Sri Lanka presidential elections: Tamils need an alternate path
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Sri Lanka presidential elections: Tamils need an alternate path

REGARDLESS which of the two frontrunners in Sri Lanka’s forthcoming election becomes president, Tamils’ aspirations for equal rights and accountability will not be met.

This is due to both frontrunners focussing on satisfying their Sinhala vote base only, while Tamil politicians have failed to negotiate well on Tamil demands.

Hence, Tamils will have to find alternative democratic pathways in their fight for accountability, human rights and justice.

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The frontrunners are Sajith Premadasa, of the Democratic National Front – a coalition whose core is the United National Party (UNP) – and a senior member of the current regime, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) and former defence secretary in his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.

Rajapaksa as defence secretary oversaw the country’s civil war and is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is also accused of other human rights violations that victimised  not only Tamils, but Sinhalese and Muslims as well. His election, it is predicted, will lead to new offensives against democracy and human rights.

Premadasa, on the other hand, has no such baggage, but belongs to the Sinhala nationalist wing of the UNP. His manifesto focuses more on economic development in the Tamil areas and not on accountability, justice or human rights. His father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 1992 during its armed campaign for secession.


A woman hangs clothes to dry near electoral posters of deputy leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP) and New Democratic Front (NDF) presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa in her neighbourhood in Colombo on November 14, 2019. Source: Jewel SAMAD / AFP

Therefore, the choice for the Tamils is between an unsympathetic candidate and an apathetic candidate.

It was early indications of shortcomings in Rajapaksa and Premadasa that led students of the University of Jaffna to convene a meeting of Tamil political parties to compile a set of minimum demands from the presidential candidates that embodied the concerns and aspirations of the Tamils. The result was a 13-point document that covered three broad areas of Tamil concern: power-sharing based on federal principles, accountability for human rights atrocities and demilitarisation. The 13 points would be placed before all the presidential candidates for their acceptance.

Unsurprisingly, none of the leading candidates accepted the core principles enshrined in the 13 points. The TNA said they did not discuss these points with the frontrunners, despite signing on to it before the Tamil students.  That was why when the TNA in a press statement, “urged all people, particularly the Tamil people it represents, to vote for Mr. Premadasa,” many Tamils felt betrayed.

The media is rife with dire predictions for the Tamils if Rajapaksa is elected. However, despite the reckless endorsement of Premadasa by the TNA, his victory or defeat will not help advance Tamil political goals either.

Premadasa’s election manifesto, released a little before the TNA’s exhortation to the Tamil voters, gives ample scope for Tamil concern. It includes appointing a presidential commission to address land disputes in conflict affected areas, release of prisoners held for “long periods without charge,” an office of reparations, an office of missing persons (OMP), and “concessions” for the development and reconstruction of the North and East. None of these even remotely address the core demands in the 13 points.

If Premadasa is elected, it will have to be with robust Tamil and Muslim support to offset large numbers of Sinhala and some Muslim and Tamil votes cast for Rajapaksa. But assuming he garners solid Tamil support, it certain that Premadasa will be unable to satisfy Tamil core demands – even if he wants to – because his Sinhala vote base will be opposed to it. And to insulate himself from a charge of “conceding too much to the Tamils” from his Sinhala supporters, Premadasa has already declared his opposition to power-sharing beyond a unitary state or  trying military personnel before an international tribunal, which lies at the heart of accountability of crimes committed by state during the civil war.

Premadasa, if he were to win, might tinker with institutions like the OMP, which he has promised but which Tamil families of the disappeared have roundly rejected rather than deliver on substantive reforms.

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Premadasa’s party leader and current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, promised the Tamils at the last parliamentary election in August of 2015 his government would help draft a new constitution.

However, despite Tamil demands of federal power sharing and accountability, Wickremesinghe and the UNF did not push for a new constitution and explicitly stated that no security forces personnel would be brought before an international tribunal to be tried for war crimes. Tamil political leaders, who failed to hold Wickremesinghe and the UNF accountable to these promises of the past, by giving unconditional support to Premadasa have further diluted their ability to negotiate a good deal for their people under a new president.

A more ominous fate awaits the Tamils if Premadasa and his coalition lose the presidential election.

Following the presidential elections, elections for parliament is expected after February 2020. A possible scenario is the UNP winning them, thereby setting up a struggle for supremacy between Rajapaksa as president and the UNP in parliament.

But knowing Rajapaksa and the character of the Sri Lankan polity, the president’s party will win parliamentary elections too.

In the more likely scenario is the UNP losing the parliamentary election too. In which event what is the UNP to do?


Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (C) waves at supporters during a campaign rally in Homagama on November 13, 2019, ahead of the November 16 presidential election. Source: Jewel SAMAD / AFP

If Rajapaksa returns to the geopolitical philosophy of brother Mahinda’s government between 2005 and 2015 – spurning India and the West, while embracing Beijing – the UNP will have a role in honing western opposition to the Sri Lanka regime.

But if Rajapaksa embarks on a new path of a more nuanced approach towards western powers – after all the Acquisitions and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA), a  consequential security-related agreement with the U.S. – was signed in 2007 when Rajapaksa was defence secretary – the manoeuvrability of the UNP in this sphere will be limited.

Whether geopolitical space exists or not, the UNP must stay relevant in domestic politics. And what better way than donning again the mantle of human rights champion? And if as Sri Lankans fear, Rajapaksa seeks to establish his credentials as strongman by cracking down on individual and collective liberties, there will be plenty for the UNP to fight about.

While addressing human rights concerns of all Sri Lankans, the UNP fighting for the “oppressed minority” Tamils will both embellish its brand domestically and internationally as well as help its return to power on the shoulders of Tamil voters in the next elections.

Therefore, the UNP as an opposition party, will take up Tamil human rights issues while careful to see that they are subsumed within its own political concerns. It will do this by co-opting successful Tamil struggles waged by relatives of the disappeared, those fighting for the release of military-occupied land in the North and East and for the unconditional release of political prisoners.

These movements, active in Sri Lanka and known in western capitals and the UN, are readymade vehicles for the UNP to exploit.

But the Tamil people’s agenda in their struggle for justice and human rights – including the right to self-determination – has been unwavering as it has been distinct. The UNP’s aim if it joins Tamil human rights activists in the guise of serving a common cause will be using human rights to remove Rajapaksa from power.

It is precisely because the UNP wanted President Mahinda Rajapaksa removed from power that it pretended to support the Tamils’ struggle for accountability before 2015 but has since opposed it.

Therefore, the UNP should not be allowed to hijack the Tamils’ struggle for democracy and human rights again. Nor should any Tamil political party be permitted to help the UNP to foist its agenda on the Tamils.

This is not to say the prospect of a Rajapaksa presidency is welcome. There is little doubt that widespread political repression, dismantling of democracy and bigotry against Tamils and Muslims, and targeting human rights activists will be its hallmark.

That aside, since 2009, Rajapaksa and Premadasa were officials in two governments, which both showed that despite Tamil electoral support, they could ignore Tamil demands.

It is time that Tamils heed this uncomfortable reality and look at other democratic means of carrying forward their struggle rather than aligning themselves to Sinhala leaders and Sinhala political parties.

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