27 Jan 2010

Sri Lanka's Tamils wait for President Rajapaksa to deliver

General Sarath Fonseka has yet to concede, but it’s pretty clear he’s lost Sri Lanka’s presidential election.

The indication is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa won by a substantial margin, although the opposition is crying foul. The general is now holed up in a hotel in Colombo.  He has reasons to be fearful.

This has just appeared on YouTube.  Gripping stuff.

Sri Lanka has a history of post-election violence and reprisal. There are many who are surprised that the general made it through the campaign alive.

As I write, it’s all pretty murky out there.

Official election results have apparently just been announced to reporters by the Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake, giving Rajapaksa 58 per cent of the vote against Fonseka’s 40 per cent.

Not long before that, the Sri Lanka Guardian newspaper was talking of “strong rumours floating about in Colombo” that the commissioner had been placed under house arrest.

Aside from the triumphantist ethnic Sinhalese nationalists who turned out in large numbers to return Mahinda Rajapaksa to power for a second term, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority now also has reasons to be fearful.

Many will doubt that, having apparently won a fresh mandate, Rajapaksa (pictured below after casting his vote in Tuesday’s poll) will be interested in engaging in serious dialogue with the island’s Tamil minority – 20 per cent of the population – or grant them autonomy.


Reports from the north of Sri Lanka suggest that explosions in Jaffna as polls opened on Tuesday were, in the words of a longstanding Sri Lankan political analyst “a deliberate policy employed to spread fear” and keep voters away from ballot boxes. Many of the eligible but displaced Tamil civilians were reportedly unable to vote. 

The independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence in Sri Lanka has today expressed concerns about vote counting and the “integrity of the electoral process” in a letter to the elections commissioner.

General Fonseka and his team have also alleged voter fraud and rigging.

The international media monitoring organisation Reporters Sans Frontiers, reports that the two main state-owned television stations devoted 96.75 per cent of their news coverage to Mr Rajapaksa.

It was a hard-fought and bitter contest between the two men who claimed victory over the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

For Tamil voters, they presented a bit of a Hobson’s choice between the president who led the campaign and the (now retired) general who executed it. Both are accused by international human rights groups of war crimes, into which there have been no independent investigations.

Most Tamil parties, including the Tamil National Alliance – formerly the political mouthpiece for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – swung behind Fonseka, who’d overseen the final bloody showdown last May.

But voter turnout in the north and the east, where most Tamils live, was reportedly much lower than in the Sinhalese majority areas.

This will have deprived Fonseka of votes he would have needed to have had any serious hope of unseating Rajapaksa.

As to the plight of the allegedly coup-plotting general and his family: he’ll probably do some deal enabling him to slip into exile. For Sri Lanka’s Tamils, a solution is less clear.

“There are a lot of reasons to doubt the willingness of a second Rajapaksa administration to enact the necessary reforms,” says Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka analyst for the International Crisis Group.
In his victory speech to the Sri Lankan parliament last year, following the Tigers’ defeat, Rajapaksa, speaking in the Tamil language, promised equal rights for Tamils and took “personal responsibility” for protecting them.

They’re still waiting and most are not hopeful. There are many things Tamils need Rajapaksa to deliver on.

They need to be a part of the redevelopment of the north and east of the island. They need their basic human rights and freedoms guaranteed. They need their voice to be heard and proper political representation. And they need proper accountability for crimes against the Tamil civilian population. 

If there’s any indication so far as to what Rajapaksa is going to do, look no further than the final revealing words of the interview he gave to Lakbima news on Sunday

“What,” he was asked, “is the message you give Tamil-speaking people?” 

“For those who speak Tamil,” the president said, “[I say] now I too speak Tamil. So there is no problem at all.”

So that’s fine then.