The manifesto of the Joint Opposition Candidate reflects the concerns of the different political parties that have formed the opposition alliance. Some of them have signed agreements with him, others have not. So, the manifesto reflects those agreements. The main ethnic minority parties representing the Sri Lanka Tamils and Muslims have yet to publicly declare their stance at the election. Consequently, their input into the opposition mandate is not manifest. One crucial area of governance that has been left out is the issue of inter-ethnic relations and devolution of power. However, speaking on the political platform the UNP leader and Prime Minister-designate Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that the 13th Amendment will be implemented. In this context, it is not surprising if the Presidential election campaign has yet to grip the imagination of the Tamil voter in the North and East.
There is already a call to boycott the election. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, the leader of Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) has called for a boycott on the grounds that there is no point in the Tamil people going behind any of the two mainstream candidates of the Sinhalese South in the upcoming Sri Lankan presidential election. The former Tamil parliamentarian, who addressed the media on behalf of the TNPF and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, urged the Tamil people to refrain from backing any of the two candidates. He also accused the TNA, which is the largest Tamil political party, of creating a systematic and intended confusion among the Tamils by its secretive approach. He said it seems to be waiting till the last minute to urge the Tamils to back the Joint Opposition Candidate. He has condemned the government for the way it conducted the war and the opposition for not being prepared to concede sufficient power sharing between the ethnic communities.
There is a need on the part of the opposition candidate to visit the North and East and carry out his campaign there. This may not be possible at the present time, because the opposition alliance has yet to formulate its position on the ethnic minorities. Any indication by the opposition that they will accommodate the concerns of the ethnic minority parties is liable to be used against them by the government. The apprehension of the opposition is that if they address issues that are central to the Tamil polity, they would risk losing a sizeable chunk of their Sinhalese vote base. On the other hand, if they do not address those issues that are of importance to the ethnic minorities, the opposition runs the risk of discouraging them from voting at all. The challenge for the opposition is to address the issues that are of importance to the ethnic minorities, without alienating the ethnic majority voters.
From the perspective of the parties that are contesting the presidential election, issues such as the devolution of power, merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces and demilitarization of the North and East, which are important to the Tamil people, could be threatening to other sections of the population, and whose political support is essential to the survival of any government. On the other hand, there are other issues that would have a resonance with the Tamil people, but will not be threatening to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. These include developmental issues, livelihood issues, the resettlement of those internally displaced and whose land has been expropriated on various grounds, and those concerning persons in government custody and who have gone missing.
Indeed, the political platforms of the contesting political parties could address these issues. An example would be with regard to detained and missing persons, finding them and compensating them, without arousing the insecurities of any section of the population. Last week a newspaper carried a story that was both tragic and appalling, and which anyone who is a citizen would wish to never happen to anyone ever again. According to the story, “A resident from Chunnakam in Jaffna returned home on Friday after more than 25 years in a detention camp, residents said. S. Vairavanathan was arrested at Armour Street in Colombo soon after a bomb blast in 1990. He was 28 then. Since then, he had been detained at a detention camp in Hambantota for 25 years without any charges being filed against him. Both his parents died not knowing where their son was after they had searched for him for a long period without success. Recently, the Hambantota Magistrate Court sent a letter to his family to take charge of him. But the Sunday Times learns that some of his relatives were reluctant to welcome Mr. Vairawanathan as they had allegedly sold properties belonging to the Vairavanathans using forged documents. However, other relatives turned up at the Hambantota courts on Thursday to take Mr. Vairawanathan home.”
It is more likely than not that the fate of this victim will generate empathy in the general population, as they would see that such a fate can befall them also. It indicates that there are places of detention in which people can disappear. They may not necessarily be dead. But there will be no track of them. Such incarceration in secret places, where even his parents who searched high and low for their son, and died not knowing where he was, needs to be outlawed. It is significant that the victim’s period of incarceration spanned the period of four governments of Sri Lanka. The plight of the victim in this case would touch the heart of most Sri Lankans who would not wish this fate to befall anyone. They would wish the state to compensate such a victim, as would be in the case in many other countries in cases of wrongful incarceration. They would also understand why the relatives of the disappeared in the North do not give up looking for their loved ones, and continue to believe that they are hidden somewhere in some secret place.
The government has appointed a commission of inquiry into missing persons. It has also appointed six international advisers of high caliber to advice the commission, the most recent being from Japan. However, there is also the concern about the status of investigations. An international human rights watchdog on Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice has noted that the appointment of international legal experts to oversee this process was greeted by many human rights observers with surprise. On what specific basis had they been hired by the Sri Lankan government, and how, given the seeming conflict of interest between providing legal counsel to the Sri Lankan government and advising a domestic accountability mechanism, was their role to be defined? Several of these questions were recently posed to the group of advisors – now recently expanded to include the Indian development activist Professor Avdhash Kaushal, the Pakistani lawyer Ahmer B Soofi, and former international judge Motoo Noguchi.
The Sri Lanka Campaign states that “Only two of the experts replied, and while the Sri Lanka Campaign agreed to keep the correspondence private, we can reveal that Professor Kaushal’s response was brief and evasive, and Professor De Silva’s response was in line with his public utterances – that he sees his role as analogous to that of a barrister representing a client. This was a view echoed by Sir Geoffrey Nice, who, in response to our questions at a public event in October, invoked his professional obligation under the ‘cab rank rule’ to offer legal counsel to clients irrespective of his personal views about them. This is a defence that does not stand up to scrutiny.”
Recently the Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report that assessed the work of this commission. It noted that although the Commission has received to 20,000 complaints to date, there is still no indication of any investigations presently underway. According to the CPA report, “Investigations at a bare minimum need to inquire into the status of GoSL detention centres, wartime hospital records, IDP camp registrations and rehabilitation centre registrations. However the expectation of the families is to probe much deeper. Families expect the Commission to investigate individual cases and inquire further into last seen whereabouts in order to ascertain what became of the victims, and provide them with answers on their whereabouts if still alive. The Commission therefore must set out its plans for investigations as a matter of priority. It is worrying that almost a year after the first round of hearings, the Commission has still not identified an independent investigations team or started genuine inquiries into complaints.”
A pledge to ensure such investigation can be a powerful call to the Tamil people to participate in the Presidential election. So will acknowledgements that there exists other issues of great importance to the day to day life of the people, including the return of land that has been expropriated from the people that amounts to some 67,000 acres in the North. There is a need to build 63,000 new houses destroyed by the war out of a total of 138,651. There has not been any large infusion of funding for such projects this year. There is a need to address the issue of protracted displaced persons, including the refugees in India. Over 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees are still in India and returns have been very slow since the end of the war. While the government has declared there are no more internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka, informal community estimates place the number of those unable to return to their previous homes and still living with host families close to 80,000.
Elections are the lifeblood of democracy. The Presidential election is of particular importance in view of the great powers that the presidency wields over the polity. It is important that all sections of the population participate in the elections. This will give the elections greater legitimacy. With a close contest expected the ethnic minority vote can be decisive. A boycott of the presidential elections will also lead alienation of the Tamils from the presidency, which will not be helpful to national reconciliation.