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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Democracy, Sri Lanka Style > Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Why the Tamils did Not Vote

 Democracy Continues, Sri Lanka Style...

Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Why the Tamils did Not Vote

Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer
[courtesy UCLA Asia Institute - Asia Media News Daily]

15/16 November 2005

Part 1

The decision of the Sri Lankan rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to withhold its crucial endorsement from both candidates in the Nov. 17 presidential election has sparked a wildfire of debate and conjecture in the Sri Lankan media.

The most popular theory of the moment alleges that the de facto Tiger boycott is an intentional move to sabotage the candidacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. What is ironic -- or at least seems to be -- about this theory is that Wickremesinghe is generally seen as being much softer in his stance towards the rebels than his opponent Mahinda Rajapakse. Both men are Sinhalese and both are faced with the daunting task of resolving Sri Lanka's protracted ethnic conflict. "The national question," as it is called here, has plagued every executive politician since the country's 1948 independence.

Wickremesinghe, the candidate of the United National Party, has remained conspicuously silent on the national question. Rajapakse, of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, has allied himself with the nation's two most vocal nationalist parties. This move seems to have alienated a large number of the island's Tamils, who believe that Rajapakse and his alliance will bring with them a return to the days of oppression at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.

The LTTE, however, has declared both men intolerable and thus unsupportable.

At a press conference last Thursday, LTTE political leader, R. Samdandan, told the media that "the Tamil people do not have reason to be concerned with this election...they have no faith in the Sinhala leadership. As a result, our people are not prepared to be deceived any longer."

Rajapakse's alliance with jingoists is a clear threat to the aspirations of the Tamil people, the LTTE says, and Wickremesinghe's reluctance to take a stance demonstrates that he lacks the political will to make the unpopular decisions that can ensure a long-standing peace.

Because Rajapakse, in the eyes of most Tamil voters, should clearly be the more repugnant of the two candidates, the LTTE's unofficial boycott is certainly damaging to Wickremesinghe's campaign. Regardless of his nebulous stance on the national question, Wickremesinghe has been slated to receive the "lesser-of-the-evils" vote from those Tamil citizens still determined to engage with the political process. Tiger leadership officially says that it will do nothing to physically discourage any of its citizens from crossing over into government territory to cast their vote, but even an unofficial boycott will be enough to keep many would-be voters away from the polls.

The LTTE's decision to abstain is clearly an expression of the apathy with which many Tamils view national politics. However, there is perhaps a more cynical explanation for their disengagement, and it is this explanation that has received the lion's share of the media's attention over the past few weeks.

With their unintentional -- or, at least, unofficial -- sabotage of the Wickremesinghe campaign, the LTTE has given a huge boost to Rajapaske's campaign. Wickremesinghe is a neo-liberal who knows that the foreign investors he covets will never come to Sri Lanka in the droves that he desires until a lasting peace is in place. For this reason alone, the LTTE could see Wickremesinghe as a potential ally in the quest for peace -- a quest that they say they have been long ready to undertake -- but Wickremesinghe has also proven in the past that he is willing to accommodate the wishes of the LTTE. As Prime Minister in 2002, it was Wickremesinghe who signed the Cease Fire Agreement which officially ended hostilities and still stands today, albeit precariously.

For this it seems that the LTTE might be willing to forgive the candidate's silence about the national problem. With the recent assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a move that sent outrage rippling throughout the international community and is widely considered to be the work of the LTTE, the nationalist flag is flying fairly high. This is no time to appear to be an LTTE appeaser. Set against this backdrop, it seems credible to speculate that the LTTE might perhaps be maneuvering for a Rajapakse victory.

True, Wickremesinghe might reinvigorate the peace talks, but as the LTTE showed in 1995 when they walked out after six months of unproductive negotiations, they can quickly run out of patience with talking. A heavy increase in killings and attacks against military personnel seems to indicate that the Tigers have begun to run out of patience with the ceasefire as well. They cannot, however, openly return to war with their current reputation within the international community in shambles. Amidst calls for an all-out ban on the organization as a terrorist group, the Tigers were officially prohibited from travel within Europe shortly after Kardirgamar's assassination, a development that has greatly hurt their ability to lobby their case for a separate homeland.

With the world's patience at an all-time low, the LTTE must know that a capricious move toward open hostilities could bring any number of countries to the rescue of the Sri Lankan government.

A win by Rajapakse and the jingoists, however, could allow the LTTE to proclaim the situation unsalvageable and begin lobbying the international community to support their bid for a separate state. The death of a tsunami aid-sharing mechanism at the hands of the Sinhalese nationalists -- the same parties Rajapakse has aligned himself with -- has been a key aspect of the Tiger's lobbying package and was beginning to convince many that the LTTE had a legitimate contention. The mechanism would have given the LTTE sovereignty over the distribution of foreign funds intended for tsunami survivors living in their areas. LTTE leadership says the nationalists, in striking down the agreement, have badly hampered the process of post-tsunami reconstruction in the northeast.

A Rajapakse victory, therefore, offers them a pitch of moral high ground from which they can launch a renewed campaign for independence. So, it seems logical to assume that the LTTE might in fact intend to nominate Rajapakse with their unofficial boycott of the elections, and many analysts have begun to speculate that this is, in fact, what they hope to accomplish.

This speculation, however, ignores the agency of a crucial actor in the electoral process: the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. If the Tamil vote on Thursday's election is untraditionally low, analysts across the island will write for days of the LTTE's election boycott and its consequences on the outcome. If Rajapakse actually wins, the Tamil people will be cited as pawns in the great LTTE elections coupe of 2005.

There is a danger, though, that the actual truth -- that at least some Tamils feel hopelessly apathetic toward their nation's political system -- will be summarily forgotten. Ironically, many of the Tamils who choose to abstain will do so because they are disenchanted with a system that has long ignored their voices.

Part 2

Northern Sri Lanka --- Weekend afternoons are busy times at the Killinochchi market, but today the monsoon rains came in fast, sending the crowds scattering for cover. Here the rain can fall, patiently, for an entire day. This storm, however, has left as suddenly as it had arrived.

The clouds begin to pass as vendors and shoppers come streaming out from under thatch-roofed shelters to restart the day's commerce. Displays begin to unfold. Fruits and vegetables, sarongs and handkerchiefs are set outside to attract passing customers. Nearby, an older woman begins arranging her stall. At first glance she looks frail, but she moves easily under the heft of the straw mats slightly hunching her back. Finished with her chore, she stands upright, squints, and with a wrinkled, calloused hand shields her eyes from the sun, looking off into the distant and busy action on the other side of the bazzar.

Marutani Kesevarajah is 63 and has lived in Killinochchi all her life. Initially, she says she really doesn't know anything about politics. She doesn't think much about it. Still, she begins to talk about her shop and how happy she is to finally have the opportunity to work and make a living. Her voice begins to rise and she looks around, her eyes wider -- the woman says all she wants is peace. She wants to see her shop grow and to live without fear of invasions or bombings that come in the middle of the night to wipe away progress. She wants to see her town and her people develop and become strong again. While grateful for the chances and successes that have come with the ceasefire, she says she knows it could all be lost if the war returns.

Killinochchi, the capital of the district controlled by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was one of the areas most badly affected by the violence and destruction of over two decades of civil war. The residents there still remember the bombings and the killings, watching their homes burn and their loved ones die. Though there has been much progress, economic development was badly stunted by the conflict, and even now the area has not fully recovered from years of physical devastation and economic embargos.

"Things are much better since the fighting stopped, and we are happy for that, but we are all still very poor," Kesevarajah says. "The politicians make promises, but they give us nothing."

She says she does not see a reason to vote. "Neither candidate will give us what we need. Eventually both will just bring war." She spreads her arms in a gesture to take in her small shop. "What will I be left with then?"

In another part of town beside the newly-paved A-9 highway, a group of young girls dressed in their immaculate-white school uniforms wait at a bus stop. Just across the street, nineteen-year-old P. Selvan proclaims that he does not care one way or another about the Nov. 17 election. He talks fast, with his hands, and he does not smile. "These elections are not for the Tamils," he says. "They do not care about us in the south. No matter what happens we will not get what we need to prosper and be free...both [candidates] will probably bring war. One might bring it sooner, but it will come. We have lost our hope for peace."

He says that he is ready to fight. "We all are," he says. Over the last six months each member of his household, including his 62-year-old grandmother, has participated in voluntary training offered by the LTTE in which citizens learn, among other things, how to operate an AK-47 assault rifle. Rebel leaders say that this training is being offered in order to prepare citizens for a possible attack by the Sri Lankan armed forces. "We do not know when they are coming," Selvan says. "But we all have to be ready."

In Jaffna, a northern city that houses Sri Lankan troops, soldiers walk the street. Dressed in olive-green uniforms with heavy combat helmets and barrels of T-56 machine guns reaching out from beneath their rain ponchos, the young soldiers look bored and tired. Their presence has some residents on edge and some are too fearful to speak on record. They don�t see the election as bringing real peace and they don�t plan to vote.

Just outside of town, in a refugee camp for persons displaced during the war, a group of adults has crowded into a tiny preschool. This particular village has not been allowed to return to their homes since 1990. For "security reasons," the Sri Lankan military now occupies their land. The residents plan to boycott the election, arguing that ceasefire hasn't permitted them to return home.

One woman is carrying an infant. Her name is Sudamani. She stands on her toes to be seen over his shoulder and raises her voice to be heard over the talking. When the army took over their land in 1990, Sudamani, who does not want her last name published, her mother and two sisters became refugees. Her father had been killed by a landmine earlier that year, soon after both of her brothers went to war. Both were dead before the year ended. "The army has taken away our homes and none of the Sinhalese politicians care to help us. We have no more patience," she says. "No more hope."

Mavai S. Senathirajah, Jaffna Member of Parliament and party member of the Tamil National Alliance, the political party of the LTTE, says that he understands the frustration of the people. "Most of the Tamils in the north have not been able to decide who they will support because neither candidate appeals to them," he says. "Ranil [Wickremesinghe] has not made himself clear on some very important issues, and Mahinda [Rajapakse]'s alliance with the nationalistic parties, his stance on issues such as the agreement to share tsunami aid between the government and the LTTE, which was developed to help innocent tsunami survivors, and his insistence on the notion of a unitary state, all disappoint us deeply."

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. Open warfare has ceased, but in some communities people say peace feels more like occupation than freedom.



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