The idea that Sri Lanka's opposition parties should unite to topple President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government has surfaced yet again, with much discussion of a common Presidential challenger and speculation over likely candidates. Underlying this, is the assumption and claim, that the main opposition, United National Party (UNP) is the liberal antithesis of Rajapaksa's authoritarian, violent and Sinhala nationalist rule. However, quite apart from the UNP’s own history of rule, its politics of late suggests there are good reasons to be sceptical. Its recent clamour over human rights and other liberal values, belies a deafening silence on central issue of crisis for Sri Lanka – justice and accountability for wartime mass atrocities, and a political solution which addresses long-standing Tamil political demands. In fact leading UNP figures are explicitly supportive of the Rajapaksa government on these issues. Whilst the international community ought to take a closer, more critical look at the UNP's conduct, past and present, before assuming it to be the panacea to Rajapaksa rule, it beholds the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), having secured its electoral mandate on justice, accountability, and the Tamil right to self-determination, to ensure these are the foundation of any alliance.
Amidst the island’s deepening crisis, it is understandable that ending Rajapaksa's rule appears as the solution to Sri Lanka's woes. However the assumption that the rights and lives of the Tamil people will be any more secure under a UNP led government is unsubstantiated by the party's conduct both past and present – indeed it was under the iconic UNP era of Jayawardene, that over 3000 Tamils were massacred in the pogrom of 1983. Meaningful change requires different policies not personalities. Replacing one Sinhala nationalist party with another is not the answer, rather a fundamental break from Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian order is needed. Whilst the UNP's vocal positions on press freedom, rule of law and judicial independence are pointed to as evidence of its liberal values, the party has a long history of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that mirrors the ruling government. Indeed, the ruling government includes several UNP figures, who having made a seamless transition, are now the government's principle defenders abroad – including the icons of the Norwegian peace process, G.L. Peiris, and Milinda Morogoda. Whilst the UNP's acting leader, Karu Jayasuriya crossed over to become a minister in the Rajapaksa government before crossing back to become UNP deputy leader.
The UNP’s claimed commitment to liberal peace is also starkly at odds with its repeated deference to the Buddhist clergy. Last year, faced with internal crisis, a 'Leadership Council' was established under the patronage of Buddhist monks, and at times, even its celebrated market friendliness gives way to economic policies derived from religious beliefs, evidenced most recently in its opposition to the casino bill. Also inherent to the UNP's recent championing of human rights and liberal freedoms is a clear ethnic selectivity, focusing solely on Sinhala concerns. The party's recent letter to the Commonwealth Secretary General, lambasting the organisation’s failure to take action against the Rajapaksa government, focused entirely on abuses affecting Sinhalese, despite mass atrocities against Tamils dominating international criticism and press coverage during the Commonwealth summit. Indeed the UNP is persistently silent on Tamil concerns: militarisation, state-sponsored colonisation, demographic change, and arrests and threats against Tamil political figures, activists and journalists. The UNP was equally silent as Tamils were being slaughtered in 2009 and as they were subjected to mass starvation and systematic abuse by in government run camps. The party's contempt for Tamils’ suffering was later exemplified in its fielding of General Sarath Fonseka, Army Commander during the killings, as its presidential candidate.
On the central issue of accountability and justice for the mass atrocities, the UNP’s stance has been explicitly in support of the government, actively calling for a united approach to defeat any international injury. Last week, UNP leadership (and Presidential) hopeful, Sajith Premadasa, again rejected the international investigation and derided Rajapaksa for “succumbing” to foreign pressure. The UNP's criticism of the government, far from condemning the massacring of tens of thousands of supposedly Sri Lankan citizens, is for 'poor foreign policy' that failed to defend Sri Lanka against international scrutiny. In this regard, the policies of the UNP are indistinguishable from parties often described as 'extremist', such as the JHU and the NFF. The party's rejection of the international investigation sits uncomfortably juxtaposed with its prompt call for an international investigation to the killing of Sinhala protesters in Weliweriya last year. This glaring inequity is indefensible in a supposed harbinger of a liberal, inclusive, multi-ethnic state.
The clear contradictions between the UNP's supposed liberalism and its Sinhala nationalist practices, past and recent, call into serious question the claim it is a progressive alternative to the Rajapaksa government. That Rajapaksa's authoritarianism impacts on the freedoms of all on the island is not under dispute, however agreement on the current government as a common enemy alone cannot be the basis of an united opposition. If the UNP is the liberal actor is claims to be, it must eschew its Sinhala first ethos, and uphold consistently the values it espouses, including committing unambiguously to the international investigation and an equitable solution which addresses long-standing Tamil demands for self-determination. Until then the TNA leadership must resist the perennial urge to compel the Tamils to choose between the lesser of two evils.