Rajapaksa’s minority report

Sri Lankan minorities worry re-elected president will ignore pleas for equal status.

Rajapakse''s minority report - Sinhalese festival
Tamils comprise 13 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population [GALLO/GETTY]

Now that the electorate has given its verdict, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory in the just concluded presidential polls sends an ominous signal to the minority people of the island state.

After all, the minority populations voted mostly for Rajapaksa’s challenger – former army commander Sarath Fonseka – in hopes that a victory for the latter would mean the fulfillment of their aspiration for equal recognition in a country that has seen deep divisions between ethic groups.

Such aspiration seems all but gone.

Rhetoric to reality

Following Monday’s most crucial presidential contest in postwar Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa, who ran for his second term in office, garnered 57 per cent of the registered votes nationwide.

Fonseka, received 40.15 per cent of the votes. He was supported by a coalition of the major United National Party and smaller Tamil and Muslim parties and the Sinhala extremist party, Janatha Vimukthi Party.

Fonseka led the army to a crucial victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTT) group during the last phase of the war that spanned a quarter of a decade. President Rajapaksa, as commander in chief of the armed forces, also claimed victory over the secessionist Tamil Tigers. He and Fonseka soon parted ways and competed for the spoils of war – a presidential post and its sweeping powers – in the 2010 election.

Now that a clear presidential winner has emerged in the person of Rajapaksa, who fought on a platform of ending a long, drawn-out civil war and bringing the country under the slogan of ‘national unity,’ analysts say, it is time to look beyond the populist rhetoric and face reality.

“The rhetoric of a unified country under the Sinhala Buddhist flag has always swung Sri Lanka’s elections in favour of the Sinhala politicians. But the minorities have voted very differently,” explained R Bharathi, the editor of Sudar Oli, a leading Tamil daily.

“There is absolutely no doubt that Rajapaksa’s slogan has been rejected by the minorities, the Muslims and Tamils.”

National unity?

Indeed, results announced Tuesday on television showed a marked difference in voting figures in areas dominated by the Sinhala majority population and Tamil and Muslim minorities.

A stark example is the polling results in the war-torn northern towns and villages. A breakdown of figures shows that Rajapaksa garnered only 3,554 votes in Nallur, a prominent town in Jaffna province, the cultural homeland of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. There was overwhelming support for the opposition candidate, who received 11,543 votes, or more than three times the former’s.

In Kalmunai, an east coastal town and predominantly Muslim, votes cast for Fonseka totalled 32,946 compared to 9,564 for Rajapaksa, another illustration of minority frustration over Rajapaksa’s national-unity pledge.

As a multi-ethnic country, Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese group accounts for 75 per cent of its 21 million population. Tamils, traditionally dominant in the northern and east provinces, comprise 13 per cent, and Muslims 9 per cent of the population. Smaller groups such as the Malays and Burghers are linked to Western colonial nations.

Interviews by IPS with Tamil voters this week conveyed their deep desire for a leader who respects their rights as equal citizens with the majority race when it comes to access to jobs, land and education and security for themselves and their families.

These aspirations, they said, have been systematically ignored by Rajapakse, who has continued to backtrack on important constitutional guarantees such as that which involves the 17th amendment, which promises an independent public service, judicial and police and election commission.

Second class citizens

Shanthini, who declined to giver her last name, heads a women’s support group in Trincomalee town on the east coast. She says she voted for Fonseka because “I believe Rajapaksa will never give the minorities their rights”.

Trincomalee is historically a Tamil-dominated district, but long decades of state colonisation and migration programmes have seen the area acquire a growing Sinhala population.

Human rights campaigners say Rajapaksa cannot ‘unite’ the country [EPA]

Shanthini manages a home for orphaned children in Muttur, a farming town in Trincomaleee dominated by Tamil and Muslim residents, and which was the centre of intense fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE. Fonseka won more than 70 per cent of cast votes in the town.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, of the political science faculty at Colombo University, saw irony in the voting pattern among the Tamil and Muslim population, who favoured a military leader who led the ethnic war.

That their favoured candidate did not win could be a disturbing sign of the kind of future awaiting the minorities under the leadership of Rajapaksa.

“Rajapaksa’s victory is a deep blow to the minorities, for their hope for change has been rejected. For them, the future is clear. They will be second-class citizens from now on,” he said.

‘Paternalistic’ policies

Tamil’s political leadership became rudderless after the demise of the militant LTTE. Politicians belonging to the Tamil National Alliance, the leading Tamil party, have just begun returning to Sri Lanka from other countries and have failed to exert a post-war leadership that is expected to help retain the Tamil identity, which traditionally rode proud in the north and most of eastern Sri Lanka.

Deepika Udugama, a respected human rights expert and professor at Colombo University, noted how national apathy and populism have taken over the electorate after the decades-old war.

“The lack of political maturity in Sri Lanka is obvious. The voter cannot go beyond the rhetoric of the politicians. As long as the economic needs of the individual are looked after, there is no attempt by the voters to insist on addressing minority grievances, which is what should have been seen in this election by voting for a change,” she explained.

She expects the newly invigorated Rajapakse regime to continue with its “paternalistic policy” toward the minorities.

Rajapaksa, in his war victory speech in May, insisted there would be no minorities but only a united country – which the minority populace took as a disparaging allusion to their aspirations for securing historical homelands that protect their identity.

Sinhala strongholds such as the southern coastal towns like Galle and Hambantota showed strong support for Rajapakse. Voters laud his leadership to end the ethnic war, promoting Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist country, and foreign policy that supports China and Iran and veers away from Western influence.

“Minorities have a right to live as citizens in this country but under a united country,” insisted Shivanthini de Silva, from Colombo, who voted for Rajapakse.

De Silva echoes the national mood. And this is exactly what minority groups in Sri Lanka view with a sense of hopelessness. Just what the future holds for their collective identity and aspirations remains in limbo.

Published under an agreement with IPS.

Source: Al Jazeera, IPS