Colombo, Elections, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

THE DEEPEST DIVISION IN SRI LANKA

I have always argued that the deepest division in Sri Lanka is not the so-called ethnic divide but the split between supporters of democracy and supporters of totalitarianism, and the presidential elections proved this point. Bitter arguments within the Sinhalese community generated by the candidacy of Sarath Fonseka completely demolished the manufactured image of a community united behind Mahinda Rajapaksa which had been projected immediately after the end of the war. There was understandable relief among Sinhalese that there would be no more bomb blasts in buses, trains, shops and markets, no more young men being sent to the front to die in their thousands or come back disabled. But this did not necessarily translate into universal approval for Rajapaksa.

Gratitude to Rajapaksa for winning the war was indeed the main reason why Sinhalese voted for him. There were also negative perceptions of Fonseka. His opponent was a seasoned politician, Fonseka a novice, and he lacked the charisma that might have compensated for this deficit. An atrocious speaker, his abusive language put off many Sinhalese, while traditionalists found it unseemly that he should stand against his former boss. The rag-tag coalition backing him, including parties which had earlier been sworn enemies of each other, did not help. Among Tamils, he was seen as a Sinhala chauvinist who shared responsibility for the carnage at the end of the war.

Given these circumstances, it is surely amazing that 4.2 million votes were cast for Fonseka. Indeed, it is likely there would have been many more had the election been free and fair. Statements by the Election Commissioner before the election and while announcing the results made it clear that his guidelines had been ignored by the ruling UPFA, and that he was unable to ensure the safety of even one ballot box. It is true that he later recanted under pressure, but that does not make his earlier statements untrue: Galileo too was forced to recant under pressure after stating that the earth moves and is not the centre of the universe, but that did not make his original statement untrue! Reports by independent monitors like CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections) confirm that Fonseka might have received many more votes if the election had been free and fair.

So why did people vote for Fonseka? Tamils felt Rajapaksa was responsible for the unspeakable cruelty inflicted on the survivors after the war. Civilians who escaped from the war zone cursing the LTTE for holding them hostage and using them as human shields, conscripting adults and children to be used as slave labour and cannon fodder, found themselves locked up in internment camps. It was only when Fonseka entered the electoral fray that most of them were released, and to this day the majority live in flimsy shelters without adequate rations. Although the promises of basic human rights made in Fonseka’s electoral manifesto and a signed letter to the TNA were minimal, it was more than Tamils could expect from Rajapaksa.

For Sinhalese who voted for Fonseka – and it is worth pointing out that the vast majority of those who voted for him were Sinhalese – the catastrophic erosion of democratic rights and good governance during Rajapaksa’s first term was the most serious concern. The arrest of Fonseka after the election was allegedly because he was planning a coup, but any intelligent person might ask: why would he leave the army if he were planning a military coup? Obviously the real reason was that he was challenging Rajapaksa in the polls, although that is surely not a crime. And the reason he was arrested by military police for court martial was that if he had been charged in a civilian court, he would have had to be released for lack of evidence, as many of his arrested supporters were; whereas a military tribunal, in which the officers are beholden to their commander-in-chief Mahinda Rajapaksa, would effectively be a kangaroo court. Along with the insinuation in a post-election speech by Rajapaksa that the 4.2 million people who voted for Fonseka were traitors, these are all indicators of impending fascism. The signs were so alarming that the Mahanayakes of all four Buddhist chapters issued an invitation to a meeting at the Dalada Maligawa to discuss democracy and good governance. The fact that the meeting had to be postponed indefinitely due to threats of violence by Rajapaksa supporters was, ironically, proof of the very danger that the Mahanayakes had feared.

A substantial section of the electorate of Sri Lanka is willing to back the Rajapaksa regime despite all this, and we can conclude that they benefit from, or can live with, a totalitarian state. The majority of those who voted for Fonseka, on the other hand, did so because they felt that was the only chance for democratic change. Taken together with those who did not vote at all because they felt Fonseka was not a credible candidate, and those who belatedly awakened to the dire situation after the arrest of Fonseka, we might conclude that supporters of democracy constitute the majority.

That is the good news. The bad news is that they lack political leadership. It was predictable that the opposition alliance would disintegrate after the presidential election, and that in itself is not a disaster. If the opposition parties could work together to defend democracy – for example, to oppose the renewal of the Emergency and try to ensure that the parliamentary elections are free and fair – then they could still play a positive role.

The problem arises because of the past record of leaders of the some of the opposition parties. Wickremasinghe was part of the government during the Jayawardene and Premadasa regimes, and implicated in the destruction of democracy and atrocities against Tamils in 1983 and Sinhalese in the late 1980s; unless he is replaced as leader of the UNP, it cannot take the moral high ground. The JVP needs to critique its past totalitarianism and anti-Tamil bias; while the TNA, which has correctly distanced itself from the LTTE demand for Tamil Eelam, also needs to distance itself from the LTTE’s authoritarianism, its killings of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians and ethnic cleansing of Northern Muslims. These parties must strengthen their own democratic credentials if they are to be part of a genuine democracy movement in Sri Lanka.

  • Groundtruth

    It is a combination of both factors however much the issue is avoided perhaps for window dressing purposes. The war had been in the making for decades as a result of failed governance to treat all citizens alike from the beginning. Just words alone, even if written into the constitution in staggered stages, was insufficient. Rather what has been also missing has been effective implementation. The dalliance carries on even after the end of the war. How can it when it serves as the ‘battle cry’ in every election after Sept. 1956 and it dd even in the last presidential election. What is ommitted in the article was the voting pattern across the obvious ethnic divide combined with the ‘hero’ factor, in part attributed to the aerial bombardments to demolish the LTTE as well as the Tamil people trapped with them, and as stated, relief from further suicide bombings. For the tamil people the unspeakable travails carries on without witnesses. Had there been real democracy under consensual constitutions at the level of “citizens” from the start all these serious ill effects need not have happened. It lingers on and on perversely (to win elections)! Travesty of democracy is so obvious withot justice, rule of law and security for all citizens while some continue to pay a heavy personal price.

  • Paramanathan

    I agree with you Rohini Hensman

    “I have always argued that the deepest division in Sri Lanka is not the so-called ethnic divide but the split between supporters of democracy and supporters of totalitarianism …”

    The democratic Sri Lanka will free thousands of innocent Tamils who languish in prisons today

    Today, there is no ‘LTTE’.

    There is no longer an excuse to kill, imprison, rape, torture the Tamils.

    Tamils are being killed, massacred, slaughtered & tortured. – for more than 60 years!

    Tamil homes, businesses, schools, libraries, temples, churches, universities, cultural buildings destroyed by Sinhalese Army ..

    Tamils are living in fear in Sri Lanka

    – Tamils are afraid of the Sri Lankan Police & Army.
    – Tamils are living in fear of Sinhala Thugs, Criminals: ex-Sinhala Army Soldiers who deserted Sri Lankan Army
    – Tamils are living in fear of Kidnappers. Most are kidnapped at random by Sri Lankan Intelligence Agency and tortured

  • Heshan

    The outcome of the election was never in doubt. Charisma aside, the timing of the election alone ensured a victory for MR. Unfortunately, the timing also implied an inability of the average Sinhalese voter to distinguish between the “war” and the “peace.” Peace is a lot more than simply being immune to suicide attacks. Within the democratic framework, “peace” involves building up strong institutions free of political interference, encouraging foreign investment, and forming good relations with the rest of the *civilized* world. I say civilized, because holding the begging bowl to Iran, Libya, and Burma is rather self-defeating in the long run. The whole point of peace is to ensure some kind of long-term stability (otherwise what’s the point?) Maybe the Rajapakse’s achieved this on the security front, but the rest of the ballpark is an open question. The writer is correct to say that the Opposition needs to exploit these deficiencies. In the final analysis, quick and painless regime change can save the country quite a few decades of potential turmoil.

  • wijayapala

    So everyone who voted for Mahinda is pro-totalitarianism?

  • ModVoice

    “A substantial section of the electorate of Sri Lanka is willing to back the Rajapaksa regime despite all this, and we can conclude that they benefit from, or can live with, a totalitarian state. The majority of those who voted for Fonseka, on the other hand, did so because they felt that was the only chance for democratic change.”

    It is funny that Sinhalese found it ok with the Rajapakse regime when it was exerted on the Tamils but now they find it backfiring on themselves.
    I don’t think things would have been any different if Fonseka came into power, particularly for the Tamil people, so whose democracy are we talking about? Only difference would be Fonseka would have allied with the West as opposed to the East.

    “unless he is replaced as leader of the UNP, it cannot take the moral high ground.”

    What moral high ground in sri lanka are we talking about?

    The issue is not that of totalitarianism but of people clinging onto nationalism that made them blindly elect totalitarian leaders disregarding the issues on the ground. Democracy is a distant dream for Sri Lanka.

  • Anon

    Another whine about the elections, way to get your point through.

  • In Your Face

    I am so happy that President Rajapakse was re-elected!

    I fully support this wonderful, terrorism free “totalitarian” regime.
    Hell, “totalitarianism” never looked this good.

    If this means not being blown to bits by a bunch of loser terrorists, I couldn’t be happier.

    Cheer up honey, we all benefit from this brand of “totalitarianism”.

  • wijayapala

    Dear Paramanathan,

    Tamil homes, businesses, schools, libraries, temples, churches, universities, cultural buildings destroyed by Sinhalese Army

    How many of the above were destroyed over the last 6 months?

  • wijayapala

    ModVoice,

    The issue is not that of totalitarianism but of people clinging onto nationalism that made them blindly elect totalitarian leaders disregarding the issues on the ground.

    Whom should the people have voted for? What issues on the ground did that candidate espouse?

  • Sugath

    It is more important not that what they did. What are they doing now. Good gentlements can become bad guys any moment and Any bad guys can become gentlemen at any moment. I have no difference of any as long as a real gentlemen at present. Guess what I mean and take your decision at the forthcoming election. Suba Anagathayak or Visvasaneeya venasak. Take whatever relevant to you.

  • Ranaviru Bandara

    The essence of this argument is right. The real divide between the Sri Lankans are: country bumkins (supporters of totalitarianism) and those with a global perspectives (supporters of democracy). This is the ground truth!

  • Ranaviru Bandara

    The essence of this argument is right. The real divide between the Sri Lankans is between: the country bumkins (supporters of totalitarianism) and those with a global perspectives (supporters of democracy). This is REALLY the ground truth!

  • Observer

    A substantial section of the electorate of Sri Lanka is willing to back the Rajapaksa regime despite all this, and we can conclude that they benefit from, or can live with, a totalitarian state. The majority of those who voted for Fonseka, on the other hand, did so because they felt that was the only chance for democratic change.

    Ahem, a wee bit presumptuous? Let me get this, millions of people casted a vote, exercised a democratic tool to elect a totalitarian? Can you even make some sense in what you write?

    You are just stating this. I can state the same way, people who voted for Rajapaksa believes in unwavering democracy and people who voted for SF supports military rule. What;s the point of me telling? People have enough facts at hand to make their own judgement on that.

    Another election comes and you whip up your keyboard again for the party you support. I can easily summarise the predictable little substance of this article into few words.

    Rajapaksa = bad
    SF = thumbs up (in her personal opinion)
    So please vote for SF. (because she think that’s what you should do)

    I remember a previous article by you with the same formula just before the presidential elections 😉 Keep up the vote begging! Believe me SF needs all he can get. Our vote aint gonna change, until someone makes a compelling case!

  • Observer

    You have to understand the more the the diaspora mobilise the international community into pressuring Sri Lanka thought their lobbying, propaganda & bribing, the more people will support and rally behind MR. Why??? It’s the same reason when we were kids we cheered for Bruce Willis in Die Hard. The same reason we cheered Arnold Schwazaneger in Commando 🙂
    You give opportunities for MR administration to shine. We need heroes who are selfless like that! Raises the stakes and bluffs out the opponent. Not afraid to tell the enemy you suck and and then let the double barrel shot gun do the talking. And most of all, they don’t sell out. All the straight qualities we ever looked for in a true leader. There’s a group of Sri Lankans who are ready to march with this leadership.

  • Bankimchandra

    “The real divide between the Sri Lankans is between: the country bumkins (supporters of totalitarianism) and those with a global perspectives (supporters of democracy)”.

    This is the exact reverse in Sri-Lanka, my dear little political analyst. The urban goday types have got democracy mixed up with crude capitalism.

  • sumane

    “A substantial section of the electorate of Sri Lanka is willing to back the Rajapaksa regime despite all this, and we can conclude that they benefit from, or can live with, a totalitarian state. The majority of those who voted for Fonseka, on the other hand, did so because they felt that was the only chance for democratic change.” what is the democracy she is talking about? what is the kind of democracy, the latter forces are capable of developing?

  • justitia

    The so called “high security zones” were established to prevent the LTTE shelling army camps with long range artillery. Now this situation does not exist.So, why are these zones being maintained even now,preventing thousands from resettling in their homes? Many who visited their former homes in these zones have found that they have been looted and even windows,doors,roofing material and timber structures missing.
    What is the need for the army’s presence in the north – as now the LTTE is no more? Why are members of a political party allied to the government allwed to bear arms? They exploded bombs during the presidentil election, intimidating would be voters. Why was this allowed? Are all these not signs of a totalitarian cum police state?
    Because of this,most tamils who were able to vote, cast an anti-government rather than a pro-Fonseka vote. Even now many tamils are not in a position to vote in the coming parliamentary election as their identity documents have not been issued.
    Recent reports state that many male and female IDPs have been suddenly transferred to the Boosa Camp in the south where already many hundreds if not thousands of tamils are held, many of them for months and years, without being produced before courts. Is this not like what happened to jews in Nazi Germany?
    Thus suppression of tamils’ free lifestyle and oppression of so called ex-LTTE
    supporters goes on.
    The emergency is now going to be reintroduced instead of same being allowed to lapse, at least during the coming election. Why? Surely without the emergency, the election will be more free and fair than what happened during the last election.