Hakeem as a Premadasa

This issue of the Sunday Island will reach the reader while the results of the eastern provincial council elections are still coming in. Even though this is only a provincial election, it is one that is crucial for both the Opposition and the government, and was being orchestrated by both sides to a knee-knocking, nail biting, finale. The international community also has been taking a keen interest in the eastern elections, because the east is the only province (other than the northern province), where the minority communities predominate. Last week, several diplomats met UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss the eastern province elections. There were new twists to the eastern saga taking place even after the campaigning stopped at midnight on Thursday. These were twists that could decisively skew the final result in favour of one party or the other. In fact, it may be right to say that the winner and the loser was really decided not during the campaign but in the last two days after campaigning closed. Two rumours that circulated from early last week was that the LTTE was due to make an announcement two days before the elections, telling the people how they should vote. The other was that the Moulavis in the eastern province would make an announcement after Friday prayers on May 9 , asking all Muslims to vote for the UNP/SLMC alliance.

The LTTE/TNA appeal

The first rumour turned out to be true with the TNA issuing a statement on Thursday, asking all Tamils in the east to vote against the government. This echoes the appeal made by the LTTE to Tamil people that the government should somehow be defeated. Thus both the LTTE and the TNA declared in favour of the UNP/SLMC combine. The fact that the LTTE/TNA, has asked the Tamil people of the east to vote for a Muslim chief ministerial candidate, for the east, is itself a very significant turn of events. The argument that was being put forward by the pro TNA/LTTE lobby is that Rauff Hakeem is a ‘moderate’ Muslim, who met Prabhakaran and entered into an MOU with him. Besides, Hakeem expressed his regret at the killing of Tamilchelvam, and during the UNP government of 2001-2004, he did not raise any objections even though the ceasefire agreement entered into between the UNP and the LTTE, made no reference to the Muslims at all.

This conciliatory and non-confrontational approach taken by Hakeem appears to have paid off, with the self -ppointed ‘sole representatives of the Tamils’ actually asking the Tamil people to vote for him. This probably is the first time in post independence history that a dominant Tamil political party, asked Tamil people to vote for a Muslim candidate. All this while what happened was that the Tamil political parties always took the Muslims living in the east for granted, subsumed under the rubric of ‘Tamil speaking people’. But now, when the Muslims were trying to assert themselves in the east by appointing a Muslim chief minister, it gains the blessings of the LTTE/TNA combine – this is a feather in the cap for Hakeem.

But the moot point is whether all this fellow feeling for the Muslim candidate on the part of the LTTE/TNA was due to genuine rapprochement between the LTTE and the main Muslim party, or whether it was an opportunistic manoeuvre meant only to defeat the government under which the LTTE has suffered more setbacks than under any previous government? Even at the previous EPC election held in 1988, the Tamils in the east voted for Tamil candidates and the Muslims voted for the Muslim candidates. This has been the time honoured practice in the east at all previous elections as well. In the Western province, there are instances where majority Sinhala constituencies returned minority candidates, one example being M. H. Mohamed in Borella. But in the east, Tamils always voted for Tamil candidates in the party of their choice and Muslims voted for their own in similar fashion. In the east, never has a predominantly Tamil constituency returned a Muslim candidate and vice versa. So, for the LTTE to ask the Tamils in the east to vote for the Muslim candidate at this election is a radical departure from tradition. The fact that the most rabidly chauvinistic Tamil political entity that evicted thousands of Muslims from the north, forcing them to leave behind all their belongings, was now asking Tamils to vote in a Muslim in the east is food for thought. Is this a case of the LTTE at last beginning to acknowledge the existence of the Muslims in the east, or is it simply due to an opportunistic need to use anybody available to get out of a sticky situation?

The question that can be posed is whether the LTTE is using Hakeem as another Premadasa. In 1989/90, the LTTE used Premadasa, to get rid of the Indian army. Premadasa in his naivety, gave weapons, money and other logistical support to the LTTE in their war against the IPKF. In return, the LTTE did Premadasa favours like going before the UN Human Rights Commission to give a glowing report on Sri Lanka. At that time, Sri Lanka was on the mat for the thousands of killings that took place in crushing the JVP, and Premadasa needed the help of the LTTE lobby to offset at least some of the opprobrium resulting from that. Like Hakeem, Premadasa was also conciliatory and non-confrontational and if the LTTE now describes Hakeem as a moderate Muslim leader, they also described Premadasa as a moderate Sinhala leader.

The Moulavis’ silence

One might ask whether this call by the LTTE will not result in the Tamil claim to the east as part of their ‘homeland’ being eroded, when the area is being controlled by a Muslim. Moreover even internationally, the appointment of a Muslim chief minister will awaken the international community to the fact that the east has a large Muslim population, and that may work to the disadvantage of the Tamils, who have claimed the same area as part of their traditional homeland. There is also the concern that the appointment of a Muslim Chief minister may stymie Tamil aspirations of merging the northern and eastern provinces. But this is not the way the LTTE looks at things.

For them, everything is predicated on military might. If they are militarily dominant, they will control the east, no matter who becomes chief minister. Besides they may also take into consideration that a compliant individual like Hakeem would not be too difficult to handle. If Hakeem becomes an obstacle, the LTTE can always remove him the same way they made use of them to remove Premadasa. Given this line of thinking, the LTTE/TNA and the Tamils who support them, would not see the use of a Muslim chief ministerial candidate too much of a problem. What is done now, can always be undone later at a time convenient to them.

Among the reasons given by the TNA for defeating the government was the de-merger of the north and east. But when the SLMC was formed in1987, one of their main grouses was that J.R.Jayewardene had merged the north and the east under the Indo-Lanka Accord, thereby turning the Muslims into a tiny minority within the merged northern and eastern provinces. Because of Hakeem’s conciliatory approach towards the LTTE and the tendency of the UNP to favour the merger of the north and east and to back the ceasefire agreement of 2001, the government has been saying that a victory for the UNP/SLMC would bring back the LTTE to the east. Now with the TNA/LTTE asking the Tamil people to vote for the UNP/SLMC, those fears may have been enhanced.

This fear of a possible LTTE comeback, may have in fact been the main reason why the Moulavis of the east never made that anticipated statement after Friday prayers on the 9th calling for all Muslims to support the UNP/SLMC alliance in order to get a Muslim chief minister for the east. When the eastern province elections were first announced, the Moulavis did try to get all the Muslim parties to get together so that the Muslim vote would not be divided and a Muslim chief minister could be appointed with the support perhaps of the Sinhalese. But this project fell through when Hakeem refused to give up the tree symbol. After this plan failed, M. H. Hisbulla says that the Moulavis just gave up and allowed the Muslims to vote for the candidate of their choice. But the story that we heard was different. It was that there was a build up of opinion in favour of having a Muslim chief minister and the Moulavis were going to make a definitive statement in favour of the UNP/SLMC because it is only this alliance that stood from the beginning for a Muslim chief minister.

But the statement by the LTTE/TNA asking the Tamil people to vote for the UNP/SLMC, appears to have put off the Moulavis. This may result in the Muslim vote not uniting behind Hakeem as they expected. If by the time you read this column, the results announced show the UNP/SLMC being defeated, this will be the second time that the UNP lost an election because of the LTTE. In 2005, the UNP lost the presidential election because the LTTE did not allow Tamil people to vote. This time too, many expected the LTTE to tell the Tamil people to boycott the election, but this time, the LTTE has instructed their supporters specifically to vote with the hope of defeating the government. If the LTTE/TNA thinks it is to their advantage to have a certain party in power, then having that party in power, will be disadvantageous to both the Muslims and the Sinhalese and a proportion of the Tamils as well. If the government wins the eastern elections today as a result of these fears, this will be the second electoral victory that the UPFA owes to the LTTE.

Rajapaksa, Sukarnoputri, Aquino

This election has given the UNP an opportunity to make an appearance in the province again after the 1980s. After the days of UNP figures like Devanayagam and Rajadurai, for the first time the UNP held a public meeting last week, in Batticaloa organized by the UNP’s lone ranger in the Batticaloa district Sashidaran. For this the UNP has to thank the SLMC for being able to enter the eastern fray and the Rajapaksa government for having cleared the Batticaloa district for the UNP to be able to hold public rallies there once more. Whoever wins the election, that credit should go to the Rajapaksa regime. The UNP was once a party with significant support among all three communities living in the east. But with the intensification of ethnicity based politics in the 1980s, the UNP gradually lost that base among the Tamils and Muslims and it is only through alliances that the UNP has been able to make an appearance in the Tamil and Muslim areas once again. In the east, the Rajapaksa government has performed the role of Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia and Corazon Aquino in the Philippines – the ushering in of democracy after a prolonged dictatorship. Whether Rajapaksa will like Aquino and Sukarnoputri, lose the election after establishing democracy, is being decided even as you read this. The Rajapaksa regime, like most previous SLFP governments, depends mostly on a Sinhala base and is therefore like a fish out of water in the eastern province where the Sinhalese are a minority. This is what led most UNPers to predict a victory. But most UNPers were apprehensive that the government was not going to give up without a fight – both figuratively and literally. On Friday afternoon, a UNP parliamentarian now stationed in the east told this columnist with a note of apprehension in his voice, that the east was crawling with government politicos each of whom appeared to have around sixty to seventy men with him not counting security personnel. UNPers claimed that they could win this election if it was free and fair with the conjunction denoting condition, ‘IF’, being stressed.

JVP gives up

As the election day approached, the general feeling among UNPers was that the government was getting ready to do another Wayamba. Because of these fears, many UNPers were preparing for the worst case scenario by late last week. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe suddenly started talking about the GSP+ issue on Wednesday, saying that after the elections, he would go to Europe and ask them what Sri Lanka should do to be able to retain the GSP+ facility for another three years. Listening to his talk, it made one think that he was going to take over Minister G. L. Pieris’s job as the chief government negotiator with the EU on the GSP+ issue. The GSP+ scheme will come up for renewal only in December this year. Why Wickremesinghe would bring up this matter with a crucial election just days away is a moot point. Some said that he was so sure of winning that he started thinking of retaining the GSP+ scheme so that he wouldn’t have to negotiate for it afresh under a government led by him. Others said that he feared a defeat and was preparing to ride out the inevitable fallout of another electoral defeat by playing the knight in shining armour who slays the EU dragon and saves the jobs of the local damsels.

It is a well known fact that local politicians tend to be swayed by superstition. Last week, Wickremesinghe mounted an election platform in the east and he tripped on a lose plank and injured his foot. Then while returning from the east, Wickremesinghechopper had to make an emergency landing in Mahiyangana due to what was described as an engine trouble. Wickremesinghe thanked the pilot for having saved the lives of all on board. This kind of ‘omen’ can have a much more demoralizing effect on politicians. The government, for its part, was playing up these fears to the maximum with the state owned Dinamina comparing these omens to that of the parliamentary election of 1994, where a UNP stage collapsed while president D.B. Wijetunga was on it in Kolonne in the Ratnapura District. To this might be added the sudden death of Gamini Atukorale days after the UNP came into power in 2001, thus seemingly portending the doom of the new government.

Rathu Sahodayas in action

When the JVP politburo met in an emergency session last week in the wake of the prorogation of parliament, one of the matters discussed was the eastern elections and it was said that violence had been unleashed against the JVP in all three districts, since the eastern campaign commenced, and that the attitude of some government officials had hampered the JVP’s election campaign in the east. However the JVP politburo decided that their election campaign had been successful because their objective was to go into areas that they had not been able to go into earlier, and to renew acquaintance with their contacts and to get them back into the party fold and that this had been met. Furthermore it was said that the JVP had been successful in organizing village committees with representatives from others parties as well, to protect the ballot boxes. It was also said that the JVP concentrated in having pocket meetings and campaigning from house to house instead of holding large meetings.

The JVP thus does not appear to be very confident in winning any seats in the east this time, though it is too early to make predictions. They have two parliamentarians from the Trincomalee and Digamadulla districts. The parliamentarian from Trincomalee is the formerly famous and now infamous Jayantha Wijesekera, who allegedly seized vehicles belonging to the dissident JVP MPs from the parliamentary premises. He was the only MP to be elected on the UPFA ticket from Trincomalee, getting more preference votes than M. D. K. Gunawrdene of the SLFP. By getting into parliament in place of the SLFP candidate, the JVP blocked SLFP representation. But after getting elected, they sat with the Opposition thus depriving the SLFP voters of the patronage that they certainly expected of him in return. The SLFP voters are understandably furious and it will be a miracle if the JVP wins a seat in the Trincomalee District. Even in the the Ampara District, their prospects are bleak because of the polarization taking place between the two great political alliances and this was reflected in the mood at their last politburo meeting.

At this politburo meeting, K. D. Lal Kantha expressed satisfaction that the May day rally had been well attended. Indeed it was, even if supporters had to be bussed in from the provinces, and the JVP managed to save face thereby, in the wake of the Weerawansa split. The crowd had even hooted when Weerawansa’s name was mentioned. But a poor showing today at the eastern polls will vitiate whatever face-saving credit the JVP managed to earn on May day. With the expulsion of Weerawansa from the JVP due immediately after the eastern elections, the JVP drama will take centre stage again in the coming week.

High thinking OR plain living?

One thing that the present writer could not help but notice about the eastern elections was that people actually living in the east and those outside, seemed to be thinking of the eastern elections in two different ways. Over the past several days, we have been watching the Sirasa News coverage of the eastern elections where teams from the TV channel went from electorate to electorate in the east and spoke to the people about the elections. Every single person interviewed in this manner by Sirasa, spoke only of schools, pipe borne water supplies, roads, lectricity, other public utilities and garbage disposal. Wherever Sirasa went, it was the same story whether the electorate was mainly Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese. Had one seen this on a state owned TV channel, one would have thought it was a stage managed show. In a newly cleared area that had been under the control of terrorists for many years, one would expect at least some of the people to talk of things like peace, the need for equality between the three communities, the rights of minorities, the Tamil identity, the Muslim identity, and other such political and ideological matters. But this was totally absent in the Sirasa interviews. Even the cost of living issue which is a hot topic in other areas, did not feature in the interviews which shows that the majority of the people in the east did not expect the provincial government to reduce the cost of living. Or, at least that was the impression one got! One reason for this could be that the people of the east as food producers, benefit from the high prices of commodities.

However, all in all, it appears that those who have come to the east from outside are pleading with the people of the east to vote for various grand national level schemes. The government wants the people of the east to vote for them so as to be able to carry forward the war on terror and introduce democracy to the north as well. The UNP/SLMC alliance is pleading with the people of the east to help defeat what they refer to as a repressive government which rides rough shod over the minorities. The LTTE/TNA alliance is pleading with the people of the east to somehow defeat the government so that the operations in the north will suffer a setback and the LTTE will be saved. But in those Sirasa interviews, topics like democracy, minority rights and the cessation of hostilities in the north were never mentioned by anybody. All that they evinced a keen interest in had to do with mundane, parochial things like public utilities, roads, drinking water, schools, bridges and the like. If the people of the east are going to vote for those who, they think, can deliver these things to them then all those outsiders who have descended on the EP with all their grand plans, ideologies and national level agendas are in for a big surprise when the results are announced today. As we went to press, polling had closed and the consensus was that it was a very peaceful election.

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