National Hero v War Hero
Sri Lanka, upcoming elections are predicted to be closely contested. Much of the keenness surrounds the possible candidacy of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka as a common candidate of the opposition parties.
In previous elections, when the cosmopolitan and pro-minority United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spearheaded the opposition’s election campaigns, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies campaigned on a platform of unrestrained Sinhalese nationalism that captured the imagination of Sinhalese voters.
But the general’s appeal to this same electorate will compel the government to look to ethnic minority support as well. Some of the government’s recent actions appear designed to achieve this objective.
Until recently, the government gave scant attention to the concerns of the ethnic minorities. The most obvious case of disregard was the continued detention of people from areas formerly controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in welfare centers run and guarded by military personnel.
The government’s emphasis on national security above all else was also seen in the practice begun in 2006 of requiring all residents of the Jaffna peninsula to obtain exit permits from the military if they wished to travel out of the peninsula. This restrictive practice gave grounds for the angry assertion that Jaffna was no better than an “open air prison.” The restriction was justified by the government on the grounds that it was needed to prevent LTTE infiltration into and out of the Jaffna peninsula.
In this context, the government’s decision to open up the welfare centers and give people within them freedom of movement, and to allow the free movement of Jaffna residents without the need for military permits, would be viewed very positively by the people.
This apparent change of heart by the government could be due to a combination of reasons. One is the pressure brought to bear on it by international organisations that were providing food and other humanitarian assistance to the welfare centers. They said they would soon cease to provide assistance to people kept within the camps. Instead they promised to redirect their assistance to people
who had been released from the camps.
Nevertheless, it appears that another source of pressure was needed for the government to break out of the inertia of its original plan, which called for a two to three-year process of detention and gradual resettlement of the displaced population. After all, this is a government that has been willing to risk losing the EU’s GSP+ tariff concession on the grounds of national pride and sovereignty. It is also a government that refused to buckle under international pressures to negotiate with the LTTE in the last phase of the war.
With decisive and unavoidable national elections looming on the horizon, doubtless the departure of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka from the ranks of the government has been the main catalyst for the change.
The government is undoubtedly apprehensive that Fonseka, with his track record of efficiency, can rejuvenate the dispirited ranks of the opposition, but also can split the Sinhalese electorate that the government had come to monopolize. With the likelihood of the Sinhalese electorate now being divided between the government and opposition, the competition for the minority electorate is likely to be keen.
At present, ethnic minority voters appear to be facing a Hobson’s choice. On one hand they have a government that waged a high-cost war to defeat the LTTE and mobilised Sinhalese nationalism to do so. During most of the war the government downplayed the need for a political solution to address longstanding ethnic minority grievances, and after the war declared that peace had dawned.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa even went so far as to say that there would be no more minorities in the country, except for the minority who did not love the country. Even the report of the All Party Committee was put into the limbo of forgotten things.
The opposition campaign is now most likely to be spearheaded by General Fonseka, whose charisma and credibility have almost single-handedly revived the flagging fortunes of the opposition. On the other hand, Fonseka was the person who led the military operations.
There are still no reliable accounts of how many civilians were killed during the war days. Those who witnessed the last days have reported that there were bodies strewn along the roads they were running on, and the places they were fleeing. It was during those days that Fonseka also said that Sri Lanka was a Sinhalese country and that the minorities should not make undue demands.
There is a possibility that cohabitation between the opposition alliance and Fonseka will be difficult. They are still negotiating about abolishing the presidency should Fonseka win, and arriving at a political accommodation with the Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil party in Parliament.
The opposition alliance comprises ethnic minority parties, in addition to the UNP, which were very critical of the government war effort that Fonseka was spearheading. In turn he was outspoken in his criticism of them, in a manner that violated the norms that are meant to keep serving military officers out of politics.
The ethnic minorities have reason to doubt the intentions of both a Rajapaksa-led government and a Fonseka-led opposition. Their track records with regard to understanding ethnic minority rights and addressing their grievances has been poor. So far neither side has been forthright in affirming what they mean by a political solution to the ethnic conflict.
In these circumstances, the ethnic minorities are likely to be unimpressed by promises and reassuring words alone. They are likely to give greater weight to what is actually done on the ground. This is where the government has an advantage. By the fact of being in power, the government has a greater ability than the opposition to show change on the ground which is what it seems to be doing right now.
By Jehan Perera