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Not-so-hidden agenda

Illustration by Keera Ratnam / @wavesofcolour

Last week, the leader of Sri Lanka’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and National People’s Power (NPP) coalition undertook a tour of the Tamil homeland. Though the party trumped up the visit, Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s speeches lacked substance. His explicit ruling out of political solutions to the decades-old ethnic conflict will have done little to enthuse Tamils to vote for him. Instead, his remarks have done the opposite, reaffirming to many that there is little to differentiate him from the other Sinhala candidates. Dissanayake’s electioneering has fallen flat.

As he toured Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Jaffna, Dissanayake made clear that he was not there to offer Tamils the promise of federalism or even devolution through the 13th Amendment. “We didn't come here to ask for your vote,” he declared. “I came here to discuss how we can help Sri Lanka emerge from its crisis.” With polls set for later this year, Dissanayake displayed a profound misunderstanding of the Tamil electorate. His reference to the island-wide economic turmoil of recent years fails to acknowledge that the Tamil homeland itself has been in crisis for decades. Militarisation has put the North-East in a chokehold, with tens of thousands of heavily armed Sri Lankan troops imposing on almost every aspect of life in the region. There remains no accountability whatsoever for the slaughters, rapes and abductions, or for the continued human rights violations that still occur. And the complete suffocation of political aspirations leaves no way out for the Tamil people. All of these have left the North-East devastated, and are issues that politicians and civil society repeatedly raise. These are the pressing issues of the Tamil people. This is what they demand needs addressing. They were roundly ignored.

This was not an oversight by Dissanayake, but a calculated move. The purportedly Marxist leader deliberately avoided confronting those issues head-on because he is acutely aware that his party’s stance is directly opposed to Tamil interests. Contrary to what others may think – this is not the No Plan Party. To the Tamil people at least, the JVP and its leaders have been repeatedly and explicitly clear.

Earlier this year senior JVP leader Herath told reporters that the party had “consistently made decisions to safeguard our territorial integrity,” outlining their opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord and its piecemeal pledges of devolution to Tamils. “It is the JVP that went before the courts” to de-merge the North-East into separate provinces, he added, a move that was aimed at splitting the Tamil homeland and shattering demands for self-determination. Dissanayake did not say anything different last week.

Instead, the JVP leader chose to speak about building an “inclusive Sri Lankan identity,” a call that echoes much of the same language Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to deploy after the Mullivaikkal genocide when he spoke of “one nation” and “one country”. Dissanayake told Tamil audiences that the “safety of the Sinhalese in the North” must also be assured, as if Sinhala soldiers, farmers and monks were not killing, assaulting or threatening Tamils on the island. He even went on to state that “Tamil racism in the north” must be tackled, passing over how the coalition that he is building houses some of the island’s most fervent Sinhala racists. His addresses in Eelam could have easily come from any one of his Sinhala political rivals – be it Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa or even the Rajapaksas.

With Dissanayake still the frontrunner in polls thus far, there is little reason for him to offend his core Sinhala electorate and change tact by accepting Tamil grievances. Indeed, he may be feeling increasingly confident of occupying Sri Lanka’s highest office as he receives international overtures, including from India and the US. Even if the prospect of attracting Tamil votes does not sway him, the international community should however make it clear that those issues cannot be left to fester. As was recognised by the UN human rights chief earlier this year, it is only through addressing the root causes of the conflict on the island that genuine peace and sustainable development can be achieved. Without it, more instability and violence threaten to follow.

As the Tamil people have long known, it will make little material difference to them if Dissanayake were to triumph. Even if a Tamil candidate were agreed upon, it would mean almost nothing in Sri Lanka’s rigged electoral system. Many are apathetic and talks of a presidential election boycott are gathering steam. If Tamil votes are to be courted, their voices need to be listened to.

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