Sri Lanka elections offer opportunities and challenges


Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is the pervasive presence of justice and respect for the universal values of human liberty, dignity and mutual tolerance in a society.

A historical background

The tiny teardrop-shaped island once called Ceylon, washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean and carpeted by undulating swathes of lush green tea plantations, was seen as just such a society. It was where serendipity was born. But almost three decades of ruthless ethnic bloodletting reaffirmed the age old dictum that appearances can indeed be deceptive.

For Sri Lanka, a country that at one time had seen its very territorial integrity threatened by civil war and bloody ethnic discord, the outcome of the presidential election in January this year and the parliamentary polls seven months later could turn out to be watersheds for this island state of about twenty million people.

Having gained independence in 1948 after almost two centuries of British colonial rule, that followed the presence of the Portuguese and the Dutch on the island since the early 16th Century, Ceylon, as it was then called, looked different from the rest of South Asia. It rightfully boasted of an enviable literacy rate, a vibrant liberal society, an administrative system that worked and a people that were apparently at peace.

Surrounded as it is by the Indian Ocean, it felt secured, by what late Foreign Minister Lakhshman Kadirigamar described to this commentator in 1995, as his country’s cordon sanitaire. As one would however recall that the presence of the large contingent of the Indian Army on the island between 1987 and 1991 under the India-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) showed that the cordon was an illusion.

Underneath the country’s veneer of social cohesion, however, lay a simmering discontent between Sri Lanka’s overwhelming Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Hindu Tamil minority. The Moorish Muslim and the Dutch-Portuguese Christian communities, who together constituted a small but visible group, were caught in the middle. The Tamils, who had been living mostly in the North and the East of the country for more than a millennium, believed in an equal status as a given right because of the shared historical heritage despite being the numerically smaller community.

The Sinhala-Tamil ethnic discord eventually turned into one of the bloodiest and fiercest civil wars seen in modern history and, indeed, most traumatic. The divide and rule policy of the British colonialists did not help matters. But it is more the failure of post independence Sri Lankan political leaders to seriously address the deep feeling of social alienation and political discrimination among the Tamils that brought things to a head by the late nineteen seventies and early eighties. Not all of these feelings of the Tamils were imagined, many were real.

In postcolonial South Asia, a combination of narrow, parochial, chauvinistic attitudes, coupled with shortsighted regional geo-political power play, both within Sri Lanka and outside, further heightened the distrust. Although the Tamils constituted less than a quarter of the country’s population, they were in the forefront in business and civil administration of post-independent Sri Lanka. But they nevertheless suffered from a perennial sense of persecution, like minorities usually tend to do.

The Sinhalese majority, on the other hand, resented this Tamil dominance as being seriously disproportionate and sought to rectify this anomaly. The process of “rectification” that followed, sadly, showed a lack of farsight. Visionary policies at the highest political level and concessions where needed were essential to give all sides a sense of belonging and confidence. The Sinhala dominated political leadership came up short in this respect. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and the collapse of the Bandarnaike-Chelvanayakam pact of 1957, among others, are glaring instances of these shortcomings.

Like in all such cases, each side blamed the other for the failure as mutual distrust began to grow. The anti-Tamil riots of 1983, following the killing of 13 Sri Lankan military personnel by a Tamil group near Jaffna, where anything up to a thousand or more Tamils in Colombo were killed as Sinhalese hordes ran amok ransacking and torching Tamil homes and businesses, was the proverbial final nail. This created a groundswell of international sympathy for the Tamil cause and the subsequent armed resistance. Moral, material and political support from external sources, both far and near, began to flow in in abundance.

A lethally armed and a deadly motivated LTTE under the inspirational leadership of Vellupillai Prabhakaran took deeper roots among the country’s Tamil community, especially in the North and East of the island. The violent and the bloody ethnic war that followed, tragically, came to define Sri Lanka to many for the next three decades as the country slid into chaos and soaked in its own blood.

The long list of casualties included President Ranasinghe Premadasa as well as presidential aspirants Lalith Atulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and high profile Minister of State for Foreign and Defence Ranjan Vijayratne. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was most fortunate to narrowly survive an assassination attempt though she lost an eye. Tamil leaders, who nurtured hopes for a peaceful and a negotiated solution, also became victims of Prabhakaran’s ruthless treatment of anyone who thought differently. This included such personalities as Neelan Tiruchelvam, Kumar Ponnambalam and Foreign Minister Lakhshman Kadirgamar.

He saw them as betrayers to the Tamil cause. The use of suicide bombers executed with deadly effect became the signature weapon for the LTTE. Prominent members of the LTTE’s own cadre, like Mahatya, who Prabhakaran thought to be potential challengers to his leadership, were also brutally eliminated. The sense of fear among the moderate Tamils was pervasive.

There were other important factors that had their roots outside the boundaries of Sri Lanka that impacted on the overall scenario as it evolved. The way this writer saw it as an observer being the Bangladesh High Commissioner to Sri Lanka between 1991 and 1995, the Tamil diaspora in Europe and North America had succeeded in articulating their case in such a manner that the West was ready to buy their grievances without much qualification. It all looked somewhat onesided. This strengthened the Tamil hardliners as evidenced in the LTTE and Prabhakaran emerging as the strongest and perceptively the sole voice for the Tamil community. In fact, Prabhakaran had upped the ante by demanding a separate Tamil state called Elam, as distinct from the original quest for greater autonomy for Tamil dominated areas in the Northeast of the country.

For more than a decade the LTTE ran a virtual state centered on Jaffna and Killinochchi where the Colombo government’s writ was conspicuous by its absence. They even had their own police and civil administration and taxation regime. Their control of territory and those living there, however, was more by the force of arms than anything else. By audaciously assassinating former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in Tamil Nadu, Prabhakaran sent an unambiguous message that he was not willing to set limits on himself on who and where his next target would be. The irony here is that it was Rajiv Gandhi who as Prime Minister had, figuratively and literally, strained his neck for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community. By then the LTTE had become a terrorist outfit, which alone should have caused the international community to proscribe it long before it was actually done.

There was also the looming presence of the dynamics of the internal politics of the large Indian State of Tamil Nadu across the Palk Straits. This cast a long shadow on Sri Lanka’s body politic and sharpened the ethnic distrust. At times this proved to be counter productive. The second and fiercer uprising of the Sinhala ultra-nationalist and anti-Tamil Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) between 1987 and 1989 was attributed in large measure to that. That the timing of this uprising coincided with the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) on the island was not purely accidental. This extremist Marxist-Leninist group had persuaded hardline Sinhala nationalists in the South to view the IPKF presence as an abdication of the country’s sovereignty by an inept and a weak government.

For a time Sri Lanka resembled an unworkable mosaic: a violent Tamil separatist movement in the North and the East, a foreign army entrenched in its midst, an equally bloody and crippling Sinhala ultra-nationalist movement in the South and a seemingly hapless government in Colombo. The JVP uprising was eventually crushed by a ruthless military counter insurgency campaign but not before thousands—by some estimates up to seventy thousand—of lives had been lost.

On the question of resolving Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict a more political, realistic and balanced approach was needed. This would have included a tougher stand against acts of terrorism, ensuring constitutional guarantees of justice and fairness for all communities, and one that preserved the unity and national integrity of Sri Lanka. Although both Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga were sincere in their efforts along these lines, peace continued to be elusive.  Neither side trusted the other.

Mahinda Rajapakse was elected President in 2005. Riding on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism, he resolved to use the military option to bring the war to an end. The LTTE’s unbending, ruthless and hardline approach had actually closed all other options. The military superiority, which the Sri Lankan armed forces had acquired over time, proved decisive. The LTTE, already facing some dissensions within its own ranks and an erosion of international sympathy, was roundly defeated. The seemingly invincible Prabhakaran was among the dead.

The reason for delving into the history at some length is to highlight the depth of the problem and the enormity of the challenges that are ahead.

Internal dynamics

President Rajapakse had won the war on the battlefield. The general public reacted with a sense of euphoria and relief, believing that prospects for lasting peace had become real. The challenge now was winning the peace and the heart and minds of the Tamil population, especially those in the North and the East of the country. The general belief was that President Rajapakse did not move far enough in that direction. The show of strength by the Sri Lankan military at every anniversary of the fall of Jaffna and Killinochchi would not help heal the wounds. Chest thumping celebrations of victory over your own people would not give comfort to the Tamils.

Confidence building measures needed to be more tangible. His government had consistently refused to open the country to outside scrutiny of alleged excesses by both sides during the final days of the war and the conditions of those displaced internally by the war. For this he and his government had faced international criticism and censure, albeit, not always fairly.

The election of Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally of Rajapakse, as President has raised hopes for reconciliation. The victory of the UNP Alliance in the more recent parliamentary elections and the assumption of the office of Prime Minister by Ranil Wickremesinghe reinforced the sense of optimism. The joining of forces of the country’s major political parties is a huge departure from the past where Rajapakse believed he could do it on his own. The convergence of ideas and actions gives the healing process a broader political base to operate from, making it more inclusive and hopefully more durable. It is also helpful that a politically refurbished JVP is advocating constitutional politics over a violent one. It has put forward sound proposals for constitutional reforms. Political parties that represent Tamil interests are now in a far better position to play a constructive role.

The significance of this meaningful shift in Sri Lanka’s domestic political dynamics and its possible impact on the transition cannot be over emphasised. The union forged between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was initially aimed to unseat Mahinda Rajapakse from the presidency and to weaken his hold on the country’s politics and its decision making process. This was duly achieved, as evident from the outcome of the presidential election in January and the parliamentary polls in August this year.

But the two now need to rise above themselves, calibrate their every move and demonstrate that a change in personnel at the summit also means guarantees for enduring changes in policies and practices. However, for both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, this is a task of enormous proportions. The challenge is heightened by the fact that it has taken decades and more than a generation to deepen the divide. Bridging that cannot be achieved overnight. The direction, though, has to be right and the steps need to be transparent.

Emotions in the country run high because of the ferocity of the war and the damage it has caused in terms of loss of lives and material and the immeasurable trauma and distress, not to mention the harm it has done to the image of the country. On the other side of the spectrum, large segments of the Tamil community continue to live in a state of fear and despair as they risk being accused of complicity. They need to be won over and not be seen en masse as Prabhakaran’s willing executioners. These sentiments of all stakeholders in the country cannot be just glossed over.

It is a fact that Mahinda Rajapakse lost the presidential election earlier this year and the subsequent parliamentary polls primarily because of issues relating to governance, blatant nepotism and his autocratic style of running the affairs of the state. His handling of the grievances of the Tamil community came lower in the order of complaints, especially among the majority Sinhala voters. Besides, many in Sri Lanka credit Rajapakse with successfully bringing the bloody war to an end. He is also credited with the consequent upward turn and the healthy state of the island’s economy. Investor confidence in Sri Lanka is now at an all time high. Tourists, a major source of the country’s economy, are flocking back.

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe cannot lose sight of this reality while seeking genuine reconciliation. Striking the right balance through a series of tangible short, medium and long term measures need to be the order of the day. Along with real grievances of the Tamil minority, Sinhala sentiments need to be taken into account too. The role of the hardline Buddhist clergy will need tactful handling. These are ground realities in Sri Lanka. While addressing all the issues, it will be relevant to objectively address the principal causes behind the rift between the two communities. The effects are all too well known and need no rehash.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution which saw the establishment of a balance of power between the President and the Prime Minister is seen as a welcome first step. Now there is talk of an overhaul of the Constitution. This shows seriousness of the new leadership to address all issues tangibly and in earnest. The move for major constitutional reforms could indeed augur well for Sri Lanka and its people. This should give confidence both within the country and outside. The challenge is to sustain the process and be seen to be doing so. One hopes the reforms will lead to greater and genuine devolution of powers down the line, not just decentralization of the state’s administrative structure.

External factors

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has continued to focus on international investigations into reported abuses during the closing stages of the war. It believes that addressing the complaints of the victims should be the first step towards long term reconciliation and for lasting inter-community trust and peace. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a somewhat watered down Resolution on 1st October, significantly, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, which, among other things, calls for a combination of national and international investigators to look into allegations of abuse.

The Sri Lankan government has, however, rejected suggestions for including an independent prosecutor and a majority of international judges on the panel. Clearly, Colombo is wary of anything that can be too much of an intrusive investigative process. It fears, and perhaps with some logic, that such an approach might reopen old wounds and impede the healing process. The debate puts the government at a tangent with the international community on the format and prioritizing the steps towards eventual reconciliation. Sections of the international media have criticized the resolution as being mild and not binding enough.

While there is generally a compelling argument to investigate abuses during wars and prosecute the perpetrators, there will also be sound logic to see things in the larger and long-term perspective. The current healthy state of relations between Vietnam and the United States, for example, is being described as a model of reconciliation between warring parties of the past. There, focusing more on the present and not so much on the past will help build a better future. True, the differences in the two scenarios make such an analogy a hard sell. The fundamental spirit behind it, though, provides for making a persuasive case. It is a best practice worth emulating.

The international community both near and far, should exercise a degree of caution before pushing too hard lest the whole process gets derailed. Anything perceived as not being objective enough can give rise to a new set of obstacles. The wounds on both sides are fresh and deep and healing them will take time. Challenges are many as they are big. But then so are the opportunities.

The approach has to address all relevant issues in their contexts. The prevailing favorable enabling domestic and international environment would be a source of great help to the government to move the process of national reconciliation forward at a steady pace and build on the peace. For this the new leadership needs continued goodwill and support from all stakeholders inside and outside the country. Persuasion rather than pressure has to be a key element of this process.

Lessons learnt

There are important lessons to be learnt from the Sri Lanka experience.

For one, it brings forth the issue of dealing with minority communities in a multiethnic, multilinguistic and multireligious society as Sri Lanka. Minorities everywhere look at their own ethnic, religious and linguistic identities as a source of their strength and a socio-political security net. Respecting that sentiment with legal and constitutional guarantees provides them the comfort they so dearly seek within the frame of a nation state. Adherence to democratic values is not at odds with preserving ethnic identities. They are parts of the constituent whole.

Second, the role of external players in a country’s internal dynamics is a highly sensitive matter and needs careful handling. The average Sri Lankan, mostly the Sinhalese majority, felt an overtly intrusive presence of their northern neighbor in what they considered to be their internal matter. It of course cannot be denied that some of the initial actions by the Sinhala leadership in the past did contribute to a weakening of the fabric. But then so did the domestic politics of Tamil Nadu. In hindsight though, all sides realized that it should have been handled with greater farsight and care should have been given to the sensitivities involved.

The third and the broader lesson learnt is the imperatives of forging national consensus to address issues of critical national importance. It is this realization by all political forces in Sri Lanka that gives hope for genuine and enduring peace and stability. While the Sri Lankan situation in this respect may have been different, given the extreme nature of the problem it faced, the experience derived and the spirit that drove it should be relevant for countries in the region that are having to deal with fundamental issues of governance, democracy, human rights, rule of law and accountability of the state apparatus.

In a sense, all three lessons enumerated above are relevant in varying degrees to all the countries of South Asia. For them these are lessons eminently worth heeding. In the case of Sri Lanka, the realization came at great costs to all those involved. One can only hope that the others will not have to pay so dearly.