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Giving the ethnic minorities more than a Hobson’s choice

The forthcoming elections are predicted to be closely contested ones.  Much of the keenness surrounds the possible candidacy of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka as a common candidate of the opposition parties.   At previous elections when the cosmopolitan and pro-minority UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spearheaded the opposition’s election campaigns, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies were able to campaign on a platform of unrestrained Sinhalese nationalism that was able to capture the imagination of the Sinhalese voters.  The General’s ability to appeal to this same electorate will compel the government to look to ethnic minority support as well. Some of the government’s recent actions appear designed to achieve this objective.

 Until recent times the government was giving scant attention to the concerns of the ethnic minorities.  The most obvious case of disregard was the continued detention of the people from the former LTTE-controlled areas who were confined to welfare centres run and guarded by military personnel.  Although the government came under heavy local and international pressure to release those people, it was unyielding.  The government claimed that reasons of national security required this detention to prevent LTTE infiltration out of the camps and to prevent a fresh insurgency form erupting in the future. 

 

When the restrictions on the freedom of movement were not lifted the loss of Tamil confidence in the government became even worse.  The detention of the IDPs was an extraordinary measure which had no basis in Sri Lankan law.  Even the Sri Lankan judiciary seemed to concur in this assessment.  It was clear that the detentions violated the freedom of movement that is guaranteed by the constitution and by the international covenants to which the country is signatory.  They became a source of burning grievance to the Tamil people and a focus for anti-government sentiment.

 The government’s emphasis on national security above all other matters was also seen in the continuation of  the practice begun in 2006 of requiring all residents of the Jaffna peninsula to obtain exit permits from the military if they wished to travel out of the peninsula.  This restrictive practice gave grounds for the angry assertion that Jaffna was no better than an "open air prison"   But the restriction was justified by the government on the grounds that it was needed to prevent LTTE infiltration into and out of the Jaffna peninsula. With security checkpoints dotting the landscape in the rest of the country as well, there was little or no external political pressure to change the government’s decision.  

Main catalyst

 When I visited the Jaffna peninsula as recently as a fortnight ago, the issue of the denial of freedom of movement, and the need to get military exit permits, was foremost in the minds of the people.  There were other longer term and even more serious problems they had, which included compensating people for the loss of their loved ones, the take-over of their lands for purposes of making them high security zones and the present day advantages being conferred on business persons from outside Jaffna.  But, although a plethora of problems existed, the one that the people wanted addressed most immediately, and which they found no more reason for depriving them of, was the issue of the freedom of movement.  In this context, the government’s decision to open up the welfare centres and give people within them the freedom of movement, and to allow the free movement of Jaffna residents without the need for military permits, would be viewed very positively by the people.   

The apparent change of heart by the government could be due to a combination of reasons.  One is the pressure brought to bear on it by a range of actors including the international donor community.  Those international organizations that were providing food and other humanitarian assistance to the welfare centres began to put pressure on the government.  They said that they would soon cease to provide assistance to people kept within the camps.  Instead they promised to redirect their assistance to people who had been released from the camps.

 Nevertheless, it appears that another source of pressure was needed for the government to break out of the inertia of its original plans, which called for a 2-3 year process of detention and gradual resettlement of the displaced population.  After all, this is a government that has been willing to risk losing the EU’s GSP+ tariff concession on the grounds of national pride and sovereignty.  It is also a government that refused to buckle down to international pressures to negotiate with the LTTE in the last phase of the war.

 With decisive and unavoidable national elections looming on the horizon, it is doubtless that the departure of former army commander General Sarath Fonseka from the ranks of the government has been the main catalyst for the change on the part of the government.  The government is undoubtedly apprehensive that General Fonseka with his track record of efficiency, can rejuvenate the dispirited ranks of the opposition, but also can split the Sinhalese electorate that the government had come to monopolise.  With the likelihood of the Sinhalese electorate now being divided between the government and opposition, the competition for the minority electorate is likely to be keen.

Hobson’s Choice

At the present time the ethnic minority voters appear to be facing a Hobson’s choice.  On the one hand, they have a government that waged a high cost war to defeat the LTTE and mobilized Sinhalese nationalism to do so. During most of the war the government downplayed the need for a political solution to address long standing ethnic minority grievances, and after the war declared that peace had dawned.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa even went so far as to say that there would be no more minorities in the country, except for the minority who did not love the country.  Even the report of the All Party Committee was put into the limbo of forgotten things.

 The opposition campaign is now most likely to be spearheaded by General Fonseka, whose charisma as well as credibility has almost single-handedly revived the flagging fortunes of the opposition.   One the other hand, General Fonseka was the person who led the military operations.  There are still no reliable accounts of how many civilians were killed during the war days.  Those who witnessed the last days have reported that there were bodies strewn along the roads they were running on, and the places they were fleeing.  It was during those days that General Fonseka also said that Sri Lanka was a Sinhalese country and that the minorities should not make undue demands.

 

There is a possibility that cohabitation between the opposition alliance and General Fonseka will be a difficult one.  They are still negotiating with him about abolishing the Presidency should he win and arriving at a political accommodation with the TNA, which is largest Tamil party in Parliament.  The opposition alliance comprises ethnic minority parties in addition to the UNP which were very critical of the government’s war effort which General Fonseka was spearheading.  In turn he was outspoken in his criticism of them, in a manner that violated the norms that are meant to keep serving military officers out of politics. 

 The ethnic minorities have reason to be doubtful about the intentions of both a Rajapaksa-led government and a Fonseka-led opposition.  Their track records with regard to understanding ethnic minority rights and addressing their grievances has been poor.  So far neither side has been forthright in affirming what they mean by a political solution to the ethnic conflict.  In these circumstances, the ethnic minorities are likely to be unimpressed by promises and reassuring words alone. They are likely to give greater weight to what is actually done on the ground.  This is where the government has an advantage.  By the fact of being in power, the government has a greater ability to show change on the ground than the opposition, which is what it seems to be doing right now.

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