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Liberal Gamble

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Two weeks before Sri Lanka's Presidential elections, the gap between the two main contenders has, to the surprise of many, narrowed. While it is now no longer certain who the winner will be, the intensifying struggle between the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapakse, and his challenger, former Army chief Sarath Fonseka, typifies all that is wrong with Sri Lanka. In short, who wins - and how the subsequent Parliamentary polls unfold - is less important to Sri Lanka's future than how the international community engages with the Sinhala ethnocracy.


To begin with, amid the excitement of Fonseka's increasingly powerful challenge, what is largely forgotten is why he is a credible candidate in the first place: it is because both Rajapakse and Fonseka are self-confessed Sinhala chauvinists who share a vision of the island as a Sinhala-Buddhist bastion in which the Tamil-speaking minorities may exist provided they know their subordinate place. This is a view so widely shared as to be commonsensical amongst the Sinhalese and has been consistently reflected since independence in southern voting patterns and changes in state policy.


This is also why Fonseka has, with no difficulty, become the common candidate of the main Sinhala opposition. The market-friendly UNP (United National Party) and JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Perumana), the second and third largest Sinhala parties after Rajapakse's ruling SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), are bitterly opposed, both in terms of policy and history: it was a UNP regime which slaughtered sixty thousand Sinhala youth as it crushed the JVP's armed insurrection in the late eighties. What unites them now is a recognition that only an ultra-nationalist can win Sinhala votes in numbers sufficient to worry, let alone defeat, Rajapakse.


It has ever been thus. There are other Sinhala candidates with long political histories. Wickremabahu Karunaratne of the New Left Front (NLF) is one. But his platform of accommodation and equity between Sinhalese and Tamils has strikingly little standing amongst the former. No genuine liberal voice has any hope. That much has been clear since 1956.


Nonetheless, as Rajapakse's government and supporters are protesting ever more loudly, the West-led international community would rather there was a regime change in Colombo. Fonseka's challenge advances this cause. But were he and/or the UNP to assume power this year, an equitable and lasting ethnic peace on the island will, in the absence of close, robust and sustained international engagement, be no closer.


The main Tamil coalition, the TNA (Tamil National Alliance), last week hesitantly expressed its preference for Fonseka. This has undoubtedly been a difficult decision for the party. Rajapske and Fonseka jointly oversaw the cold-blooded slaughter by artillery, airstrikes and starvation, of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. They conducted a murderous campaign of assassination, 'disappearance', torture and rape against Tamil civil society - journalists, aid workers, political activists and several TNA parliamentarians and activists. Inevitably, the TNA's decision to back one chauvinist and war criminal over another has discomfited, if not outraged, many Tamils and others.


But the TNA leadership's decision is not devoid of reason when situated in the deepening internationalization of Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. They have rightly set out what they first expect from any new regime in Colombo: the urgent alleviation of the acute and multi-faceted humanitarian crisis that is gripping the Tamils and their homeland. They have also reiterated their commitment to the fundamentals of Tamil political aspirations.


Moreover, they have also made it clear that they expect nothing from Fonseka or the Sinhala polity more generally. As we and other Tamil voices argued when they were announced, the outcome of this year's polls will, in and of themselves, change nothing: the structural persecution and suffering of the Tamils will simply continue unabated. Rather, it is in the international community's commitment to an equitable solution that the TNA has placed its trust. Amid the long-standing international support for the Sinhala-dominated state, this has been dismissed by skeptics as naïve and is undoubtedly a conscious gamble.


For those who saw Sri Lanka's problems as the Liberation Tigers and the Tamil demand for Eelam, the present is a radical change from the past. For those who see it as one of deeply entrenched Sinhala majoritarianism - by which we mean not only the prevailing attitudes amongst the Sinhalese, but a principle embedded in state machinery and policy decisions - the present is a continuation of the past. The course of Sinhala majoritarianism - and Tamil resistance to it - will not change from within. Hence Sri Lanka's future will turn almost entirely on what happens from without.


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