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2010 elections and the kingmaker who never was

Leaked US embassy cables, created towards the end of 2009, provide an intriguing insight into Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan's thoughts on then upcoming presidential elections. 

According to a leaked cable dated December 2009, Sampanthan, convinced, despite the widespread Sinhala triumphalism that the Tamil vote still had considerable value, informed US officials that "the best scenario for the Tamil community would be to extract concessions from the presidential candidates".

Moreover, he hoped that the international and domestic communities could "hold the candidates to their promises after the election."

The two main candidates were the Sinhala chauvunists, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent of the SLFP, and the former Army chief, Sarath Fonseka, backed by the other two main Sinhala parties, the UNP and JVP. 

Seven months after the mass-killings of 40,000 Tamil civilians supervised by the Rajapakse-Fonseko duo, Sampanthan is quoted as asserting he was "looking for the manner in which each candidate would make promises to the Tamil community" before deciding which candidate to endorse.

Gestures Sampanthan considered desirable from the two included a "public declaration" or at a minimum "campaign promises".

According to the cable, "Sampanthan divulged that many within the Tamil community had asked him to run as an independent candidate, but he assessed that it made no sense for him to win "a couple of hundred thousand votes and lose."

A preceding cable dated November 2009 details the US' analysis of the Tamil nation's thoughts on Fonseka's presidential bid:

"Despite the possibility of a competitive opposition candidate emerging in the upcoming presidential election, Embassy contacts assessed that it would be hard for Tamils to support General Fonseka. 

All interlocutors noted that Fonseka would have to work hard to overcome his past hard-line comments regarding the Tamil community

CPA's Raheem noted that Fonseka would be hard pressed to formulate a logical response to his comments that Sri Lanka was only for the Sinhalese. Vigneswaran said that a lack of clarity regarding Fonseka's political intentions further complicated matters for Tamils."

Shortly before the presidential election on the 6th January 2010, Sampanthan announced the TNA's backing of Fonseka's candidacy.

According to a further cable, US embassy staff believed Fonseka's proposed "Programme of immediate relief measures for war affected persons and areas or peace" sealed the deal.

As Butenis, the cable's author, notes, "There was no mention in the program of accountability for war crimes."

The scale of Sampanthan's misreading of the situation was revealed on election day: Rajapaksa trounced Fonseka by millions of votes - and shortly thereafter arrested and imprisoned his putative arch-rival.

TNA leader Sampanthan leads protest outside UN offices in Colombo, 2006. Protesters condemned the violent campaign led by Rajapakse and Fonseka against the Vanni population.

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