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Fonseka and Rajapaksa vie for Tamil votes:Who would the Tamils vote for?

by Namini Wijedasa

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.



It is a difficult choice for the Tamils. Sampanthan going alone cannot help. You need at least 6 million votes to win the next election - besides risking the Sinhala polity going away from the Tamils – whereas now we see a welcome movement towards the Tamils for rapid accommodation and to repair old wounds. Doubtless both Sinhala candidates have harmed Tamils by design in recent times – one more than the other being the only difference. The hypocracy of speaking a few words in bad Tamil in the stupid belief you have fooled them is only being, quite correctly, laughed at by the politically conscious Tamils. The validity of Lenin’s maxim “the end will justify the means” could well be the answer here. But in the event of a Fonseka victory this uncultured, ill-tutored, unpredictable man is likely to do crazy things. He is so consumed by his limitless own ego, he thinks the country owes him a divine duty by enthroning him. His worshipping the picture of Lasantha makes one wonder the depths to which he can sink. He will do the same thing before the picture of Raviraj if it serves his purpose – both killings widely suspected to be the work of that savage “Unit-eka” said to function under top military sources. In the case of the Raviraj killing Sampanthan is in record of having said in an interview the assailants escaped in motor bicycles and vanished into the Army camp at Elvitigala Mawatha - less than 200yds from the scene of assassination. Many by-standers confirmed this. This is going to be the most violent election in our history judging by the incidents at the Kelaniya Temple even before he left the army, Anything can happen between now and announcement of the winner in a land that has seen more than one “accident” of major political opponents. MR’s regime has to accept the blame for matters coming to this sorry pass. There can also be the danger of armed civil war by the time the winner is declared because the armed forces are split by political infiltration, massive corruption and ambition. To paraphrase the late SJVC “only God can now save the Sinhalese” The country has no choice but to hope for the best, wait and see.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | November 28, 2009 11:04 PM

Quite naturally Tamils may not want to vote for either, whereas a few parties who have aligned with MR may continue to do so unless they sense a shift in the balance. Tamils were deprived of the vote at the last election which resulted in bringing MR to power. This time too the field seems to be evenly balanced due to the introduction of SF. Hence the Tamil vote will swing the balance in favour of either.
Why should the Tamils vote? Well if they do want to play a role in deciding their future based on what each candidate has to offer they should do so. I feel that it is progressive for Tamils to exercise their franchise as free and equal citizens in this country. Not voting signals an aloof or dont care attitude.

Posted by: SriLankan | November 28, 2009 11:30 PM

I think for the first time since independence the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka are in a very strong king maker position. I hope the leaders of Tamil speaking people (Tamil & Muslim parties) realise this. This is the time they must look to the future not the past.

Quite simply they could bargain with Ranil (who is expected to be the PM) that the Tamil vote will be delivered to the Fonseka's presidency if the basic demands of the Tamils and Muslims are met after the General Elections to follow. The Tamil vote is crucial to both sides. They should come to an MOU with Ranil and make it public. This would be a great democratic path to ensure the future security and prosperity of the North and East and all in general. The Tamil leaders should keep all above board and keep India, EU and US in the loop. Ranil should sell this to Fonseka and JVP. It would be foolish if Fonseka and JVP reject this. In fact they would welcome it because with the Tamil speaking people's vote (TNA, Muslim Congress & Mano Ganeshan's party) would deliver victory to Fonseka. Without which Fonseka is doomed.

One might ask what if Ranil, Fonseka and co renege on the MOU? We'll it is about grabbing the only opportunity the Tamil speaking people have. If this opportunity is not taken the Tamil vote would be wasted like last time. If they renege then India and the international community will be watching. As President has already found out with the GSP saga, IC can really hurt SL if promises are taken not kept.

Come on TNA, TULF, TC, SLMC, Mano all join and make use of this golden opportunity to acquire the security and properity of the future through clean democratic means.

Posted by: Daniel M. Asaipillai | November 29, 2009 02:22 AM

Its forgotten more tamils live in the south beyond north and east, indian origin tamils and muslims will vote for Mr FONSEKA because of Ranil, its certain h will become the pm and run the show, we indian tamils hope our brothers in norh and east would do the same, if not they will be making the sam mistake as in 2004.

Posted by: estate boy | November 29, 2009 02:23 AM

Tamils must be out of their mind to vote for any one of these war criminals doing so it self is betrayal of tamils who were killed in this war. Tamil candidate is only option.

Posted by: pearman | November 29, 2009 04:30 AM

SF will be a good politician as he changed his way of thinking when he decided to come for the elections or to contest.Once he said SL is just for Singhalese Buddhists and minorities have to know that.Then he talked about cleaning the camps looking of LTTE there.Then suddenly he is talking about minorities and sending IDP s home.Come on General you can be a politician.You have the ability to lie and are power hungry and have already showed that.

Posted by: ashok | November 29, 2009 12:04 PM

Tamils are in a Devil making situation. Either way you are screwed. The General, the 5th generation Sinhalised Keralite believes in the encirclement strategy of the Tamils advocated in 1956. The Sinhala polity and it's masses, the children of the " pancha maha balawegaya " continue to consider anyone other than the Sinhalese as inferior. Neither of the candidates nor their supporters believe in civic nationalism. It's all ethno nationalism. None of the political parties believe in sharing power with the Tamils.
They need the Tamils to be their perpetual enemy to pander to the Sinhalese nationalist votes.

So, what will the Tamil community do, vote you must.

The problem in Srilanka is the attitude of it's majority towards it's fellow citizens.

As ISS said this is going to be the most violent election. So be it. This is only inevitable. The worm has turned indeed.

Posted by: vishvajith | November 29, 2009 08:18 PM

The Tamils and Muslims can swing the election toward one presidential candidate or the other if nothing stupid is done such as getting a Tamil to run for President. Such stupidity will only result in the Tamils having no input in who gets elected president.

I am sure that most sensible Tamils will impress upon any Tamil who is thinking of running for president of Sri Lanka to pause and think. The situation is too dire to be playing stupid political games.

Tamil politicians should get together and insist that each major candidate for President state what steps they propose to take to solve the ethnic question once and for all. And then decide on which candidate the Tamils should support.



Posted by: A Tamil | November 29, 2009 09:56 PM

The Tamils and Muslims can swing the election toward one presidential candidate or the other if nothing stupid is done such as getting a Tamil to run for President. Such stupidity will only result in the Tamils having no input in who gets elected president.

I am sure that most sensible Tamils will impress upon any Tamil who is thinking of running for president of Sri Lanka to pause and think. The situation is too dire to be playing stupid political games.

Tamil politicians should get together and insist that each major candidate for President state what steps they propose to take to solve the ethnic question once and for all. And then decide on which candidate the Tamils should support.



Posted by: A Tamil | November 29, 2009 09:56 PM

Surely the Tamils have not forgotten the past?

At every election, Tamils were promised a solution - but what happens after the formation of a government?

In SriLanka, unfortunately it is a corrupt and racial politics, which has ruined the peace loving citizens of all communities. Just analyse each election and see!

Can anyone tell us of a single honest, peace loving, and sincere politician who has taken control of governing?

Why did the Sri Lanka come to this state of the lowest level in international community?

Posted by: Canaga | November 30, 2009 03:42 AM

Viswajith – This Keralite thing is going too far and is becoming a joke. One wonders if the Sinhalese have abandoned their wildly contestable claim of a North Indian-Aryan ancestry and are now obsessed with Kerala. There is little evidence SF is 5th generation Keralite although he said not long ago he has Tamil connections.

Just because he comes from the Karawe caste does not make him a Malayalee. Whatever happened between the 5th generation and the present? Looks like it has suddenly become fashionable to have a Kerala connection at the lower and Sinhala levels. Of Course, Park Nadesan, the Thiruchelvams, Sambanthans, Sivasithambarams et al have older or newer Kerala links by marriage.

I notice now many Sinhalese families in the US too. Why is this sudden craving (unbuddhistic as well) for everything Malayalee. Was the influence left by Indian High Commissioners of Keralite stock Shiv Shankar Menon and Nirupama Rao-Menon far too infectious or is the delusionary fear we may be swamped by the giant strides economic and cultural strides by Tamilnadu in recent times on the grounds rather be identified with Kerala than with Tamilnadu – the home of Thondaman’s past and present hordes.

Has the recent visit of the Tamilnadu MPs with the alluring Kanimoli (the twisted in the Sinhala side even call it the Balu delegation) overpowering or has wisdom finally dawned that a future united, peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka is far more feasible and realistic with a more warmer pro-Tamilnadu posture?


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | November 30, 2009 08:19 PM

The year 2010 appears to start off the bleakest period in Sri Lankan history. The General and much of his army men, under a united front of some 18 significant and insignificant parties are taking on a well entrenched family mafia, with billions in ill-gotten money. The Tamils are certain of their future, at least for the next decade. They will live without hope. The Sinhalese have no real choice. Defeating the LTTE will mean very little to them as they begin to feel the pinch of poverty and inability to cope with daily life. If MR wins, there will be a Rajapakse Kingdom and if SF wins, it is likely for the armed forces to begin to assert their presence in civil life. Sri Lanka has already become a land of thugs, charlatans, crooks, the corrupt and is a veritable killing field. Budhist virtues are only for the very poor and the land of the Bhuddha has been washed by blood. Tamils have been historically discriminated against, made second class citizens and brutalised by the sinhala governments. The nation will only have a respite if one day, by some miracle, a genuine and intelligent Tamil takes over the leadership of the country.Sinhalese have proven again and again that they dont have the capacity to produce a genuine, honest and inteligent leader.

Posted by: Madhava | January 1, 2010 01:26 PM

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