moderate want to place only those demands which the Sinhalese can meet and avoid putting forward demands which they cannot meet like the right to “self-determination” which triggers fears of secession.
Eastern Tamils, however, are a different kettle of fish. Their main concern is to stem the increasing economic, political and administrative domination of the Muslims especially in Batticaloa and Ampara districts. The Eastern Tamils feel left out, though they are a third of the population .Only one Tamil has been a Chief Minister since 2006, namely Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan.
With most of the Muslims leaders in the East backing Sajith, there could a tendency among the Tamils to back Gotabaya, who is seen as being highly suspicious about Muslims. Gotabaya has repeatedly stated that he gives top priority to safeguarding national security. He has been stressing this particularly after the Jehadi rampage on April 21, Easter Sunday this year. In contrast, Sajith has been sidestepping the issue perhaps with an eye on the Muslim vote.
As for the majority Sinhala Buddhist and Christian communities, their concern for national security has gone up several notches after the April 21 simultaneous bombings of churches and posh hotels which claimed nearly 300 lives.
Radical Buddhists like Ven. Ahuraliye Rathana Thera and the Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Ven.Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera are with Gotabaya. Rathana Thera had taken up the cudgels against Dr.Segu Shihabdeen Mohammad Shafi of the Kurunegala Hospital, who had allegedly rendered thousands of Sinhalese women sterile to reduce the Sinhala population in Sri Lanka.
The BBS General Secretary, who was pardoned and released from jail by President Maithripala Sirisena, recently asserted Buddhism’s constitutional primacy by cremating the body of a Buddhist monk within the compound of a Hindu temple in the Northern Province against objections from the Tamil Hindus who considered his act “sacrilegious”.
Gotabaya’s support for such monks and Sajith’s tolerance of such monks, have endeared neither to the Tamils. This makes it difficult to predict the Northern Tamils’ electoral choice. They could either pitch for the lesser evil, Sajith Premadasa, or boycott the poll.
(The featured image at the top shows Tamil women demonstrating on the issue of missing relations)