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Dr.Rajan K. Sriskandarajah
Sri Lanka Elections and Tamil Participation
Why the Boycott?
10 December 2005
|If, the only explanation the Sinhala society can come up
with for the Tamil non-participation in the presidential
election is that the LTTE forced them to, then we have a
problem. I am not referring to the loose gossips and
conjectures being bandied about in such abundance in the
Sinhala south. It is that even the more moderate Sinhalese
seem to believe this.
None of the Sinhala opinion writers have entertained the possibility that maybe – just maybe – the Tamil people didn’t want to vote at this election. If only these writers had paused to look at the present Tamil attitude towards the Sri Lankan state, instead of focusing on their own wishful thinking, they would have seen a different picture. But, they only listen to Tamil collaborators and opportunists, to paint a picture that they like. As a result, they have become totally oblivious to a fifty-year transformation in the Tamil political consciousness.
For over five decades, since independence from the British colonial rule, Tamils dutifully voted at many elections, and in remarkably large numbers. Time after time they trekked to the polls and stood in line to cast their ballots. This, they did for a system of government in Sri Lanka that is fundamentally flawed, and wholly and indubitably stacked up against them.
What did they get in return for their decades-long participation in this so called democracy? Their elected representatives got the ignominious privilege of sitting, and permanently so, in the back-benches of the opposition side of the parliament. Sinhala leaders took advantage of the presence of these powerless Tamil members in the parliament to portray Sri Lanka as a democracy, and then went on to legislate grievous harm, one after another, to those who sent them there.
This charade needed to end someday, but it is important to realize that it didn’t happen suddenly in 2005. The decline in Tamil participation in the Sri Lankan electoral process began a while ago and the process has been a gradual and a progressive one. Anyone who has taken pains to look at the voting pattern of the Tamils over the last several years, even cursorily, could have foreseen what happened this year.
Take, for example, the Jaffna district where the voters are all Tamil. Unlike other districts in the northeast, where the populations are a bit mixed (but Tamil majority, nevertheless), the Jaffna district presents a unique place to demonstrate the Tamil thinking on this matter. In other districts, the compulsion to vote to counterbalance the other ethnic communities in their midst, brings in a different set of dynamics. But, Jaffna district is an all Tamil one, and therefore a better place to test Tamil thinking.
From 1977 to 2004
In 1977, an impressive eighty-two percent of voters in the Jaffna district participated in the election (406,258out of 493,176 registered voters). By 2000 this number dramatically dwindled to twenty-one percent (132,733 out of 622,331). Although in 2001 the voter turnout rose modestly to twenty-nine percent (186,598 out of 633,457), these numbers are a far cry from the 80-plus-percent voting pattern that existed up until the late seventies.
Prior to 2005, the lowest voter turnout in Jaffna was in 1994, when 13,479 out of 596,366 registered voters cast their ballots (2.2%). This voter apathy in 1994 cost the Tamils dearly. Douglas Devananda and his coterie romped to parliament with nine seats (out of a total of ten), claiming to represent Jaffna! No Sinhala analyst worth his salt has ever commented on this.
Even in the year 2004, with the LTTE urging all Tamils to vote for the TNA, only forty-seven percent voted in the Jaffna district (305,259 out of 644,279 registered voters). This is quite important. Despite the dominant view amongst all Sri Lankan Tamils that it is good to have the TNA in the parliament to at least keep the collaborators out of there, and the LTTE urging them to vote, fewer than half the registered voters in Jaffna took the trouble to vote.
Clearly the claim that the Tamils boycotted the election this year because of LTTE intimidation is utter nonsense. The decline in Tamil participation has been a Tamil voters’ own choice, and for good and valid reasons.
The assertion by the Sinhala opinion hucksters that the ‘Tamil people wanted to vote’ in this election is not tenable either. These commentators quite obviously don’t know anything about the present-day Tamil mindset about their future on the island. This is not surprising, as they are not in touch with the ordinary Tamil people.
If they couldn’t talk to the common Tamil person to find out what this mindset is, they could have at least learned it from those who did.
Views of Tamils living in the North-East
Arthur Rhodes, who visited the northeast in mid-November 2005, wrote in AsiaMedia (UCLA Asia Institute publication), about a conversation he had with a Tamil vegetable vendor:
He then talked to a young Tamil man.
Rhodes concluded his 2-Part report saying, “The polls
open shortly, but many Tamils in the north are convinced
that the candidates don’t understand their real security and
economic concerns. They will be staying away…”
The same AFP report quoted a different Tamil person: “‘We
have a leader already. We don’t need to vote for another
one,’ said a man, who gave his name only as Rajah”
The Bottom Line