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Roadmap to War

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With the unveiling of Mahinda Rajapakse’s election manifesto this week, November’s Presidential election has become, as the hardline monks of the JHU predicted it would, a referendum on Sri Lanka’s peace process. Addressing leaders of his Sinhala nationalist allies and fellow Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members, Rajapakse rhetorically wrapped himself in the Lion flag Tuesday. “I love my country,” he declared, as he put forward what is effectively a roadmap to renewed war with the Liberation Tigers. He rejected Tamil self-determination outright, along with the notion of a Tamil homeland. Having discarded what constitute core elements of the ethnic question insofar as the Tamils are concerned, he also swore by Sri Lanka’s “sovereignty, security and the unitary character of the state.” So much for powersharing as a solution to the island’s protracted conflict. Rajapakse’s campaign officials, moreover, outlined his first order of business were he to be elected: a review - in other words, the dismantling - of the Norwegian facilitators’ and the international ceasefire monitors roles in Sri Lanka.

The ethnic polarisation ahead of November’s elections is thus now complete. Whilst Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) struggles to court the mainstream Sinhala nationalists whilst retaining the support of the island’s minority communities, Rajapakse is concentrating singlemindedly on the former. Both candidates are dangling subsidies – a crude but effective tactic – before the rural poor. But beyond that, however, Rajapakse is putting himself forward as a peerless champion of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. The Premier’s differences with incumbent President Chandrika Kumaratunga notwithstanding, the SLFP now appears to have settled into the right-wing coalition. Thus, bearing in mind who both candidates are wooing, the race is understandably described as a close one. But there are factors beyond voter ethnicity and preferences at play. Tamil analysts are, for example, anxiously eyeing the rising tide of violence in the Northeast. With the Army-backed paramilitary groups engaged in a shadow war with the Tigers undoubtedly angling for a Rajapakse win, and given Sri Lanka’s history of election rigging, Mr. Wickremesinghe cannot be sanguine about the Northeast. Southern analysts are meanwhile worried about the possibility election violence in the south.

The point is that the Tamils and other minority communities in Sri Lanka must seriously consider the possibility of a Rajapakse presidency replacing Kumaratunga’s. Furthermore, his is not merely election rhetoric. The JVP and JHU have thrown their substantial support behind Rajapakse with every intention of following through on their programmes. And unlike Mr. Wickremesinghe’s clutch of contradictory agreements, Rajapakse’s coalition are broadly united in their core aim: the preservation and strengthening of the unitary state and Sinhala dominance of it. The likelihood of a resumption of the conflict would thus rise. Despite the Premier’s rhetoric about all inclusive dialogue and preparedness to talk to the LTTE, the peace process will undoubtedly begin to disintegrate. Besides, Rajapakse has already outlined what he expects to discuss with the LTTE: its disarming. The JHU has meanwhile started beating the war drum, arguing that Sri Lanka’s leaders have overestimated the LTTE’s military capabilities. An increased defence budget has already been put forward.

It has not escaped the Tamils that Mr. Wickremsinghe simply cannot attack the principles being enunciated by Sinhala-nationalists or commit to power-sharing without alienating many of his own supporters and party officials. Indeed, given the SLFP’s election platform, his invitation for it to join his party and form a southern consensus speaks volumes about concealed sentiments within the UNP also. In one sense therefore, Sri Lanka has not moved forward from the Sinhala supremacism which underpinned the SLFP’s sweeping victory in 1956. Fifty years on, however, the stakes are much higher. A renewed war will usher in destruction and casualties on a scale hitherto unseen in Sri Lanka. But Mr. Rajapakse and his coalition seem remarkably undeterred.

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