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Fonseka, Rajapaksa fight for Tamil votes

[Lakbima News, Sunday, 29 November 2009 11:24 No Comment]

Come on, you two show some substance

If you were Tamil, who would you vote for: Mahinda Rajapaksa or Sarath Fonseka? Many Tamils are already saying: “Neither”.

Every time he makes a speech of relative importance, it has become President Rajapaksa’s habit to speak a few reconciliatory sentences in Tamil. The masterstroke of a genius publicist, this little trick has regularly helped lace his otherwise nationalist utterances with a multiethnic flavour.

But President Rajapaksa will need now more than an elementary grasp of the Tamil language – and a pair of teleprompters – to scrape through the election that he chose to call two years ahead of time. With General Sarath Fonseka entering the presidential race, the Sinhala vote will be acrimoniously split, making the minorities a crucial deciding factor. Suddenly, the Tamils are important again.

Under the circumstances, neither Rajapaksa nor Fonseka is treated as a feasible choice for Tamils because of the bitterness attached to the war. The defeat of the LTTE was as much a liberation for the Tamils as it was for other communities. In the aftermath, however, no meaningful power-sharing arrangement was offered and no genuine moves at reconciliation made. In fact, the chances for a political solution appear about as dead as Velupillai Prabhakaran while reconciliation is often treated like dreary household chore.

Kanagaratnam Kanageshwara cradled his sleeping four-year-old daughter in his arms as he stood patiently at a bus stop near the Wellawatte police station. It was 11pm. There wasn’t a policeman or soldier in sight, no checking of ID cards and nobody to throw suspicious looks at the group that stared expectantly at the road for the semi-luxury bus that would take them along the A9 to Jaffna town. Six months ago, this would have been unimaginable.

A school teacher from Jaffna, Kanageshwara had come to Colombo two days before to show his daughter to an eye specialist. He took a bus to Vavuniya and a train to the capital but chose to return on the direct bus service launched by the government on November 11. By mid November, the government also said that commuters to Jaffna no longer needed defence ministry permission. Three copies of their identity cards would do.

After months of heavy pressure, some of the restrictions on movement of Tamil civilians are being lifted. But Ravi Chandran, a 27-year-old businessman who was also waiting for the bus, is not happy. “This is still not freedom,” he said, shaking the rain from his hair. “It doesn’t take so long to go to other parts of the country, why only to Jaffna?”

Chandran’s aged parents, who took the same journey the previous day, spent a gruelling16 hours on the bus. Vehicles are delayed at Irattaperiyakulam in Vavuniya, where they are checked and passengers registered. There are no stops on the A9 road as the vehicles cut rapidly across territory formerly controlled by the LTTE. The government still does not want people wandering around in places where they are deemed to have no official business.

But with the election happening on January 26, things will have to change. President Rajapaksa needs the Tamils to win because he can no longer trust the Sinhalese to vote en bloc for him.

Already some calculated measures are being taken to woo the Tamils. Suddenly, resettlement has been speeded up, as much to please the community as to secure the GSP+ from the European Union. Basil Rajapaksa has promised that all displaced persons can go home by January 31, 2010, and that the camps will be open from this week. Why now, when the same could have been done many weeks ago? The main excuse for holding them in camps was that there were Tigers among them. What type of new screening did the government implement to determine – now and not earlier – that the men, women and children they were interring aren’t members of the LTTE?

Restrictions on movement, a longstanding issue, are being eased. Roads are suddenly opening up. Checkpoints are evaporating. New bus services are being introduced to former conflict areas. Development has been expedited. President Rajapaksa even told newspaper editors last week that he decided to hold an election to allow people of the North and East to choose a president after having being deprived of voting in 2005. A lot of effort, suddenly, is being put into making the Tamils happy.

But the question is whether they will buy it. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former permanent representative to the United Nations feels the Tamils should vote Rajapaksa because he has a democratic background. But he thinks that, for the most part, Tamils will abstain, boycott the election or vote for a Tamil candidate if there is one.

“I think both are not good,” Chandran said, before boarding the Jaffna bus. Commenting on recent measures taken to ease some of the practical problems faced by Tamils, Chandran said, “We can be sure they are doing for the election.” He also forecast that Tamils in Jaffna will not come out to vote.

Niranjan Ganeshathasan, a law student from the Faculty of Law in Colombo, says the Tamils will swing the vote at the presidential election but he is not impressed by the small steps the government is taking to impress them. “Essentially, Sarath Fonseka and Mahinda Rajapaksa will appeal to the same Southern electorate,” he said. “So it depends on how they sell themselves to the Northern people. I wouldn’t necessarily vote for either of them. I need to see a much more genuine effort on their part.”

Niranjan wants to know if the candidates are willing to abolish the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; whether they are seriously willing to look into the APRC process; take the genuine concerns of the Tamil community into consideration when drafting a constitution; actually implement the language policy; and offer him concrete principles. He also would like the facts on what happened during the final weeks of the war and a truth and reconciliation commission.

The resettlement of IDPs and the easing of restrictions on movement, Niranjan says, are not extraordinary measures. “These are normal things a government should be doing,” he asserts. “They put the Tamils in a disadvantageous position in the first place. Then to say that we will give you back your basic liberties is really not doing much.”

In districts such as Trincomalee, the war is over but there is still no sense of that chapter being fully closed. “There is no feeling of a natural break; that everything is starting anew in the North and East,” said Mirak Raheem, a senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Tamils are grateful for the release from the LTTE and the war but may not necessarily see it in electoral terms. They are yet to regain their sense of security. A lot of land issues are cropping up. There is also a definite crisis in terms of Tamil politics and a lack of leadership at ground level.”

Many Tamils interviewed regarding their position on the 2010 election were opposed to the two candidates they have been presented with. Quite apart from the war that has left a bitter aftertaste in their mouths, they are not comfortable with such strongly Sinhala nationalist personalities.

Fonseka’s camp is also aware of this reality. His recent public statements prove that he, too, is exerting himself to convince the Tamils that he is not an ogre. Unexpectedly, Fonseka is making pronouncements on IDPs, on Tamil and minority rights, on reconciliation.

Both candidates will have to hurry up and show some substance. Mahinda Rajapaksa has more at his fingertips to achieve that goal but it is too early to predict whether Tamils will stay at home; spoil their ballot; vote for the president who ordered the war; or the general that executed it.

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