Sri Lanka: Battle for the presidency

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Deeply divided Sri Lankan citizens go to the polls on Jan. 26 to vote in a president in its first major post-war electoral exercise.


Ironically Sri Lankan voters are now divided not between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamils who fought for a separate state. The top contenders to the post of executive president, from nearly 20 candidates, are the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapakse and his one-time army commander and Chief of Defence Staff, General Sarath Fonseka both Sinhalese.


These two men were, until less than a year ago, on the same page in their quest to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). With that victory in May 2009 they went on to become the greatest heroes for many within the Sinhala majority. Rajapakse thumbed his nose at both the international and the human rights community and permitted his armed forces -- the army led by Fonseka -- to bomb the north of the country, killing, maiming and displacing many Tamil civilians to militarily defeat the LTTE. Speaking to the National Post in September 2008, Fonseka said "We (the Sinhalese) being the majority of the country, 75 per cent, we will never give in... They (Tamils) can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things."


Canada's interest in Sri Lanka is due to the presence of some 400,000 people of Sri Lankan heritage living here. Canada has invested funds, diplomatic capital and human resources into helping the Indian Ocean island out of its fratricidal war between the state and the separatist LTTE. But at the bloody closing of the 30-year long civil war that drove more refugees to Canada's shores, this country had been sidelined even though the rebel group is banned here as a terrorist organization.


Within months of defeating the LTTE, the president and the general were bickering over who should take the credit for the victory. The general resigned his post as Chief of Defence Staff, citing several instances of distrust between him and the president. For his part, President Rajapakse, basking in the glory of the war victory called for a presidential poll two years before the end of his term, confident of crushing any rival candidate. The country's main opposition, the capitalist United National Party (UNP) has lost almost every election it faced, be it national or provincial since 2004 in the face of Sinhala chauvinism partially propagated by Rajapakse. Now, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) (People's Liberation Front) which unsuccessfully led two revolts in the 1970s and the 1980s has joined the UNP to woo the general to contest the election as their "common candidate," a neophyte in politics.


Amazingly, the Tamil National Alliance the party considered closest to the defeated Tamil Tigers has in these last weeks announced its support for the general.


There's more to it. The alliance cobbled together with several other ethnic minority parties has since also won the backing of even some members of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party led by Buddhist monks, traditionally the shrillest voices behind Sinhala nationalism. While the main body of the JHU continues to be a member of the ruling coalition, the JVP too was a member until recently. It is this coalition, one that would have never seemed possible just a year ago that is pitted against the incumbent.


Obviously, Rajapakse hardly expected such a sea change from those believed to revere him. What he once considered a walk over, this election could now well be his nemesis and has resulted in desperate measures to thwart a defeat.


Soon after the general resigned, his address to troops on the 60th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Army was blacked out on State media. The run up to the election has seen large scale polls violations and election monitors have already reported harassment and malpractices during postal voting that took place on Jan. 12 and 13.


Both contestants have been busy trading allegations rather than focusing on the issues of resolving the ethnic problem, restoring genuine law and order and clipping the powers of the Executive Presidency. Taking center stage in these allegations was the revelation made by the general to a Sunday newspaper that the Defence Secretary, who is also President Rajapakse's brother had instructed a division commander of the Army that all LTTE cadres should be killed, in the last days of the war. He was referring to the controversial report soon after the end of the war that some LTTE leaders who were apparently attempting to surrender had been shot dead. Even though he backtracked on the statement within 24 hours, the damage to a government fighting calls for a war crimes investigations had been done.


It seems Rajapakse has only the war victory to ride on. Allegations of wide spread corruption dog his rule, and he has appointed his siblings and relatives to key posts both within and outside the country. He has waited far too long to capitalize on the peace dividend and win the hearts of the Tamil people; attempting to relax many of the restrictions placed on them,only after the the polls were announced. Fonseka too, while promising better governance has assured rapid resettlement of the internally displaced Tamils and development of the neglected war-torn Tamil majority regions. But, would the Tamils who have faced years of hardship, and at the hands of both these men been subjected to incessant bombing and displacement elect either one of them?


As reported by AFP "All of a sudden, we seem to be important to Sinhalese politicians," said retired postmaster G. Sinnathurai, who was shopping on the streets of Jaffna. Sri Lanka's Tamils wary of election spotlight.


Not exactly a new phenomenon. Successive Sinhala politicians have sought the support of the Tamil vote, only to cast aside those promises once in power.


The platform on which these two men conducted and won the separatist war was to deliver a united country to the people. Yet their refusal to share that glory has resulted in a divided Sinhala south, sparking fears of instability in the days to come.


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