With barely two weeks to go before Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections, the two leading contenders separately visited Jaffna briefly last week – but not to press the flesh amongst the Tamil residents.
Premier Mahinda Rajapakse and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spent their day-long visits in the northern peninsula in the company of troops in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) base complexes.
Wickremesinghe was the first, arriving last Thursday. Rajapakse followed on Friday. Neither leader visited the town or other parts of the Tamil-populated Jaffna peninsula, staying instead within the confines of the sprawling military High Security Zones (HSZs).
During his tour Wickremesinghe visited the military hospital at Palaly, police and naval installations near the Kankesanturai harbour and a token Hindu temple - within the perimeter sprawling base complex.
Rajapakse copied him, visiting the Kankesanturai harbour and the naval base there and attending a pooja at the Mavittapuram Kanthaswamy temple, all within the Palaly HSZ.
He was accompanied by the leader of paramilitary Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) and a minister in his cabinet, Mr. Douglas Devananda, and Deputy Minister Sripathy Suriryaarachchi.
The EPDP is campaigning in the northern peninsula for Rajapske, ironically the Sinhala-nationalists’ choice in the November 17 polls.
Wickremesinghe claimed he would have visited civilian areas beyond the HSZ but could not for security concerns. Like his archrival, he has begun speaking at rallies from behind a shield of bullet-proof glass.
‘‘‘But I know the problems of Jaffna people very well. I reach them through television. They are in touch with me over the phone and I know how to solve their problems,’ he declared.
On the other hand Rajapakse reiterated his commitment to a united Sri Lanka, declaring he would sacrifice everything to end the war, ‘except my motherland.’
‘No one can wage a war and divide this country, and I don’t intend to start a war,’ Rajapakse said when speaking to troops in the Nadeswara College building located in HSZ in Kankesanturai.
‘I believe even the LTTE, the other party in the war has also realised the futility of war. Nobody could divide the country by war. War brings only destruction,’ he said.
Speaking to a small audience of civilians bussed in by the EPDP to the Nadeswara College, he said that his country is not faced with one war but several wars.
He said there is a war being waged to bring about unity to the country. There is also a war to uplift the living conditions of the people and another one to provide better education to the children of Sri Lanka, he said.
Later he addressed Jaffna residents over the broadcasting service operated from Palaly said that he would create peace in the country and pave way for the people displaced from HSZs in the north to settle back in their own places, promising compensation for those displaced due to the HSZs.
Rajapakse said he would use negotiations to derive a lasting solution to the conflict, calling for all groups to revisit the current ceasefire agreement, a clear attack on his opponent, Wickremesinghe, who signed the truce in February 2002.
‘As prime minister I can go to London and to America... wherever in the world. But I cannot visit some parts of my own country … The ceasefire needs to be revised.’
Wickremesinghe has been criticized by Sinhala nationalists for conceding too much to the Tigers in the truce.
But the former Premier told troops that despite claims from his opponent, his work towards the peace process would further protect the unitary nature of Sri Lanka.
Wickremesinghe also answered questions posed to him by soldiers on planned defence reforms outlined in his election manifesto. assured the troops if he was elected president he would take steps to strengthen the armed forces while at the same time proceeding with efforts to achieve lasting peace.
He told troops that his peace process with the LTTE would in no way betray the nation as alleged by his detractors.
Mr Wickremesinghe emphasised the need to strengthen the Navy and the Air Force in terms of men and material. He said for this effort, he would seek assistance from India and the United States.
Both Presidential candidates have made rare visits to Jaffna before as serving Prime Ministers, Wickremesinghe doing so under decidedly happier circumstances than Rajapakse.
Rajapakse’s last visit to Jaffna was abruptly disrupted by furious tsunami refugees protesting the lack of aid from Colombo.
Decrying reports Colombo was blocking aid, protestors threw mud and insults at the Premier and leaders of his Sinhala nationalist allies, the JVP.
His entourage was forced to turn around when it tried to go through Valvettithurai in December 2004. Protestors blocked the road and his entourage’s passage in Manalkaadu, and later in Varani.
Following these incidents, Rajapakse received word that protestors were also gathering at the Jaffna Peace Secretariat and so cancelled his scheduled visit there and was instead air-lifted to the Army’s main garrison in Palaly.
Wickremesinghe’s last visit to Jaffna was in March 2002, three weeks after he signed the ceasefire agreement and a few days prior to a visit from Christina Rocca, the United States Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs.
In the flush of peace, he was mobbed by Tamil residents and met with local community leaders as well as the Sinhala troops, visiting both a Buddhist and a Hindu temple.
Wickremesinghe was the senior-most government official to go to Jaffna in two decades. His visit was also acclaimed as a major accomplishment in establishing trust between the two parties to the peace process.
How the Daily Mirror's cartoonist saw the visits to Jaffna by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse last week.