By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, September 30: Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka (called Sri Lankan Tamils) may unofficially boycott the November 16 Sri Lankan Presidential election, as none of the candidates has come forward with a pledge to meet their long-standing demands.
Their demands have been: a new constitution with devolution of power; and judicial accountability for the human rights violations allegedly perpetrated during the 2006-2009 war against the Tamil Tiger separatist militants.
The feeling of having been let down by the Lankan leaders has gone deeper after the ruling United National Party (UNP) rejected liberal and broad-minded Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and opted “unanimously and unconditionally” for Sajith Premadasa whose commitment to the fulfillment of the Tamils’ demand is at best vague and at worst nil.
Sajith has said more than once, that he will “devolve maximum power under a unitary constitution”. But the Tamils consider this phrase as an empty one.
“He may be having an idea as to how much can be devolved. Why can’t he spell it out and give it to us in writing? How can we commit our people to him in the absence of any concrete assurances?” asked C.V.K.Sivagnanam, a leader of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the principal constituent of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and former Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council.
S.Sritharan, MP from Kilinochchi district, has said that Tamils have no choice but to boycott the election given the step motherly treatment that the government gives them.
Only recently, the police helped a radical Buddhist monk, Ven.Gnanasara Thero, to forcibly cremate the body of a monk in the compound of a Hindu temple in Mullaituvu district defying a court order. Pleas by the Hindus not to desecrate the temple by cremating a body in its precincts fell on the deaf ears of both Gnanasara Thero and the police force. Gnanasara’s argument was that the Buddhists have the right to do as they wish as Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. The Tamils have also noted that Gnanasara Thero was not hauled up for contempt of court.
Earlier, President Maithripala Sirisena had pardoned and released him after he was jailed for six years for contempt of court in another case.
With the Lankan State extending immunity to virulent anti-Tamil forces like Gnanasara Thero’s Bodu Bala Sena, small wonder that there is no love lost between the Tamils and the ruling UNP or the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Sirisena.
Likewise, there is no love lost between the Tamils and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). He too has made the same meaningless pledge that he will give maximum devolution under a unitary constitution.” In fact, Gotabaya does not believe in devolution. He believes that the panacea for Lanka’s ills is putting in place an efficient governmental machinery to carry out carefully and innovatively crafted policies for all round economic development from which all communities will benefit equally.
But the Tamils feel that without autonomy and devolved powers for the North and East, they will lose their political, social and cultural identity.
Of the two leaders of the UNP, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been more sympathetic to the Tamils’ demands. It was due to his prodding that the Lankan parliament turned itself into a ‘Constitutional Assembly’ to draft a new constitution which will embody greater devolution of power. The various sub-committees did excellent work and sent their recommendations to the Steering Committee headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
But it did not go beyond that because at the time of submission to the Constitutional Assembly in October 2018, President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointed Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as made Prime Minister.
The “constitutional coup” failed and Wickremesinghe was back in the saddle, But he could not pursue the constitution drafting project because of the animosity that continued to plague his relations with Presidenr Sirisena and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This ugly episode was followed by the conflict over the UNP’s nominee for the Lankan Presidentship. Wickremesinghe was ranged against Sajith Premadasa. The TNA backed Wickremesinghe while other alliance partners backed Sajith. Ultimately, Sajith got the nomination as he had the numbers.
Wickremesinghe tried hard to get Sajith to accept devolution of power and the abolition of the Executive Presidency to be part of his manifesto in return for his support. But Sajith resisted this with all his might, and got the nomination “unconditionally”.
Having lost the battle with the UNP, Wickremesinghe is likely to take the battle to the electoral arena. It is rumored that he may sabotage Sajith’s chances among the Tamils of the North and East with the help of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
It is learnt that in the Eastern Province, the Tamils are unhappy with Sajith for rubbing shoulders with the Muslim parties. The full support which the Muslim parties have given to Sajith is expected to turn the Tamils against him. In the East, the Tamils resent the Muslims’ advancement in various fields and feel discriminated against . But they cannot support Gotabaya either, given his “anti-Tamil” war-time record.
Therefore, in the East too, the Tamils could unofficially boycott the election. Neither Sajith nor Gotabaya will get Sri Lankan Tamil votes.
Of the two main Sinhala candidates, Sajith is likely to bag most of Muslim votes almost en masse, because the Muslims are determined to defeat Gotabaya. Sajith will get a good chunk of the up-country Indian Tamil votes. A smaller portion will go to Gotabaya because of the support he will get from Arumugan Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC).
The votes of the majority Sinhalese community (70 to 75 % of the population) is expected to be divided between Sajith and Gotabaya, with the bulk going to Gotabaya because he addresses the main issues agitating the Sinhalese both Buddhist and Christian.
Against the background of the April 21 Easter Sunday blasts in three churches and three hotels leading to hundreds of deaths, Sinhlese Buddhists and Christians are eager to have an Executive President who has a proven record as a security provider, namely, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Radical Buddhist nationalists resent Sajith’s getting the support of Muslim leaders who they consider to be “radical Islamist anti-nationals”.
Sajith has to live down his association with the non-performing UNP-led government for almost five years. He himself has nothing much to show for himself, except in the field of housing. He also lacks charisma. All that can be said to his credit is that he has united the UNP and is likely to get the cooperation of all UNP cadres and the votes of the committed UNP voters. Since he opposed by the “dictatorial” Gotabaya, he will get the votes of the political liberals.
However, it is doubtful if Sajith will attract the un-attached Sinhala voter whose swing in one direction or the other will determine the winner. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with a proven record of good work, both as a military and civilian leader, will be able to bag the unattached votes.
(The featured image shows Tamils demonstrating on the missing persons’ issue. They feel devolution of police-powers will prevent arbitrary arrests based on ethnic prejudice)