The resounding victory of Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential election held on January 8, 2015, heralds a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s tortuous history. It provides a beacon of hope to all those who are struggling for democracy and justice. The assertion of popular will proves that, however authoritarian the regime may be, the voice of the people will finally triumph.
The overthrow of Suharto and Marcos is often cited to prove the validity of the statement that the voice of the people is the voice of God. What happened in Sri Lanka is more admirable; the transition to democracy took place through ballot box; what is more, those who voted against the oppressive regime cut across race, religion and language.
Two ironies of the situation should be highlighted. January 8 synchronises with the fifth anniversary of the martyrdom of Lasantha Wikramatunge, editor of Sunday Leader. Lasantha was a close friend of Mahinda, but they turned bitter enemies when the former began to expose the misdeeds of the government. Finally on January 8, 2009, Lasantha was gunned down in broad day light. Many believe that the President was involved in the dastardly deed. Though Mahinda promised an impartial enquiry, the guilty are yet to be brought before the court of law. Lasantha epitomised what a free press could do; he proved that pen is mightier than the sword.
Equally ironic had been the changing stance of Rajapaksa on issues relating to human rights violations. During 1987-89, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) unleashed an armed struggle against the government for inviting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to implement the provisions of the India-Sri Lanka Accord. This period is referred to by the Sinhalese as Bishana Samaya (days of terror). The violence of the Sinhalese youth was put down by the savage reprisals of the state.
Mahinda, then a young politician, camped in Geneva and repeatedly pleaded for UN humanitarian intervention. However, he forgot these noble principles when, as President, he unleashed a war against the Tigers, which, in the final stages, turned out to be a war against Tamil civilians. What is more, he did not co-operate with the UN agencies to carry out an enquiry against these violations. Mahindra’s opportunistic stance will put even a chameleon to shame.
Why did the President decide to hold the election, two years ahead of schedule? The opposition was sharply divided and Mahinda was convinced that he could return to power easily with Sinhala support. But he was out of touch with reality. When Maithripala Sirisena resigned from the government and decided to oppose the President, he got the solid support of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wikramasinghe. As the campaign gathered momentum, the minorities and their representative organisations joined hands. What began as a trickle became a mighty torrent. Sirisena’s assurance that he would dismantle the authoritarian structure within hundred days of assuming power was greeted with unprecedented jubilation.
Why did the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) decide to support Sirisena? It should be stated that the national question did not figure in a big way in the electoral campaign. But the TNA rightly concluded that only a genuinely democratic government can bring about ethnic reconciliation. What is more, the Tamil leaders were conscious of the fact that in 2005 Tamils committed a great mistake. Responding to Prabhakaran they decided to boycott the presidential polls. In that crucial election Mahinda was able to defeat Ranil, because of Tamil miscalculation. This time also the lunatic fringe exhorted the Tamils not to vote; a few others demanded that Tamils should field their own candidate. But they were completely isolated.
The Sri Lankan Muslims were getting increasingly alienated from the government, because their places of worship were subjected to attack by the fascist Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhala extremist organisation, closely aligned to the President. Though the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) continued to support the government, the overwhelming majority of hill country Tamils joined opposition ranks.
It was the solid support of the ethnic minorities that enabled Maithripala to score a convincing victory. This becomes evident if one analyses the voting pattern. In electoral districts, where the Tamils and Muslims dominated, Maithripala won by a convincing margin.
In districts, where Sinhalese were a majority, Mahinda won, but with relatively narrow margin. Sirisena received 6,217, 162 votes (51.28 per cent), whereas Rajapaksa polled 5,768, 090 votes (47.58 pr cent). The support to Sirisena came from Batticaloa – 81-62 per cent; Vanni – 78.47 per cent; Jaffna- 74.42 per cent; Trincomalee- 71.84 per cent; Ampara-65.22 per cent; Nuwara Eliya – 63.88 per cent; Polonnaruva -57.80 per cent; Colombo – 55.93 per cent; Kandy – 54.56 per cent; Puttalam – 50.04 per cent; Gampaha – 49.83 per cent and Badulla – 49.21 per cent. Mahinda’s score card is as follows: Hambantota- 63.02 per cent; Uva – 61.45 per cent; Southern (Matara) – 57.81 per cent; Southern (Galle) – 55.64 per cent; Anuradhapura – 53.59 per cent; Kurunegala – 53.46 per cent; Western (Kalutara) – 52.65 per cent and Sabaragamuva- 51.82 per cent.
Sirisena’s choice of Ranil Wikramasinghe as prime minister is a master stroke of statesmanship. Ranil is a liberal politician, sensitive to minority aspirations and, what is more, he is more acceptable to the western world. It was Ranil-Moragoda team which created an “international safety net” against the ruthless Tigers. Naturally the top priority for the new government will be to get Sri Lanka out of diplomatic isolation. It should immediately take steps to infuse confidence among the people.
The democratic space that got eroded under the earlier regime should be restored and people should breathe the air of freedom. The chief justice – a close ally of Mahinda – should be replaced by a legal luminary of integrity.
The military governor in the Northern Province should be replaced by a civilian, who enjoys the confidence of the Tamils. All developmental activities in the Northern Province should be undertaken with the participation of the provincial government. What is more, the “tilt” towards China should be redressed. Relations with India need to be strengthened in a big way. The announcement that President Sirisena will visit India soon is a right step in this direction.
The author is shortly taking up an assignment in the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam as Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies. His e-mail id: firstname.lastname@example.org