TamilWeek, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2005
Presidential elections and the dilemma of the
northeastern Tamil

By: Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby

As the days draw nearer and nearer to 17 November, we can diagnose the fever
becoming frenzy. The candidates, or to be more exact their supporters from the two
major political combinations, are frantically attacking each other and making
declarations about how they or their leaders would deal with matters ranging from
childcare to geriatrics and from agriculture and industry to peace.

One need not repeat the combination of forces the UNP has drawn to itself such as
the SLMC and the CWC. On the other hand, Mahinda Rajapakse though a SLFPer,
has abandoned the hand symbol and chosen to contest the election under the betel
leaf insignia – the symbol of the sandanaya of which the JVP is also part.

An important feature about a presidential election, unlike in the case of parliamentary
ones, is that the whole country is a single electorate. Anybody who gets 50% of the
votes plus one (50%+1) assumes office on the strength that he or she represents the
majority of voters.

In this situation, where do the Tamils of the northeast stand? While stating this, a line
of distinction has to be drawn between the Tamils living within the northeast and those
outside it, including the upcountry Tamils. Political exigencies demand that Tamils
residing outside the northeast respond to local and regional considerations and
exercise their vote on the basis of their geographical location. In the case of the
upcountry Tamils, their plantation-based location has problems specific to that
community, which only a trade union turned political party can address.

The northeast is not merely about the Tamils living in those areas but, more
importantly, about a single territorial unit that demands special devolution of power.
The Tamils and the Muslims would like to call this area their traditional homeland.
Though not accepted and approved by the Sinhala parties, the northeast merger has
become a political reality that the Indian government itself is keen on (vide 13th
amendment to the constitution flowing out of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord).

Besides other problems that affect this country, the northeast issue is a major
question at the election. The SLFP-JVP-JHU combination is very specific about the
unitary nature of any constitutional solution. The sandanaya’s manifesto denies the
legality of a combined northeast, and though formal lip service is paid to negotiations
for settling the ethnic problem, one is not sure who the Tamil participants in the
negotiations would be, if the sandanaya is given a say on the matter. The manifesto is
also silent on the role of Norway, while it is keen on India playing a bigger part. Since
the clout of the latter is on the ascendant its anti-LTTE position is the best safeguard
for any pro-Sinhala policy for ‘peace.’

Parts of the northeast are also areas, which do not come under the political authority
of the Sri Lanka government. A substantial portion of the Batticaloa District, west of
the lagoon, and almost the entire Vanni (from Omanthai to Palai) are under LTTE
control. The CFA, as it stands today, implicitly accepts this position.

There is also the larger question of normalisation of war-affected areas. Rehabilitation
efforts are funded by the World Bank, ADB and other international multilateral
organisations. It should be known that ever since the CFA was signed there has never
been a coordinated or planned rehabilitation and normalisation programme for the
war-affected northeastern areas. Only government agents are engaged in projects,
which are not part of any plan of re-development.

What is also striking is whatever takes place politically in this region immediately
becomes a concern of the European Union and the United States. In other words,
relevant international opinion is watching very closely what is occurring in Sri Lanka –
especially in the northeast. All these, create a sense of responsibility on the part of
the voters of this region when casting their ballots at the presidential polls.

Given these socio-political pressures weighing heavily on Tamil voters of the
northeast, one would agree that the choice of whom to vote for is not as simple for
them as it is to others outside the region. Outside the northeast, there are basically,
two categories of voters. Group A supports one of the candidates ideologically i.e.
they are either UNPers or sandanaya people. Group B would like to vote for the
winning candidate simply because its members do not want their vote to be ineffective.

Now, if this criterion is applied to the Tamils of the northeast, one could hardly say that
there is a group of people who identify ideologically with the UNP, or JVP-led
sandanaya. Even the Tamil political groups that support the latter are very eloquent in
their declaration about the need for self-government in the province and power
sharing at the centre. Thus, we are left only with Group B in the northeast – voters for
the winning candidate.

At this point one has to look more closely into what is said by the two major party
candidates. Rajapakse’s manifesto completely rules out the possibility of considering
the northeast a specific problem, different from those in other regions. Rajapakse’s
thought (chinthanaya) speaks of renegotiating the CFA. This pronouncement has
created very genuine fears in the minds of the northeast Tamils that the CFA could be
repealed. And, needless to say, if the CFA is repealed, then, naturally, it is war. This
alone would prevent Rajapakse being the Tamils’ first choice.

What has Ranil Wickremesinghe promised? He has no doubt spoken of peace, the
ceasefire and negotiations, but has not categorically stated the political nature of his
solution. In fact, he has not used the term ‘federalism’ which President Chandrika
Kumaratunga has used (perhaps to create confusion in her own ranks!)

Wickremesinghe also says that he would first come to an agreement with the Sinhala
parties and then negotiate with the Tigers. At a meeting in Polonnaruwa he declared
he would discuss a solution to the ethnic conflict with all parties before he starts
talking with the Tigers. Nobody knows what these ‘all parties’ are because he has
already specifically promised the Muslims their rightful place in a settlement relating to
the northeast. If therefore, it does not refer to the Muslims, whom does it refer to?

It is at this point one has to understand the situation in which Sri Lankan Tamils in
general, and the northeast Tamils in particular, are placed. The LTTE has, over the
years, emerged as the only militant group, which has relentlessly spearheaded the
Tamil struggle. Though there have been issues on which bulk of the Tamil population
did not agree with the Tigers, right now there is the genuine fear that if efforts to
displace them from the position of pre-eminence they have gained over the years are
successful, Tamil demands would be undermined.

It should also be pointed out that Colombo treats all Tamil demands as “LTTE
demands” and no mention whatsoever is made about such demands springing from
Tamil grievances. In fact, neither manifesto mentions anything about the political
grievances of the Tamils as a constituent group of the Sri Lankan polity.

It is also quite clear that the Sinhala-owned media, including most of the English
newspapers, have been adding up the number of LTTE violations of the CFA and not
taken the trouble to report the violations perpetrated by the government in the Tamil
areas. In fact the Kumaratunga appointed a special presidential commission to go into
the killings in the east – especially that of Kausaliyan, the LTTE’s political wing leader
of the Batticaloa-Amparai area. The report is not yet out and one does not know
whether within the few remaining days of office the president could take meaningful
steps to publish the commission’s finding or act upon them.

The grievances mentioned so far are strictly political and have to be sorted out
politically. But the 26 December tsunami brought in another dimension into this
problem. Besides the southern districts, Batticaloa, Kalmunai and parts of Amparai,
along with Mullaitivu and Vadmaratchi have been very seriously affected. The
government was virtually led to create the P-TOMS agreement to sort out the
sufferings of Tamils in the LTTE held areas – especially in Mullaitivu. The sandanaya
has come out against P-TOMS very strongly. It was fortunate that the Supreme Court
ruling prevented the JVP from gaining political capital by making it an election issue.

In this regard, it is worthwhile looking at what has happened in Aceh in Indonesia. The
extent of the disaster and the suffering of the people compelled both the Indonesian
government and the Aceh rebels to agree to terms. It is true that the Aceh rebels are
laying down arms but at the same time it is equally true there is a withdrawal of state
forces from Aceh. But here in this land of Buddhism, no mercy was shown to those
suffering from the effects of the tsunami in the LTTE-held areas.

It is in this background that the Tamils of the northeast are called upon to elect a
president for this country. And if the choice for the northeastern Tamil is between
Wickremesinghe and Rajapakse, is there a choice at all?

The right to vote is a very precious democratic right. It does not mean that the ballot
should be used to choose between two persons whose candidature raises so many
grave and negative feelings. This is all the more frightening because international
opinion could tell the Tamils who vote either for Wickremesinghe or Rajapakse: “You
voted for him, therefore you are duty-bound to accept all what he proposes.” This is
the dilemma of the northeastern Tamil.

The northeastern Tamils are called upon to take a meaningful decision especially in
the light of the fact that the war has dragged on for 30 years. The responsibility is all
the more because a wrong result could nullify even the little that has been achieved
so far. The right to vote is no excuse to misuse that right.
[Courtesy: NorthEastern Monthly]
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