Democracy Continues, Sri Lanka Style...
Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Why the
Tamils did Not Vote
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer
UCLA Asia Institute - Asia Media News Daily]
15/16 November 2005
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
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
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,
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
with a system that has long ignored their voices.
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
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 donít see the election as bringing real peace
and they donít 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.