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Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution
Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Report 239 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution

The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil political leaders or consider reasonable forms of power sharing is heightening ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for sustainable peace.

Executive Summary

The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil leaders or otherwise address legitimate Tamil and Muslim grievances is increasing ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for lasting peace. The administration, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Mahinda Rajapaksa, has refused to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), broken promises to world leaders and not implemented constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to Tamil-speaking areas of the north and east. Militarisation and discriminatory economic development in Tamil and Muslim areas are breeding anger and increasing pressure on moderate Tamil leaders. Tamil political parties need to remain patient and keep to their moderate course, while reaching out more directly to Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and Sinhalese. International actors should press the government more effectively for speedy establishment of an elected provincial council and full restoration of civilian government in the north, while insisting that it commence serious negotiations with elected Tamil representatives from the north and east.

Many believed that the end of the war and elimination of the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) would open space for greater political debate and moderation among Tamils, while encouraging the government to abandon the hardline Sinhalese nationalism it had cultivated to support its war efforts and agree to devolve meaningful power to the majority Tamil-speaking northern and eastern provinces. While there has been an increase in democratic and moderate voices among Tamils, the government has failed to respond in kind.

Instead, it has adopted a policy of promising negotiations and expanded devolution in discussions with India, the U.S., and the UN Secretary-General, while denying these same things when addressing its Sinhala voting base. It has refused to negotiate seriously with TNA representatives, repeatedly failing to honour promises and ultimately breaking off talks in January 2012. Since then it has demanded that the TNA join the government’s preferred vehicle, a parliamentary select committee (PSC), a process clearly designed to dilute responsibility and buy time. Three-and-a-half years after the end of the war, President Rajapaksa continues to delay the long-promised election to the northern provincial council – elections the TNA would be nearly certain to win. Despite repeated public promises, the president has refused to grant even the limited powers ostensibly given to provincial councils under the constitution’s thirteenth amendment. Instead, he and other senior officials have begun to discuss the amendment’s possible repeal or replacement by even weaker forms of devolution.

Even as the government refuses to respond to longstanding demands for power sharing, Tamil political power and identity are under sustained assault in the north and east. While Tamil leaders and nationalist intellectuals base their demands for political autonomy on the idea that these regions are the traditional areas of Tamil habitation, government figures, including the president’s powerful brother and defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, follow a long line of Sinhala nationalist thinking and explicitly reject that the north has any privileged Tamil character. Military and economic policies have been institutionalising this ideological position with vigour.

The de facto military occupation of the northern province and biased economic development policies appear designed to undermine Tamils’ ability to claim the north and east as their homeland. For many Tamils, this confirms their long-held belief that it was only the LTTE’s guns that placed their concerns and need for power sharing on the political agenda. In the face of the government’s resistance to a fair and negotiated settlement, TNA leaders have come under increasing pressure from their constituencies to adopt more confrontational language and tactics. Growing demands for the right to self-determination for the Tamil nation and hints that separatist goals have not been permanently abandoned have, in turn, provoked harsh reactions and expressions of distrust from Sinhala leaders.

The situation is likely to remain difficult, with major negotiating breakthroughs unlikely in the near term. Nonetheless, the international community – especially India and the U.S. – should increase pressure on President Raja­paksa to significantly reduce the numbers and influence of the military in the north and hold credible northern provincial council elections in advance of the March 2013 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. The president should also be pressed to agree to the TNA’s reasonable terms for joining the PSC and begin implementing the thirteenth amendment meaningfully. Effective and lasting power sharing will almost certainly require forms of devolution that go beyond the current unitary definition of the state. Yet if skilfully handled, the current political conjuncture, both domestic and international, holds out possibilities to convince the government to concede greater space and ratchet back some of the worst abuses.

For the TNA to improve Tamils’ chances of receiving a fair deal from the state and, ultimately, some significant degree of power sharing, it will need to articulate grievances and the value of devolved powers more clearly and in ways that larger numbers of the other main communities – in particular Sinhalese and Muslims – can understand and accept as reasonable. In particular, the demand for autonomy needs to be framed in ways that can reassure at least some large minority of Sinhalese that the threat of secession is no longer there. It is also important for Tamil political leaders of all parties to begin mending relations with Muslims, so badly damaged by LTTE killings and the expulsion of all Muslims from the northern province in 1990. The TNA should insist that Muslim representatives be given a central role in negotiations on expanded devolution of power.

Finally, the Tamil leadership needs to find both practical and rhetorical ways of building links between its struggle for rights and power sharing and the growing unease among Sinhalese at the corruption and abuse of power characteristic of the Rajapaksa government. The Tamil struggle for rights and freedom is likely to succeed only when the broader national struggle for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, including the depoliticisation of the judiciary and the police, has made substantial progress. Joining together efforts to solve the two different forms of the “national question” should become an imperative part of the struggle for Tamil rights.

Brussels/Colombo, 20 November 2012

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute