Will Tamils overcome politics of fear to find new leadership?

The overwhelming turnout by Tamil voters in North and East Sri Lanka to vote for Sajith Premadasa at the presidential election epitomised the admonition they had heard for over five years: “Don’t rock the political boat lest the Rajapaksas return to power.”

Hence, the politics of fear compelled Tamils to vote for the man whose platform did not even answer the minimum demands they had put forward.

The change in regime in Sri Lanka raises questions if Tamils should look for leadership for their political struggle to activists who have, until now, remained outside the pale of electoral politics but displayed remarkable resilience to keep their cause alive regardless of who is in power in Colombo.

On Saturday, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary in his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s governments (2005-2015) and a war crime accused was elected president with 52.25 percent of the vote.

Premadasa came second with 41.99 percent.

Sinhala majority

Of Sri Lanka’s 25 electoral districts, 80 percent of the vote in favour of Premadasa came from the eight districts of the North and East which are majority Tamil and Tamil-speaking Muslim. The only other district that Premadasa won is Nuwara Eliya, which is also majority Tamil.

As if to brush off any ambiguity about the racist platform that had propelled him to the presidency Rajapaksa declared as he took oath as president, “I knew I could win with only the Sinhala majority. But I asked the Tamils and Muslims to be part of my success. Their response was not one I expected. But I urge them to join me to build one Sri Lanka.”

The election also debunks the chimera of reconciliation Colombo’s liberals have touted as happening since the national unity government (NUG) was formed in 2015. It only papered over but failed to address deep-rooted political differences that remain between Sinhalese and Tamils.

An important part of this reconciliation rhetoric was driven by instilling fear among the Tamils that if they demanded too much by way of federal power-sharing, accountability for past human rights abuses, demilitarisation etc, it would initiate or hasten the process of the Rajapaksas’ return, thereby making matters only worse for them.

Fear politics

The logic of this argument, put forward mainly by three sources – the government, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is the largest Tamil party in parliament and the international community – rested on the premise that the NUG was a fragile formation and agitation for Tamil aspirations would be met with the Sinhalese to clamouring for the return of the pro-Sinhala nationalist Rajapaksas.

How did the NUG, the TNA and the international community use fear politics on the Tamils?

The NUG was formed after the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015. The tenuous unity between the two main parties of the NUG – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena and United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – was a common antipathy to the Rajapaksas.

By the time the NUG was installed, Tamils – especially victims of mass atrocities – and sections of the international community were demanding that any tribunal set up to try military personnel of wartime atrocities should include international judges and prosecutors, because domestic courts would be biased in favour of the military. NUG finally agreed on paper to a hybrid court and its promise is contained in the 2015 UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1.

However, NUG was reluctant to implement it because the party lacked the courage and commitment to confront the country with the truth that not all military personnel would be tried but only those at top of the chain of command, preferring instead to proclaim that party leaders would protect the security forces.

What the NUG also did was drive fear into Tamil survivors of human rights violations and civil society activists who supported them that if they rocked the boat with persistent demands for justice for perpetrators, there would be a revolt in the military that would trigger the return of the Rajapaksa brothers, who back the military.

The TNA has been not been far behind the NUG in holding up the argument that Tamils would rock the boat if they took bold stands demanding federal power-sharing and accountability.

TNA tactic

In January 2018, a time of mounting criticism from Tamils that the TNA was supporting the NUG for political perks and not for the benefit of voters, TNA leader Rajavarodayam Sampanthan was interviewed by the Hindu newspaper.

After explaining how the NUG was addressing various issues of concern to Tamils – constitutional reform, release of military-held land, political prisoners, disappearances – and acknowledging slow progress Sampanthan says, “What is the alternative? Do people want to return to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government? I’m not saying that its [progress under the NUG] good enough reason for nothing to happen, but one must realise that under this government rule of law has been maintained, we do not have the culture of impunity, and the independence of the judiciary and civilian institutions restored.”

The TNA’s tactic of instilling fear in the Tamils of the possible return of the Rajapaksas only grew in the almost two years since Sampanthan gave the interview as demands by Tamil voters became more vociferous because they believed the party was paying scant attention to their grievances and aspirations.

Third, the international community. From the time the NUG assumed office in 2015, the international community has blunted efforts of Tamil survivors to push ahead on finding the truth about atrocities and crimes and punishing the perpetrators. For instance, the UNHRC 2017 and 2019 refused to place to timelines and benchmarks on Resolution 30/1 to ensure Colombo implemented the agreement.

When Tamil diaspora organisations and individuals asked why governments were reluctant to enforce the Resolution, they were told rocking the boat would create a backlash in Sri Lanka’s military, which would pave the way for the Rajapaksas’ return.

But diplomats’ concern was not necessarily instability in Sri Lanka, but that a Rajapaksa regime would resume close ties with Beijing at the expense of India and the West.

13 point plan

In August, Gotabaya Rajapaksa officially announced he would be the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s candidate in the presidential elections. He was followed by others, including Sajith Premadasa of the UNP. But their platforms were lacking details on how they would handle Tamil concerns such as federal power-sharing, accountability and demilitarisation.

To move away from the politics of fear of the return of the Rajapaksas to address systemic needs of Tamils, the student union of the University of Jaffna – perhaps after prompting from external groups – drew up a set of minimum demands – a 13-point plan.

Five Tamil political parties signed the plan and pledged to present it to the presidential candidates.

Predictably, no candidate accepted it. This included Premadasa who was unwilling to devolve more power than permitted within a unitary constitution or try military personnel accused of war crimes before a tribunal with international judges.

Despite Premadasa’s refusal, the TNA, which signed the 13-point plan, announced unequivocal support to Premadasa. Later the party admitted it had not even presented the plan to Premadasa. In a statement prefaced by a litany of complaints against Rajapaksa’s anti-Tamil acts of the past, implying that he was inclined to repeating them if he were elected president, the TNA asked voters to cast their ballot for Premadasa.

If in the past, the NUG, TNA and the international community had asked Tamils not rock the boat was to ensure political stability, the TNA’s act of asking Tamils to vote for Premadasa rather than boycott or spoil their ballots (which is also a boycott) had other goals.

Boycott by Tamils would mean a show of defiance. For the TNA, it was better for Tamil voters to show fear of Rajapaksa and vote for Premadasa even if Premadasa were to lose, because it would demonstrate Tamils were still loyal to the system and would give the TNA – an arch loyalist – an opportunity to play nursemaid against big bad wolf Rajapaksa were he to be elected to office. Voters playing within the system of electoral politics was vital for TNA’s survival; defiance would have negated this.

Now that not rocking the boat politics has not worked and Rajapaksa is president, Tamils would need to look for leadership outside the usual circles – not only the TNA but other Tamil political parties active in North East politics too.

1000 day protest

There are groups among the Tamils that have come together based on interests and who have defied the politics of fear and politicians who have invoked fear for political gain.

Families of the disappeared commemorated the 1000th day of protest in search of their loved ones, last week. In a defiant message one of the participants said whoever was to become president their struggle would continue.

Mothers of the disappeared did not start protests and campaigns in the relatively benign post-2015 NUG years. They were active from 2011, which was the hay day of Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s political control. In 2013, the mothers braved police cordons, beatings and arrests to meet then British Prime Minister David Cameron when Colombo hosted CHOGM.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected with a fresh mandate in 2019, could very well crackdown on the mothers of the disappeared, groups fighting for the freedom of political prisoners (who have also been active from the years of the last Rajapaksa presidency) and now families agitating for land be returned.

Is it from the ranks of these men and women who are not intimidated by the politics of fear that the next group of leaders of the Tamils will come?☐

J. S. Tissainayagam

© Asian Correspondent



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.