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Sri Lanka's election choice

Alan Keenan
17 November 2005

The impact of two decades of civil war on the human rights of its people makes Sri Lanka’s presidential election vital for the health of democracy in the south Asian island, says Alan Keenan.

The presidential election today, 17 November 2005, to replace Chandrika Kumaratunga as Sri Lanka’s powerful executive president may prove a turning-point in the long, tortured post-colonial history of this war-torn island off the southern tip of India. Unfortunately, neither of the two major candidates – Mahinda Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) – inspires optimism about Sri Lanka’s ability to escape the cycles of ethnic violence, injustice and poverty that have plagued it for decades.

What the country needs most of all is a restructuring of the Norwegian-facilitated and internationally-backed peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Tamil Tigers – one that places fundamental democratic rights and basic human security at its centre. If this does not happen, there is a danger that Sri Lanka will plunge into another destructive stage in the war that has lasted since 1983.

The Tamil Tigers factor

The fear of a renewed war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or “Tamil Tigers”) and a Colombo government dominated by leaders from the Sinhalese majority have been running especially high since the assassination (almost certainly on the orders of Tiger leaders) of Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, on 12 August. Kadirgamar was an ethnic Tamil and a sharp critic of the Tigers’ claim to be the sole representative of the Tamil minority; he had led the international campaign in the late 1990s to brand the Tigers’ as a terrorist organisation.

Yet even before Kadirgamar’s killing, the ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government – mediated by Norway and signed in February 2002 – had seemed repeatedly near breaking-point. The main flashpoint has been the island’s eastern province, which the LTTE considers part of the “traditional homeland of the Tamil people” but is now almost equally divided among Tamils, Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking Muslims (who do not accept the LTTE’s leadership).

Alan Keenan is a visiting scholar at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Democracy in Question: Democratic Openness in a Time of Political Closure (Stanford University Press, 2003 )

The area, already reeling from the devastation of the December 2004 tsunami, is now the scene of almost daily killings, as the Tigers seek to reassert their control over the region after the breakaway of its eastern military commander (Colonel Karuna) in March 2004. The forces of this renegade ex-LTTE commander have been waging a low-intensity guerrilla war against their former comrades, operating with support from at least some parts of the Sri Lankan military. Their ability to kill several senior LTTE leaders over the past few months has enraged the Tigers, who have responded by increasing assassinations of any anti-LTTE members of Tamil political parties and by conducting frequent raids against state military and police posts in the eastern and northern provinces.

But this Tamil Tiger violence is not merely a response to attacks by Karuna or other paramilitary forces; it has been a disturbing and contradictory feature of the Sri Lankan “peace process” from the time of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement. The Tigers have long taken advantage of clauses that granted them free movement throughout government-controlled areas to conduct a systematic campaign of murder and intimidation against the small number of remaining dissenters in rival Tamil political parties.

The campaign has featured an unsuccessful suicide-bombing against government minister and head of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), Douglas Devananda. The Tigers have also continued “recruiting” – often through abduction – thousands of children and underage fighters, in blatant disregard of their public pledges to Unicef, other international agencies, and scores of diplomats who have visited the LTTE’s de-facto “capital” in Kilinochchi, northern Sri Lanka.

But it was the August murder of Kadirgamar – shot when he stepped out of the shower in his home by a sniper from a rented house opposite – that made representatives of the “international community” recognise the need for strong action against the Tigers. On 27 September, for example, the European Union announced a ban on visits by LTTE delegations, which have long been part of the group’s search for international legitimacy as a central element in their political struggle.

In the domestic political arena, opposition to the Tigers’ human-rights and ceasefire violations have been a rallying-cry for hardline Sinhala political parties, whose own commitment to a negotiated settlement of the conflict (and recognition of past injustices suffered by Tamil Sri Lankans at the hands of successive Sinhala-controlled governments) are questionable at best.

Both the leftwing People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and the conservative National Sinhala Heritage Party (JHU, led by Buddhist monks) are now at the forefront of a powerful political movement effectively opposed to any agreement with the LTTE. The JVP even opposed President Kumaratunga’s plan for an agreement with the LTTE for joint administration of the billions of dollars in relief aid promised for tsunami-hit northeast Sri Lanka. When the president finally succumbed to international pressure and signed the agreement in June 2005, the JVP withdrew its support from Kumaratunga’s parliamentary coalition, immediately rendering it a largely ineffective minority government.

Also in openDemocracy on conflicts in south Asia:

Antara Dev Sen, “India’s tsunami” (January 2005)

Chandra D Bhatta, “Nepal’s civil war: from security to politics” (May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, “Nepal’s political rainy season” (July 2005)

Muzamil Jaleel, “Kashmir’s tragic opportunity” (November 2005)

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The disappearing middle way

Against this backdrop, the choice facing Sri Lankan voters committed to democratic values and a just and sustainable peace on 17 November is a difficult one. There are thirteen candidates in the race, but only two with a realistic chance of being elected: Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse.

Ranil Wickremasinghe, candidate of the rightwing United National Party (UNP), was prime minister from December 2001 to April 2004 under an uncomfortable “cohabitation” arrangement with his arch-rival Chandrika Kumaratunga (in Sri Lanka’s French-style system, the executive president and the parliament are elected separately). Wickremasinghe signed the 2002 ceasefire agreement with the LTTE and led the peace process through an initial year of promising peace talks and tantalising near-breakthroughs (as when the LTTE agreed in December 2002 a settlement based on “internal self-determination” for the Tamil people in the northeast). Although his government consistently refrained from criticising the LTTE’s many violations, the peace process stalled in April 2003 when the LTTE withdrew from formal talks.

Wickremasinghe’s premiership also saw the revival of growth in Sri Lanka’s economy, as the ceasefire paved the way for an inflow of foreign investment and international funds for reconstruction. The benefits, however, were far from evenly distributed: the boom was largely restricted to the finance sector, the richer classes, and the areas around the capital city of Colombo, while the urban and rural poor suffered increasing hardships.

This powerful combination of factors – a peace process that appeared powerless to prevent the Tigers’s systematic violation of the ceasefire agreement; hyper-capitalist liberalisation that left many average Sri Lankans worse off than before; and an expanding role for foreign governments and international organisations in promoting both developments – fueled the rejuvenation of the JVP (and to a lesser extent the emergence of the JHU) and led to the downfall of Ranil Wickremasinghe’s government in April 2004.

These political and economic dynamics created widespread fears among Sinhalese that pressure from Norway and elsewhere would facilitate the establishment of a separate LTTE-controlled state in northeast Sri Lanka. These seemed to be confirmed when the LTTE announced in November 2003 its long-awaited proposal for an “interim self-governing authority” (ISGA). The provisions included virtually complete Tiger control of the northeast provinces for at least five years, with no effective safeguards for the rights of Muslim and Sinhalese minorities living on the east coast. Many people – long-term supporters of substantial devolution to the northeast as well as Sinhala nationalists – were worried that it would be hard to prevent such an “interim” arrangement from becoming permanent.

The LTTE proposal – and the UNP government’s agreement to open negotiations based on it – provoked an outcry about the imminent loss of Sri Lankan sovereignty, led by the JVP but shared by the president’s confidante, then shadow foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Within days of its unveiling, Chandrika Kumaratunga used her powers as executive president to seize the initiative, declaring that the UNP and the Norwegian-sponsored peace process had fundamentally endangered national security and taking personal control of the defence, media and interior ministries. The move rendered Wickremasinghe’s government powerless and created a political stalemate that was broken by the April 2004 parliamentary elections, when the ruling UNP-led coalition was narrowly defeated by an alliance between Kumaratunga’s SLFP, the JVP and assorted smaller parties.

Wickremasinghe and the UNP are undeterred by the slow, steady deterioration of the peace process, and promise – with support from most Tamil and Muslim political parties – to return to the model of conflict resolution and development policy they pursued from 2001-2004, with only minor rhetorical adjustments to the growing power of the JVP and Sinhala nationalism.

In sharp contrast, the other major candidate for the presidency, Mahinda Rajapakse, promises a reprise of measures belonging to an earlier period in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history. The electoral pacts his SLFP has signed with the JVP and the JHU commit him to preserving the “unitary” character of the Sri Lankan state, explicitly rejecting any federal or autonomy-based solution the largely Tamil-speaking northeast. Rajapakse responds to questions about the renewed danger of war by offering vague assurances of seeking a peaceful, universally fair settlement.

Rajapakse reinforces his opposition to the export-oriented and foreign-investment-seeking policies of recent decades with a rejection of any aid-sharing deal with the Tamil Tigers over post-tsunami relief. He vehemently rejects the Tigers’ ISGA proposal and demands a fundamental rewriting of the ceasefire agreement to diminish the Tigers’ influence. His campaign strategy of attacking Wickremasinghe and the UNP for endangering Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and seeking to win the votes of the fearful and disaffected Sinhala majority, has been widely seen by political analysts as a classic case of political opportunism and “ethnic outbidding”.

This strategy was always a high-risk one. It has predictably added to tensions with the LTTE, which has denounced Rajapakse’s agreements with the JVP and JHU as part of a plan to “thrust war on the Tamil people”; but it has also provoked a major split within the SLFP itself. Kumaratunga – still one of Sri Lanka’s most charismatic politicians – publicly chastised Rajapakse for contravening party policies in support of federalism and the tsunami aid-sharing agreement, and for stoking communal hatreds. The president has even challenged Rajapakse’s policies during SLFP campaign rallies, at times even hinting that Wickremasinghe would be more likely to continue her policies than Rajapakse.

Kumaratunga’s anger reflects the challenge that Rajapakse presents to her greatest (indeed only) political achievement: official recognition at the highest level of government that Sri Lankan Tamils have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed through a fundamental restructuring of the state, including substantial political autonomy for the predominantly Tamil northeast. Kumaratunga remains the only major Sinhala political leader to champion this position, even though she has failed to translate principle into concrete institutional reforms.

Wickremasinghe has attempted to exploit the split in the SLFP by highlighting his agreement with Kumaratunga on federalism and negotiations with the Tigers. But his own federal plans are unclear, and there is no sign that human rights, political pluralism or democracy would play any significant role in any settlement with the LTTE. The lax nature of the ceasefire that the UNP arranged with the Tigers makes it unsurprising that many Sri Lankans (not only JVP supporters) see the UNP’s peacemaking strategy as primarily an exchange of peace and quiet in the south for empowerment of the Tigers in the northeast.

The human-rights dimension

Where does this leave Sri Lanka’s battered and minimalist peace process? There is an urgent need to end the escalating violence between the LTTE and fighters aligned with Colonel Karuna. This will require careful revision of a clearly inadequate ceasefire agreement. The Tigers and Kumaratunga’s government have agreed in principle to review the agreement, but have been unable to agree either on the location or the goals of the discussions. The Tigers hope to block any links between the Sri Lankan military and anti-LTTE Tamil fighters; the government wants to reign in the Tigers’ quest for total domination of the northeast. It’s hard to see any room for compromise.

Many human-rights activists have since the beginning of the peace process urged the government and the LTTE to sign a separate human-rights agreement, to be enforced by an independent international mission and managed by the United Nations or a consortium of (non-Scandinavian) countries. Such a proposal has come from a variety of organisations: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and independent Sri Lankan groups such as the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, the University Teachers for Human Rights and the Sri Lankan government’s own independent Human Rights Commission.

Also on Sri Lanka in openDemocracy, Shiromi Pinto’s return to Colombo after sixteen years; absence:

“Kolambe” (April 2003)

The idea was initially suggested as a means to end the killings and child conscription committed by the Tigers, but has grown even more relevant in the context of ongoing violence and the potential for abuse of Tamils’ human rights that resides in the state of emergency declared after Kadirgamar’s assassination. In the past, the LTTE – without ruling out the proposal in principle – has refused to accept the Kumaratunga government’s enthusiastic support for a human-rights agreement, arguing that it should wait until after talks on strengthening the ceasefire agreement were completed.

The edge of the abyss

Any progress in resolving the conflict requires a government committed to human-rights protections and armed with a clear understanding of the weaknesses of the existing ceasefire and peace process. There is little reason to believe that either will be true of a Rajapakse or a Wickremasinghe presidency.

The Tigers’ clear preference should logically be a Ranil Wickremasinghe victory, for it would mean that domestic and international political pressure on them is likely to evaporate. Wickremasinghe has promised to return to the position of November 2003 and begin negotiations based on the Tigers’ proposal for an interim self-governing authority; and any government he leads is unlikely to press for a human-rights agreement.

The problem with this approach is that the political context in Sri Lanka has changed fundamentally over the past two years. Any negotiations with the LTTE will now take place in more polarised and volatile conditions, with an angry and emboldened JVP and JHU ready to rage at Wickremasinghe for capitulating to Tiger and international pressure to divide – and further subjugate – Sri Lanka. The more Wickremasinghe seeks accommodation with the Tigers and progress in liberalizing and internationalizing the economy, the sharper – and potentially more violent – will become the divisions among Sinhalese.

The result of a Mahinda Rajapakse victory is less clear. If he maintained a hard line against the Tigers and against any meaningful autonomy for the northeast, tensions among Sinhalese might be more manageable, but the peace process as a whole would be gravely undermined, as there would be little ground at all for any discussions with the Tigers. With no prospect of negotiations, even the present weak ceasefire would be hard to sustain. Rajapakse’s decision to toe the JVP and JHU line, for a politician not previously seen as anti-Tamil or uncompromising on ethnic issues, appears to many purely opportunistic. This could mean a more dangerous outlook, or one where after the election Rajapakse moderates his position and reaches out to Tamils and even to the Tigers.

Either scenario – a Wickremasinghe or a Rajapakse victory – gives little cause for comfort. Modern Sri Lankan political history is littered with figures – beginning with Solomon Bandaranaike, Chandrika’s father, in 1956 – who used strongly pro-Sinhala positions and rhetoric to win elections and then found themselves unable to retreat from their hard line once in power (Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist enraged at his attempt to devolve power to the northeast). If Rajapakse does retreat from his opposition to autonomy and to the tsunami aid-sharing agreement, the JVP’s and JHU’s reaction will be ferocious. Rajapakse, having done nothing to prepare Sinhala voters for such a shift, would then be on shaky ground.

The Tigers, moreover, will surely denounce a Rajapakse victory as one for Sinhala chauvinism, further evidence for their belief that Tamils can never get a fair deal from the Sinhalese and thus have no other choice but formal separation. Renewed war will begin to seem the only option for increasing numbers of Sri Lankans from all communities.

The LTTE’s proxy organisations in the northeast have called on Tamils to boycott the election. This would seem guaranteed to help Rajapakse, as Wickremasinghe’s policies are clearly much more popular with Tamil voters that Rajapakse’s. The LTTE’s indirect support for a boycott would seem to suggest that it would prefer to have its own hardline positions legitimated by Rajapakse-JVP-JHU intransigence than to continue down the long hard road of negotiations.

Sri Lankan citizens thus go to the polls in an apparently intractable and potentially explosive political situation. In such circumstances, the effort to push a human-rights and human-security agenda that could ultimately be agreed by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government might seem a quixotic pursuit. Yet this offers one of the few avenues for potential compromise among the various political, military and social interests.

If the international parties involved in supporting the peace process are truly committed to a just and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, they should make it clear to both the Tamil Tigers and the government – whoever becomes president – that the only peace process they can support is one based on a strengthened ceasefire and a human-rights agreement with effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. The long-suffering people of Sri Lanka – of all communities – deserve no less.

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