The two issues of critical importance to the country’s future but which are likely to remain in the background of the election campaign are the political resolution of the ethnic conflict and the international probe into war crimes. It is unlikely that either side will be willing to publicly put forward their plan of action in this regard, as they will deem those issues to be too controversial and liable to be misunderstood to be canvassed before the people. Especially with regard to the latter issue, the government has sought to exploit it politically by presenting the opposition to be traitors to the government and to the military, while the opposition has said that they will do their best to protect the government and military.
In this context, the TNA’s admission that they have still not publicly announced a decision on whether they will back the Common Opposition Candidate is indicative of a cautious approach. On the other hand, a most positive development at this early stage of the election campaign is the statement by the JHU leadership inviting the TNA to join the common opposition campaign. JHU General Secretary, Champika Ranawaka has requested the TNA to support the Common Opposition. He has said that “All the Parties in the Opposition are uniting to form a national alliance government. This is not a Sinhala Buddhist government. The issues we are confronting right now in this country are common to Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims.”
The JHU’s willingness to take this stand is a positive development that needs to be built upon. They originated as a party led by Buddhist monks, several of whom contested parliamentary elections in 2004 and won election. Their programme was to ensure that the country’s sovereignty was protected and the LTTE defeated. Although relatively small in numbers and in the proportion of the national vote they are able to win, they were at the ideological cutting edge of Sinhalese nationalism that was unprepared for any concession to be made to ethnic minority nationalisms. The participation of the JHU will be useful to the joint opposition in working out the outlines of a political solution that can meet ethnic minority concerns.
The second issue that needs to be discussed is the UN-led probe into war crimes. This investigation is advancing to its conclusion. The indications are that the report will be very comprehensive and will be difficult to dispute. This report is set to be presented at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. It is unlikely that the Sri Lankan government will be able to block its release. After the report is released to the international community there is bound to be a call for follow up action to take the accountability process forward.
Opposition parties, including the Common Opposition Candidate, have given public commitments that they will do their utmost to protect Sri Lanka’s governmental leaders and military from international war crimes processes. Their pledges recognise the sentiments of the majority of the people who continue to believe that the military victory over the LTTE even at high cost was necessary for the country to move forward. However, those who were directly victimised by the war, and who lost their loved ones and lost their livelihoods remain deeply dissatisfied by the present condition where the past is sought to be buried. The TNA represents many of these people.
South African role
Over a year ago, the South African government responded positively to a request by the Sri Lankan President to assist in addressing issues of post-war reconciliation. The process at that time was led by government leaders who had been closely associated with the war and who saw the need to deal with the matter sooner rather than later. The visit of South Africa’s Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa was a high point in that initiative. It is unfortunate that the government was unable or unwilling to continue with that process. It may still not be too late. A South African supported initiative in post-war reconciliation that is undertaken by Sri Lankans can still offer a way out.
It is particularly in the interests of the government leadership to reach a bipartisan agreement on this issue now while they still retain power. It is also in the interests of the opposition to reach agreement on this issue now, as they have made promises to the electorate that they need to keep. It is in the interests of both sides of the political divide to deal constructively with this issue, as it is one that will not go away regardless of who wins the forthcoming presidential election. If they can do so now before the election takes place the new initiative can be launched without delay after the election and well in time for the decisive UN Human Rights Council session in March.