By Satheesan Kumaaran
Although Sri Lanka maintains a dubious status as a democracy, Sri Lankans will vote on January 26 to elect a president. The Tamil voters are in a state of shock and dismay as they face enormous hardships at the hands of the Sri Lankan State. Tamils have no hope whatsoever to overcome the fear and intimidation that haunts their lives. They are over-sighted by alienated armed forces in their own homeland. It is under these circumstances that the presidential elections are to be held this month. The two leading presidential candidates are the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the main opponent candidate, Sarath Fonseka, the former Sri Lankan army commander actively instrumental in fighting the Tamil Tigers in the recent past.
Democratic elections in a failed state
Although a universal definition on democracy is not available, one of the fundamental principles of democracy is free and fair elections where there is freedom of the press and civilian control of the military. Other important aspects include political pluralism, equality before the law, due process, civil liberties, human rights, and elements of a civil society outside the government. However, certain events have put Sri Lanka’s democracy in question.
According to the basically accepted definition, democracy is government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. While freedom of the press is a precious ingredient of a vibrant democracy, in most autocracies claiming to be democracies, journalists are the casualties of the various conflicts they report on. Sri Lanka is among the worst in this regard showing utter hostility, to say the least, to the media personnel who are prepared to speak out independently and stand up against unfairness.
Well over twenty journalists have died in Sri Lanka in the last nine years. So far, none of the assailants has ever been brought to justice. The fate of journalism as the “Fourth Estate” is in jeopardy, and journalists will have no choice but to decide whether they are ready to make the supreme sacrifice for their legitimate work.
In the elections held in the recent past, especially in the traditional homeland of the Tamils, the ruling parties always supported the paramilitary groups who intimidated voters to cast their votes for their supporters. In this scenario, it is impossible to imagine how a republic professing to be democratic with lip service for democratic values stated in the Constitution does not allow media freedom nor freedom of speech. The winner in these elections will indeed be injustice and inequality.
In such a circumstance, democratic values are nonexistent in Sri Lanka, and the politicians seem to live in a mythical world that they can win by fooling the general public–the general public who live in deplorable economic conditions without being aware of what is happening around them and are ignorant without access to proper information. But they will vote for the popular candidate who provides the most false promises which the voters already know that they will not be able to fulfill during their term of office. This has been the cynical trend in Sri Lankan politics since independence, that elections are won through corrupt practices exacerbated under the JR Jayawardene regime in the 1970s.
Who should the Tamils vote for?
Although over twenty candidates are contesting the presidency, the real campaign between Rajapaksa and Fonseka, Rajapaksa, is busy countering the allegations put forwarded by Fonseka’s campaign, such as who should claim victory over the LTTE and how to rebuild the nation from a badly bruised economy.
Rajapaksa claims that he was solely responsible for the victory over the LTTE having become overwhelmingly with the Sinhala extremists. He went around the world to hunt down other LTTE members. He managed to bring LTTE’s international chief Kumaran Pathmanathan, alias K.P, to Sri Lanka. Using KP as an election tool, Rajapaksa claimed that he managed to confiscate ships belonging to the LTTE as well as planes which they claimed were parked in the backyard of an African nation.
A well known political circle revealed that the claims were lies. These stories were made up by Fonseka in the height of the war, that they confiscated the LTTE ships which were even shown to the media, but this was favour to give a dramatic effect for Rajapaksa to briefly bask in popularity. The LTTE plane stories were also fabricated to hoodwink the Sinhala people. The government also was in touch with the country that built the planes like the LTTE used to attack the government targets in the past. However, the attempts were then exposed, and the government simply put the attempts behind after blaming Eritrea as it was not cooperating with the Sri Lankan government. Rajapaksa overestimates the gullibility of the ordinary Sinhala voter and underestimates their native intelligence.
Rajapaksa and his brothers, who enjoy the State and government machinery to empower themselves economically, amassed great wealth using the Tamil struggle as a guise. They are also propagating among the Sinhala voters that they liberated the Tamils from terrorism and that there would no more terrorism in Sri Lanka. Terrorism could come not only from the Tamils, but could come from the Sinhalese given the rapidly declining state of the economy and the increasing level of poverty, and above all, from the corruption by the powers that be. It can even be combined.
In collaborating with the discredited paramilitary groups, he could get votes just by rigging votes as done in the past. For the Tamils, Rajapaksa is seen as a demon because he ordered the armed forces to fight against the Tamil civilians. Tamils were increasingly suppressed and oppressed under the racist regime of himself and his brothers. Even the north and east of the island, which are the traditional homeland of Tamils, were once merged under the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987, but after Rajapaksa came to power, he managed to de-merge just to make the Sinhala extremists and the Buddhist monks happy and thereby to gain their support, which he enjoyed until he tried to claim himself for the military victory denying the role of the army.
In this scenario, the main opposition, the United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, announced that he would not stand for presidential election, but he promoted Fonseka as the prime candidate for the post. After Fonseka declared that he would contest in the election, he started to blame Rajapaksa and his brothers with numerous allegations.
Fonseka said he would not become a multi-billionaire like Rajapaksa and his brothers became after capturing power. Further, he declared that a President should not take responsibility for the Himalayan victory by the army, rather he should have give credit to the army because they were the ones who fought in the battlefield, and hence, as the commander, he is responsible for the victory.
Fonseka went on to say that he would identify the perpetrators of the murders of journalists. He further said he would help bring the perpetrators to book. He has blamed Rajapaksa as being the conspirator for the journalists’ murders and that he knows the persons who killed the journalists.
Is Fonseka giving false promises to Tamils?
With the bombshell Fonseka put on Rajapaksa by the TNA, Fonseka began to hold talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarians who once won the majority vote in the North-East with the blessings of the LTTE. They expressed their disappointment over Rajapaksas’ war crimes against the Tamils and the way they incarcerated over 300,000 Tamils kept in the razor-wired camps in Vavuniya for months.
Despite the muddle the TNA experienced in the recent past, Fonseka wanted TNA’s support in the election, so he laid out plans with the TNA. Fonseka promised the TNA that he would merge the North and East as a single entity and he would clear the so-called high security zones (HSZ) from the Tamil areas as well as releasing all the LTTE suspects who are held in the jails. He promised that he would do all these within a month after he got elected, an undertaking that any reasonable Sinhalese person with any common sense would support. It is in other words the acceptance of the 13th Amendment which has been haggled over for months.
Further, while Fonseka visited Jaffna, which is considered the cultural capital of Tamils, he paid visits to the popular Hindu temple in Nallur, a Catholic shrine in Madhu of Mannar and other places of worship hallowed to all Tamils, as well as Jaffna University. He told the gathering that he would renovate the KKS port and he would make the Palaly airbase an international airport. However, he did not mention a word about how these would be achieved. The question is whether the Tamils would suffer by expanding the airport upon the government acquiring more fertile lands and whether this would intensify security posts in order to provide security for the airport and the surrounding areas.
Also, Tamils wonder how Fonseka could help identify the perpetrators of the murders of journalists? All the murders took place when Fonseka was the army chief. If he knew the conspiracy, why did he not prevent them then when he was enjoying good relationships with Rajapaksa and his brothers?
The surfacing of the politicians’ double game is not a new phenomenon. However, Tamils could conveniently say that Fonseka is better than Rajapaksa because we could give him a chance to implement his promises to find out whether he is a more truthful politician than he was a truthful army commander. Even if the elections were boycotted, one of the two primary candidates for the post will come to power and they will rule the country for the next five years. Hence, rather than refraining from casting their votes and wasting their franchise , Tamils should consider voting for Fonseka, the unknown devil who cannot be any worse than Rajapaksa, hoping for a better result for the Tamils with the principal aim of ridding the Rajapaksa brothers from their lives and thereby saving the Tamil nation from complete extinction.
(The author can be reached at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)