It has been over three years since Sri Lanka’s long civil war came to a violent end in the swamps of Mullaitivu. The famous government line regarding the future of Sri Lankan ethnic relations was “winning the peace,” a victory that has become as elusive as the LTTE was during the 25 year struggle. Tamil sentiment in the war-torn regions was conveyed strongly during the elections that followed the end of conflict, where President Mahinda Rajapakse defeated the opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, the former general who had lead the military to victory. Despite Rajapakse’s victory, Tamils voted for the man who led the war in military attire. This was a damning account of the President, one that hasn’t changed much since. However, there is an opportunity on the horizon to solve some aspects of Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem.
President Rajapakse’s popularity amongst Sinhala Buddhist voters, who form a clear majority in Sri Lanka, was extremely high in 2010. Politically, the opposition was in tatters with many prominent ministers defecting to the government’s side. In the following years, the Rajapakse family has strengthened its position in Sri Lanka that according to some, seems like preparations for another political dynasty (like the Bandaranaike and Senanayake dynasty). There has also been a clampdown on free political expression under anti-terrorism laws that have led to the disappearance, jailing and killing of activists and journalists. Rajapakse’s majority government has even managed to alter the constitution, removing the two-term limit.
In the international front, Rajapakse’s government has come under criticism from the United Nations, Western powers and human rights agencies, for not performing an adequate investigation into claims of war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces and LTTE operatives. Last year, the government almost removed the Tamil language version of the national anthem. Such a move would have raised Tamil concerns over their place in Sri Lankan society, particularly because many cite the 1956 “Sinhala Only” language act as one of the root causes of Sinhala-Tamil conflict. However, while the government’s efforts through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission may not fully satisfy most observers, Rajapakse’s regime finds itself with a golden opportunity to resolve a decade long struggle for Tamil acceptance and self-determination.
The situation may not seem ideal for advocates of democracy and human rights. To them, Rajapakse’s fortification of the presidency has casted a dark cloud on the democratic rights and freedoms in Sri Lanka. Still, it is this fortified position that gives Rajapakse the ability to truly address the Tamil plight without interference and opposing political pressure. Political pressure from both far-right and far-left groups have played an important role in shaping government policy in Sri Lanka. Their political influence and ability to mobilize public support through emotional, ethnic, religious or economic appeals have often paralyzed leaders from making tough decisions. When Tamil politicians argued against the terms of the “Sinhala Only” act, PM Solomon Bandaranaike was willing to compromise and agreed to implement changes. However, he couldn’t withstand the pressure applied by right-wing Buddhist monks who wanted Bandaranaike to enact the laws that he had promised during his party’s election campaign.
The concept of using religious and national sentiments to gain political favour and credibility exists in all societies. The power-sharing government of 2002 that had negotiated a ceasefire with the LTTE was brought down by a political move by the Sri Lanka Freedom Alliance to ally itself with religious and Marxists elements who claimed the country was being sold to foreigners and the LTTE. Therefore, due to Rajapakse’s popularity amongst religious voters and his hold on the Marxists, some see it as the perfect opportunity to address the concerns of the Tamils. Sensing this opportunity, Tamil political leaders are supposedly in talks with the President to work out an arrangement that keeps Sri Lanka united whilst providing Tamils in the North and East some level of autonomy. This might also offer some insight into previous queries on the President’s willingness to pursue such a route; ability does not necessarily imply the possession of will.
Whilst the exact details of the discussions will remain hidden for the time being, we are reminded that nothing stays constant. There is a rising tide of discontent growing on the economic front as inflation continues to weigh heavily on the average citizen. The latest round of rioting over fuel prices is a sign that the administration’s position is not as secure as many political pundits believed. Still, there is little doubt as to who is running the country and Rajapakse might still have enough political credit to restart efforts to reconcile the Sinhalese and Tamil divide. It is a window that has been open to very few politicians, but it is a window that is slowly closing.
S. J. Perera