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Birds of a feather

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With just over two weeks left before Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections, hectic campaigning is underway. Both the leading contenders, Premier Mahinda Rajapakse and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, are stepping up their efforts amid what is widely seen as a close run race. But in contrast to the feverish activity in the south, the selection of Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s successor is attracting marginal interest in Sri Lanka’s Tamil dominated north. It speaks volumes of the southern polity that amidst the acute rivalry between Mr. Rajapakse and Mr. Wickremesinghe, the Tamils argue they cannot discern a distinction between them on the ethnic question.

Given the protracted conflict’s considerable impact on the lives of most Sri Lankans, the question of how to resolve the ethnic question ought to be a key differentiator amongst the contenders. On the face of it, it could be seen as one. As this newspaper and many others have argued, Mr. Rajapakse’s uncompromising electoral pacts with the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist parties appears to render Mr. Wickremesinghe the de-facto choice for the island’s minorities. Mr. Rajapakse has categorically ruled out a weakening of the unitary nature of the state and rejected the notions of homeland and self-determination – the cardinal principles, from a Tamil perspective, on which a permanent solution must be reached.

The question then is why has Mr. Wickremesinghe not been able to galvanize the Tamils behind his candidacy? He has probably won the support of the Muslim community and the Estate Tamils. But these are premised more on promissory allocations of benefits to their political elites than anything else and the question of whether ministerial benefits will translate into votes remains to be seen – particularly amongst the divided Muslim community in the island’s war- and tsunami-ravaged east. But the Tamils’ apathetic response to what has until recently been seen by many, including this newspaper, as a referendum on the peace process, has everything to do with Mr. Wickremesinghe’s own stances on the ethnic question.

To begin with, whilst Mr. Rajapakse has wrapped himself in the Lion flag, Mr. Wickremesinghe has tried hard not to distance himself too far from Sinhala nationalism. Indeed, he has surreptitiously sought to court the right wing vote, publicly interacting with Sri Lanka’s powerful and hardline Buddhist clergy, and positing ‘defeating separatism’ as his primary stance on the ethnic question. He has even won over a prominent member of the hardline monks’ party – a small gain perhaps, but a telling one in the north. Most importantly, however, Mr. Wickremesinghe has failed to outline a clear, unambiguous position on the ethnic question. Whereas Mr. Rajapakse has rejected self-determination and the notion of a Tamil homeland, Mr. Wickremesinghe has simply avoided comment on these. This is not merely political prudence, as far as the Tamils are concerned, but one underpinned by a shared view.

In practical terms of the peace process, whilst Rajapakse has ruled out any accommodation of Tamil views, Mr. Wickremesinghe has gone the other way, promising to accommodate all opinions - a laudable notion in itself, but a wholly impractical one in Sri Lanka. The outlines of fiasco can already be discerned. Mr. Wickremesinghe has promised all to all and has said yes to diametrically opposed demands. Advocates of peace alarmed by Mr. Rajapakse’s unabashed Sinhala nationalism have rushed to pin their hopes on Mr. Wickremesinghe without seriously examining his policies and, above all, the practicality of his strategy.

In short, the Tamil view is that for the conflict to be resolved, the Sinhala leadership must break irreconcilably with the Mahavamsa mindset and the political dynamics of the past half century and approach the ethnic question from a bold new position: a multi-national, not merely a multi-ethnic, one. But neither Rajapakse, certainly, nor even Wickremesinghe is prepared to do this. Whilst the former bristles against a Tamil political identity, the latter is avoiding controversy by refusing to come clean. This is what makes them indistinguishable to the Tamils and underpins the apathy in the north.

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