Srinivasan Ramani, Newsclick, 12 January 2010
It has been more than six months since a bloody civil war that resulted in hundreds of Tamil speaking civilian deaths and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was vanquished. The LTTE's entire top brass, chief V.Prabhakaran, intelligence chief Pottu Amman and others were killed as the battle ended gorily with allegations of cold blooded murder of surrendering political representatives of the organisation by Sri Lankan military forces and other war crimes. The United Nations recently confirmed that videos taken of army atrocities and murder, were genuine, pointing direct fingers at the conduct of the war by the Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
For the much traumatised Tamil population - who had been subjected to authoritarian and fascist LTTE rule in the Vanni and other areas of northern Sri Lanka, the "victory" did not bring any respite. Many of the dwellers of the Vanni were cooped up in detention camps for months. Varying reports came from the camps - of the abject conditions in which the Tamils were held, of human right violations and keeping them in these camps against their will. The ostensible reason offered by the Rajapaksa regime was that this detention was necessary to weed out remaining LTTE fighters and Tamils' return to their homes was to be held up until de-mining of the Vanni and northern areas was complete. In the meantime, the Rajapaksa regime basked under its "achievement" and the glow of triumphalism, as Mahinda Rajapaksa was anointed "king" and a reincarnation of Sinhalese king Dutugemunu (who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC and a legendary/mythical figure known to have defeated an invading Tamil army) by Sinhala chauvinists. The government itself was continuing to play a nice good cop, bad cop game; at one level, Mahinda Rajapaksa was reassuring observers about his commitment to the minorities, while at the other level, triumphalism was invoked to suggest that the "national question" of the Tamil minorities was resolved following the LTTE's death.
Meanwhile, neither international pressure - increasingly on the rise after the LTTE was vanquished, as there was no bogey for the Lankan government to offer for their treatment of the Tamils - nor the abject conditions of the camps moved the Rajapaksa regime to resettle the civilians. What turned the tide and ultimately saw not only a release of nearly 3,00,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), but also the opening up of the A9 highway to Jaffna was the time tested consideration of realpolitik. Army chief (now ex-) Sarath Fonseka broke off from the Rajapaksa regime and went on to announce his candidacy to the Sri Lankan executive presidency, elections for which were advanced two years earlier and are scheduled to be held on January 26th, 2010.
The break in the ranks of the triumphant army-Srilankan Freedom Party (SLFP) combine, meant that there was now a rival to the triumphal legacy of the Rajapaksa regime. The much marginalised Sinhala opposition parties - the United National Party (UNP) as well as the supportive ultra-nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna now rallied around Fonseka. The Rajapaksa regime now needed the support of the minorities as well against this combine and in a sudden move, ordered the release of the IDPs and the opening up of the A9 highway.
What of the Tamil parties? The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), comprised of representatives of erstwhile militant and moderate groups who were themselves marginalised by the LTTE and many of whom nevertheless took a pro-LTTE position just prior and during the war - some TNA legislators were murdered during the war - now had a choice. They could either support the Fonseka candidacy or chart an independent course rallying other minorities - the Sri Lankan Muslims and impoverished Sinhalese on a new platform. The TNA chose the former option. It, alongwith the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) decided to support the Fonseka candidacy - fully aware that the former army chief was a lynchpin in the civil war and cognisant of the danger of a military man donning civilian clothes and coming to power. Fonseka's past statements - one in which he outrageously remarked that Sri Lanka is for the Sinhalese and can only be ruled by them and that the minorities could not make "undue demands" - should have caused enough concern for the TNA, but apparently realpolitik meant that even this was taken into stride. Ironically, the Rajapaksa regime - which prior and during the war years gave maximum leverage to the Lankan army even to the extent of it intervening in political affairs is now terming the Fonseka candidacy a threat to civilian democracy.
To the Tamil representatives' credit - they did manage to wring out a manifesto from Fonseka - which expressly called for a diverse but united Sri Lanka and a halt to violence and discrimination against minorities. But the coalition that supports the Fonseka candidacy is an enigmatic bundle of contradictions - it includes the free market supporting UNP, the ultra-nationalist but officially communist JVP and now has the backing of the separatist TNA. What binds them together is a common antipathy toward the Rajapaksa regime - which despite its triumph against the LTTE has also the image of an authoritarian government that has mandated violations of civil liberties and human rights.
Not that all Tamil groups have acquiesced in the support for Fonseka. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) of Anandasangaree continues to remain non-committal on support to either Fonseka or Rajapaksa, but the official TULF today is a rump of the former important organisation that articulated the voice of North-eastern Tamils in the country. The Eelam Peoples Democratic Party, EPDP of notorious ex-militant Douglas Devananda was part of the Rajapaksa regime and continues to offer support to the Rajapaksa candidacy. Other LTTE renegades - V.Muralidharan aka Karuna joined the SLFP and is a serving minister while former eastern LTTE members such as eastern province chief minister Pillayan continue to support Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Tamil plantation workers' party, the Ceylon Workers Congress (also part of the ruling combine) also pledged its support to Rajapaksa but it appears that there is a rift among some of the union leaders of the CWC over this issue.
Battle-lines are now clearly drawn for the presidential elections. As goes any election, much pandering to "vote banks" is now on. But what of the fundamental issues that dog the Sri Lankan nation - that of the unresolved "national question", the minorities' (including the Muslims) problem and even that of those suffering from the ravages of war because of its exorbitant costs?
The economy is primarily dependent on tea export, remittances from migrant labour in west Asia, the garment industry and tourism - all of whom have been affected during the war years. The Rajapaksa regime might have legitimacy among the Sinhalese people for its victory over the LTTE, but undercurrents of disenchantment over economic conditions are on the rise.
And the LTTE's defeat might have resulted in further trauma for the already tortured Sri Lankan Tamil people, but embers of the demand for Eelam still remain. That would continue to remain as long as the Sinhala nationalist state defies history and refuses to recognise the legitimate grievances of the Tamils, which have been built over sixty years of strife, for which the Sinhala majority parties and later the perverse leadership of the LTTE were equally responsible- furthering the minorities' misery in several ways.
The Sri Lankan Muslims have their own set of grievances as well - against increased chauvinism of the Sinhala nationalist state (and Sinhala society), the continued displaced status of northern Muslims from their homeland in the north after being driven away by the LTTE in the early 1990s. The SLMC's throwing in its lot with Fonseka represents its concerns toward the hegemonising Sinhala nationalist nature of the Rajapaksa regime.
For progressives who would want an end to the ethnic strife in the otherwise high-on-the-Human Development Index-island nation, the current developments would be hard to fathom. As observers from a different country, we cannot understand entirely as to why minority sections of the Sri Lankan polity would support a military candidate who has some perverse views on the issue of majority rule and diversity. But such is the tortured nature of the Sri Lankan polity today, where Sinhala chauvinism reigns supreme and so much authoritarian has the Rajapaksa regime been, that the minorities have thrown caution to the wind and gone ahead and endorsed Sarath Fonseka's candidacy.
The choice of the "devil" over the "deep sea" instead of creating a new path of progressive change is definitely a short sighted measure. The current developments do not ensure a new political constituency of sections bound by common interest for a pro-poor, anti-majoritarian, secular, substantively democratic and progressive political order, conceived as an alternative to the status quoist, triumphalist, majoritarian and possibly Bonapartist order represented by both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka. They only push the envelope of a lasting federal (a dirty word in Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan politics today) and rights based solution to the conflict in another opportunistic direction.