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In the Air

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Sri Lanka is on the brink of election fever. The polls promise a landmark change in the island’s politics; the succession of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Although the incumbent has sought the Supreme Court’s support to continue for another year in office, both her former arch-rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the main opposition UNP, and her own SLFP’s candidate, Mahinda Rajapakse, are already on the campaign trail. Indeed Wickremesinghe’s recent march from the Sinhala heartland to the capital to build public pressure for polls not to be delayed has also served as his opening salvo. To begin with, it remains to be seen if Kumaratunga departs quietly as both hope she will (a veritable political animal, she is more likely to plot her return to the helm as an empowered Prime Minister). But with either Wickremesinghe or Rajapakse as President, southern politics will undoubtedly change.

The question, however, is what, if any, difference this will make to the Tamil people. There is no doubt Kumaratunga’s reign has been an aberration for the peoples of the island and residents of the Northeast in particular. Sri Lanka struggled through the longest and most bitter period of conflict as a consequence of her dogmatic militarism. (This is not, however, to discount the impetus her regime’s brutality gave to Tamil nation and state building efforts, the successes of which were amply demonstrated in the aftermath of December 26). The problem with Sri Lanka is easily discernible through the horsetrading underway ahead of the Presidential polls: Sinhala nationalism is mainstream politics in the south. The process of ‘ethnic outbidding’ might be less overt this time, given both candidates need to court the minorities, but they have to win over the substantial rightwing vote. The ultra-nationalist JVP and the Buddhist monks’ party, the JHU, have challenged the two contenders to declare their support for anti-LTTE and ‘land of the Sinhalas’ doctrines. Advocates of the liberal peace ought to watch closely – despite offering tradeoffs, we contend neither will make an inclusive and pluralist society the basis for their campaigns.

On the other hand, the island’s minority peoples must, like the Sinhala rightwing, use their electoral muscle to further their aspirations. The Tamil polity, which this time around, is firmly united (though we wonder if even such critical times will encourage Muslim leaders to abandon their opportunism and come together against Sinhala hegemony). It must back the candidate most likely to advance the peace process towards a just and lasting solution. In either case, the new President will have to deal with Kumaratunga’s legacy. In other words, they will need to engage with the Liberation Tigers, rebuild the ceasefire and address the day-to-day difficulties of our people. The LTTE is observing southern developments and keeping deliberately silent. Peace talks are thus clearly out of the question until the new Sinhala leader is identified.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire – aptly described as the very foundation of the peace process – needs considerable attention and support. The shadow war between Sri Lankan military intelligence and the Liberation Tigers continues unabated as Army-backed paramilitaries continue to target LTTE members and supporters and the Tigers strike back. But the problem is not an ever-present antagonism between operatives on both sides, but is rooted in the command and control – Colombo simply refuses to end its paramilitary campaign. Last month the Co-Chairs rose to the defence of the ceasefire agreement, demanding Sri Lanka disarm the paramilitaries and protect unarmed LTTE political cadres in government-controlled areas. Whilst there is more effort going into transition arrangements, the fundamental problem remains: nothing has been done about the paramilitaries.

The international community – particularly the Co-Chairs – have a critical role to play in Sri Lanka at this juncture. It has been acknowledged that the contenders for President have to balance the need to draw minority as well as majority support. But the international community is also a constituency that cash-strapped Sri Lanka must accommodate. Countering the demands of the JVP and JHU, donors must seek contenders’ commitment to ending the Sinhala-supremacist ethos of the Sri Lankan state. In the short term, Colombo must be compelled to face up to its responsibilities under the ceasefire agreement. The ending of the paramilitary violence against the LTTE will remain the acid test – both in the movement’s and the wider Tamil community’s eyes – of any President’s commitment to peace.

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