Presidential Elections: Tamils’ Choice – A Deadly Dilemma!

By Karikalan S. Navaratnam –

Karikalan S. Navaratnam

There is no need to labour the point why Tamil people reject Gotabaya Rajapaksa outright as persona non grata. That does not imply that the other contenders vying for the Presidency are happily acceptable to the Tamils. On the UNP front, they have decided on Sajith Premadasa as the candidate. Sajith has been out of the blocks even without waiting for the whistle. An Indian daily had even earmarked him as the next President: “The minister-in-attendance who will accompany PM Modi throughout the visit will be none other than 52-year-old Sri Lankan Housing minister, Sajith Premadasa, a man who may well be the President of Sri Lanka by the end of the year.” (Hindustan Times, 08 June 2019 – “PM Modi, first foreign visit to Lanka after attacks…..”)

Ranil or Sajith – immaterial

From our perspective, it does not make a difference whether it is Sajith or Ranil. Largely due to Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders’ cohabitation with the incumbent government and their camaraderie with Ranil, there is a perception among the Sinhala voters that the Tamils have a weakness for UNP and, in particular, an intimacy with Ranil. In this context, TNA leaders’ frailties and foibles need not be mixed up with the character of the Tamil polity.TNA propped up UNP in the legislature and had rushed to Ranil’s rescue every time he was in dire straits.

TNA MPs successively voted for every annual budget including Defence allocations. TNA did not move, at least by way of protest, even a motion for Token Cut on budget allocations for different Ministries including the Defence Ministry. It is preposterous that the TNA leaders later shout in holy horror about militarization of Tamil habitats and mushrooming  Buddhist  temples and statues in Tamil areas. By implication, TNA has been privy to this proliferation and the structural destruction of our heritage in the Tamil habitats. 

TNA – An appendage of UNP?

Is TNA’s capitulation to the UNP is so complete that the media and Southern politicians treat TNA as an appendage of the UNP? It is an affront to the pride and dignity of the Tamils that TNA support for UNP nominee has been taken for granted. The Island reported:“Sources said with the UNP reaching a consensus on its candidate, Premadasa would receive the backing of the Tamil National Alliance.” (Island, 26 Sept.2019– “Sajith Prez candidate, Ranil retains leadership)

Ranil is no Prince Charming

Ranil is too cocky to believe that the Tamils are fascinated by his puerile and jejune politics. Reportedly, he has undertaken to get the support of the Tamils for Sajith: “….Ranil Wickremesinghe had undertaken the task of wooing the Tamil and Muslim votes for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate Sajith Premadasa at the presidential elections….” ( Daily Mirror, 27 Sept. 2019-Ranil to woo Tamil Muslim votes for Sajith”). Mr. Prime Minister ought to know that he is neither the Prince Charming nor a Patron Saint of the Tamils. Also, Tamil constituency is not a “rotten borough” or a “pocket borough” controlled by patrons as some British constituencies were known before the Reform Act -1832. Ranil’s barefaced betrayals of the Tamils’ trust and breach of pledges are too many to recount. Let me cite some of the issues :-

* Return of army-occupied lands in the North-East to civilian owners

Responding to a question during his address at the Oxford Union in England, in Oct. 2018, Ranil said: “As far as the lands of the Tamils are concerned, bulk of the lands have been returned. There are some areas in which there are some issues, mainly about 600 acres in and around the major cantonments of Palaly and Kankasanturai. But within it development is taking place. Now, the Indian government is developing the KKS port. We are opening up many of the areas. Actually lands have been given out….”

On the contrary, what is the ground reality? According to Verité Research, “Continued military control over land has prevented IDPs returning to Mullikulam in the North, despite pledges to release the land in 2018. Verité Research also said military-occupied land is often used for agricultural and commercial ventures. Over 1,000 acres of state land in the Northern Province have been used as farms run by the Army and were identified for release on 30 December 2018.” “ The military continues to be engaged in commercial tourism ventures. Meanwhile, the military has reportedly engaged in harassment and intimidation of civilians and civil society actors (including IDPs demanding land return and families of the disappeared) in areas in the North and East.” (EconomyNext, 15 March 2019- “Sri Lanka only partly met UN promise to release military-held land, study finds

Northern Province Governor Dr. Suren Raghavan has decided to appoint a committee to identify alternative lands for the army and the police in Jaffna in place of the private lands used by them………..” (Daily Mirror, 22 Sept.2019 –“Steps taken to release private lands in Jaffna”)

* Reneging on commitments made to UNHRC to set up hybrid Court

In reply to a question on the Geneva Resolution at the said Oxford Union gathering , Ranil began to prattle on: “We feel the present system is functioning well. ..…..So the work is going ahead and we feel in such circumstances it is better for us to do the investigations and anyone is welcome as observers. Sometimes it is slow…. Slow in any country. But the process is working….And, at the moment we do not feel there is a need for foreign intervention in the investigations…”

* Demilitarization of Tamil habitats in the North-East

“(T)he army has also reduced its presence in Jaffna. No one has asked the army to move out fully from Jaffna….Army has not been a major issue as far as the Tamil people are concerned there and the relations are good with the army.” (Ranil at the Oxford Union meeting – supra )

* ‘Sinhala-Buddhistization’ – Structural Genocide of the Tamils

Under UNP regime, senior officials of the Departments of Archaeology, Forest Conservation, Wildlife Conservation and Mahaweli  Development Authority have been doing their bit to accelerate the structural genocide of Tamils in their traditional habitats. Destruction of a Hindu temple in Kanniya, Trincomalee to erect a Buddhist Vihara and the desecration of a Hindu temple in Neeraviyadi, Mullaitivu by Buddhist monks, defying Court Order, are the latest trendy tales !

* Repeal and replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)

The Sri Lankan government has been all talk and no action on repealing the reviled PTA. ….”- Brad Adams, Asia director, Human Rights Watch.

* Abduction and forced disappearance: Sri Lanka’s missing thousands

For the past 900 + days families of the missing persons have been holding daily vigils in several towns in the North-East Sri Lanka, crying their heart out for information on the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, most of whom were personally handed over to or abducted by the military ten years ago. “Can the Office of Missing Persons provide answers in a country with the world’s second highest number of disappearances?”(Aljazeera, 14 May 2018). Ranil had, with utter callousness, well in advance, provided the answer: “Those that surrendered at the end of the war and are still missing in Sri Lanka are ‘most probably dead’ said Sri Lanka’s prime minister….in an interview with Channel 4 News.” (Tamil Guardian, 24 Jan.2016)

Ruki Fernando, a prominent human rights activist, said “Wickremesinghe’s remark about the likely fate of those missing had caused a lot of anguish amongst the relatives of the disappeared. [It] brings out the question: ‘what is the purpose of the proposed office of missing persons if the prime minister already knows what happened to them?’” (The Guardian (UK), 29 Jan.2016–  “Sri Lanka’s missing thousands………..”)

* Tamil political prisoners languishing in limbo in different jails in Sri Lanka

Over 20,000 JVP rebels involved in attacks on army camps and police stations, were granted general amnesty and released from custody by Ranil’s  uncle J.R.. in 1977. Some of them had later become M.P.s and Cabinet Ministers. The issue of Tamil political prisoners detained under the PTA has been ongoing since the end of war. Protests and hunger strikes have followed, promises were made by government leaders only to be broken later. Nearly 105 Tamil political prisoners are in custody.“ Out of these 37 have been convicted while 17 others are appealing their sentences. Many of the prisoners …… have been subjected to prolonged detention often without charge for a significant number of yearsSome detainees have been acquitted in recent times after spending over 10 years behind bars….Muthaiya  Sahathevan died of illness, after 14 years of detention.”( Sunday Observer, 28 July 2019– “PTA Detainees: Tamil politicians must pressurise government for solution” )

* Ranil did not give even a whimper of protest when war criminals were promoted or decorated by President Sirisena, in defiance of the UNHRC 

After flirting with Ranil for almost five years, by courtesy of his chicanery TNA is left fully denuded, bereft of even a fig leaf to cover the nudity of TNA leaders’ sleezy, self-serving politics.  In the circumstances, Sajith is setting about to solicit Tamil support using the public persona of Ranil and Ranil, in turn, relies on TNA.

Sajith Premadasa

What is the mindset of Sajith Premadasa on the ethnic issue? Recently, The Economist Intelligence Unit (UK) produced an essay, presenting “The Case for a Sajith  Premadasa Candidacy”. Local media outlets had carried the article. It says, inter alia,: “the late President Premadasa combined a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, multilingual pluralism with a robust patriotism, and that his son would be the closest approximation of a non-ethnocratic, pluralist, inclusionary nationalism; a nationalism that heals rather than an aggressive one that dominates and imposes….” (Daily News, 17 Aug. 2019).

Pious platitudes

Sajith’s mixed priorities and pious platitudes tend to falsify the positive image presented by the essayist. He appears to be an ‘evangelist’ anointed as such by the saffron-robed Ayatollahs. Evidently, he had pledged his primary loyalty to the prelates and had, therefore, refused a seat on the UNP’s Leadership Council because the party Working Committee had not adopted proposals mooted by Buddhist monks:

UNP MP Sajith Premadasa who has refused a seat on the newly appointed Leadership Council said he was forced to bow out of the nomination he was given by the Working Committee out of respect for the Buddhist monks…..Premadasa said the Working Committee had not adopted the three points put forward by the monks at the Sunday meeting in Kurunegala and added that he could not insult the monks by sitting on the Council.” ( Colombo Telegraph, 04 Nov. 2013– “I Can’t Go Against Buddhist Monks Proposals – Sajith ”)

Sajith’s  most urgent priority is to construct 1125 Buddhist temples under the “Sasunata  Aruna” program. Implementation has started and  the work is in progress. Under the initial phase, 25 temples are constructed in 25 districts. North-East districts are not immune to this invasion. Tamils have reason to fear that the venture is the tip of another iceberg. 

“Khema’s boy”

Minister Mangala Samaraweera has been a leading protagonist of Sajith’s campaign. Known to his electors as “Khema’s boy”. he owes his liberal views (“Sri Lanka is but a multi-racial, multi-religious countrynot a Sinhala-Buddhist country”) to his mother Mrs. Khema Samaraweera. If I may strike a personal note, Khema and I were colleagues working together at Lake House and were good friends. She was a charming lady, free from any prejudice or bigotry. How does Mangala reconcile his secular views with Sajith’s ?. Would he be able to keep ‘President’ Sajith on a short leash? Chandrika could not do so vis-à-vis Sirisena.

JVP antecedents

What are the credentials of the JVP and the JVP-led  NPP candidate?.  Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in relation to Tamil issues,  is an unknown quantity. But JVP’s antecedents as racially-motivated revolutionaries are well-known. In particular, JVP’s 1987-89  insurgency and terror campaign targeting the Leftists and liberal-minded intellectuals in the South was triggered by the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord 1987, which promised a degree of autonomy to the Tamils  in their traditional habitats in North-East provinces, which were merged into one unit. 

In 2006, JVP filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the merger and the Court ruled in favour of the Petitioners. The Demerger took effect from January 2007.  Anura Kumara was a M.P., an ex-Minister  and a leader of the JVP at that time. It is not strange that when it comes to defeating Tamil demands, Sinhala leaders, cutting across party lines act in solemn solidarity.  North-East merger is the core component of our aspirations, which is abhorrent to Sinhala nationalists.  

Boycott the elections?

A vocal minority in the community feels that we should boycott the Presidential Elections. What for? After silencing the guns, burying the bullets and saying ‘adieu’ to armed struggle, ballots are the primary weapons the Tamils have to strategically fight Sinhala-Buddhist fascist forces. Let us not throw them away.  That we have failed in our electoral strategies is no reason to blame the weapon.

Field a Tamil candidate?

Sections of our people believe in running a common Tamil candidate. It is an aberration. We have no stake or claim in conducting the affairs of the people in the South. Our stakes and strength are in our own regions. Let us not encroach upon other peoples’ domains and, thereby, legitimize their arbitrary encroachment upon our domains.  

Conclusion

International actors, especially India and USA, have an inherent interest in the outcome of the elections. They are conscious of the critical role the Tamil electors can play. TNA is susceptible to their pressure. Once the elections are over, these power brokers would leave us in the lurch and pursue their own interests. Leading candidates covet Tamil votes and have been talking to TNA. TNA has, quite rightly, told the contenders that details of any offer they make touching on Tamil issues should be included in their Election Manifesto in  Sinhala and made known to Sinhala electors. Bravo!, TNA. But, will there be any takers? Sagacious sections of the Tamils are clueless as to what choice we have. We are not at the crossroads, but in a deadly dilemma !.