by Jehan Perera
The inability of the government to force through its decisions, and the appearance of opposition forces supportive of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gaining ground, has generated concerns about the government’s long term stability. The defeat of the government’s money bill in Parliament has highlighted the structural weakness of the government. The difficulty that the government has been experiencing in fulfilling its main election promises, catching the corrupt and passing the 19th Amendment, has eroded public confidence in the government’s strength. Currently the SLFP has a majority in Parliament with 126 seats while the UNP plays the role of a ‘minority government’ with 41 Parliamentary seats from a total of 225 seats. Without the assistance of the SLFP, the government is unable to obtain even a simple majority of votes to implement its plans. If the opposition parliamentarians could have their way it would be former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who would be the Prime Minister.
The anxiety about the government’s stability is especially articulated in the ethnic minority-dominated North and East. Whether in Jaffna, Mannar or Batticaloa the question that people worry about is whether former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is about to stage a comeback. Those are the parts of the country that delivered the biggest majorities to President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections held four months ago. The Tamil voters of the North and East in particular had to contend with boycott calls from within the Tamil polity itself. They also had to overcome the apprehension that the incumbent government would take some action that would prevent them from expressing their will at those elections. But the voters there were prepared to take risks in voting against the incumbent government because they strongly desired change.
Those from the Tamil polity who wanted the Rajapaksa government to continue and therefore called for a Tamil boycott of the elections were basing their advocacy on a certain logic. They could see the Rajapaksa government was antagonising the international community and wanted this to continue till a point was reached when the international community directly intervened against the Sri Lankan government. This logic is in accordance with a belief in sections of the Tamil polity that nothing positive can be expected from the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan polity with regard to their grievances and aspirations. Therefore, they look towards the international community and to international intervention as their only hope of getting what they want.
The large voter turnout in the North and East at the presidential election, however, showed that the Tamil voter did not accept the boycott argument. They had already seen the devastating impact of an earlier Tamil boycott that took place in 2005. The LTTE imposed the boycott at the point of the gun, reduced the Tamil vote that would have gone to Ranil Wickremesinghe and effectively assisted Mahinda Rajapaksa to become the president, a position of concentrated power he held for ten years until his election defeat. Like the present day promoters of a Tamil boycott, the LTTE too thought that the international community would support them against the nationalism of President Rajapaksa. The reality was different and the Tamil population on the ground was at the receiving end.
Hardly anyone in the Tamil polity was willing or able to oppose the LTTE at that time, when they were at the peak of their power and arrogance, shooting dead those who differed from them. Many democratic Tamil leaders lost their lives for being traitors according to the LTTE. One of the few Tamil leaders to take a different posture publicly was the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, who together with his fellow Tamil Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundranayagam, opposed the LTTE’s boycott. The moral authority and courage of the two bishops was not sufficient to overcome the fear psychosis that gripped the Tamil community at the 2005 presidential elections in the face of the LTTE’s military power and the propaganda of Tamil nationalists both locally and living abroad.
During the run-up to the presidential elections of 2015, when the call of a Tamil boycott once again reared its head, Bishop Rayappu Joseph stepped forward a second time to oppose the boycott call. He urged the Tamil people that the way forward was by participating in the democratic process and being part of the process of change that they wanted. This time around, with no LTTE guns to back up the boycott call, the Tamil people rejected the siren call to remain separate and uninvolved in the electoral process. Instead they heeded the call of democracy and, together with their Sinhalese and Muslim co-voters, participated in bringing about the change they wanted.
The anxiety that exists in the North and East of the country today is about a possibility of the return of the old order, in which the ethnic minorities are mistrusted and mistreated and ethnic majority nationalism prevails. When Tamil political leaders make extremist and Tamil nationalist statements they will only give a boost to those who promote extremist nationalism on all sides. Instead, the Tamil leadership needs to reassure the Tamil people and give them, and the rest of the country, the message that they wish to participate in the process of bringing constructive change in the country together, and not separately with the international community. The attempt of sections of the Tamil polity to utilise the international community to achieve their ends increases Sinhalese apprehensions, is counterproductive and can bring about the very situation that the Tamil community fears.
There is a need for the Tamil polity to convey to the people in the rest of the country their needs, fears and aspirations. When I met him recently Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph said that it was his intention to engage in this vocation and that he was gathering a team for this purpose. At the same time it is important that the Tamil polity should learn about the needs, fears and aspirations of the others who live in Sri Lanka. The Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims all need to get to know each other through dialogue and communication. The government appears determined to work with South Africa on the issue of dealing with the past. It has promised that it will establish a domestic mechanism that will meet international standards. In South Africa, there were many who gave leadership to this dialogue, but the person who gave the symbolic leadership due to his moral authority was Bishop Desmond Tutu who was appointed Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In African and Asian societies religious clergy continue to enjoy a great deal of respect, and are also close to the people.
In Sri Lanka, one of those who could be a leader in this dialogue of truth and reconciliation is Bishop Rayappu Joseph.
A week ago he celebrated his 75th birthday in Mannar at an event that was attended by the Chief Minister of the North, C V Wigneswaran who gave recognition to the important role that the Bishop has played in the life of the Northern Tamil community.
He stood in opposition to violence in all its forms and was always for a negotiated political solution. He needs to be recognised for his contribution to supporting democratic institutions when they were under threat.
Catholic bishops are required to retire at the age of 75 though there is provision for extension of service. At a time when Sri Lanka is turning the corner and democratic politics that respects human rights is on the ascendant, it is important that a Tamil religious leader of Bishop Joseph’s calibre should stay on in service as an educator and help to bridge the communal divide by getting us to know each other better.