Opinion: Reflecting between elections in Sri Lanka

When I asked a friend in Sri Lanka what she thought of the presidential election and its aftermath, she said with exasperation, “The election was a joke. These politics are a joke.”

Another friend said, “At least Sri Lankans are again beginning to laugh and take their politicians less seriously.”

Whether or not the latter comment may be true, the recent politics and events in Sri Lanka are no laughing matter. As concerned individuals, we must critically examine the presidential election and its aftermath at this moment in order to press for restoring justice, dignity and democracy for all inhabitants of Sri Lanka.

Since the war’s end in May 2009, there has been little relief for Sri Lankans, and, in particular, for those civilians who have been uprooted and displaced by the protracted civil conflict. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still being held without land rights, homes or the freedom to move freely within the country’s borders. Muslims, expelled from Jaffna peninsula by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990, have yet to secure unified support from Sri Lanka’s politicians to return homes.

During the conflict, thousands of Up-Country Tamils living and working on the tea and rubber plantations were chased out of their homes during a series of anti-Tamil riots. Today, many of the individuals remaining in the postwar IDP camps are in fact Up-Country Tamils who — displaced twice and thrice over the past decades — have no home to return to.

In the months before the presidential election, the widening space for dissent gave hopeful indication that Sri Lanka’s politicians might adequately address minority grievances and develop long-lasting strategies for reconciliation. Nevertheless, the election was marred by, as election monitoring centers report, 900 instances of violence, forms of corruption and blatant abuse of public funds for private interests.

Furthermore, the post-election arrest and detainment of retired General Sarath Fonseka has distracted politicians from pressing issues such as the resettlement of IDPs and the need for a far-reaching political solution.

In the last week, the opposition alliance has split, and Sarath Fonseka, while detained, has left the United National Party (UNP)-led alliance and started a new alliance called the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). This fracture and shift may suggest yet another victory for Rajapakse’s governing coalition in the Parliamentary elections, which are set to take place on April 8. 

With the recent announcement that the detained Fonseka will contest in the April elections, voters may face the real possibility of continued violence and the residual effects of political elitism that plagued the presidential election.

This climate of political uncertainty has been further fueled by the increased militarization of post-war civil society. Outspoken journalists and activists are still regularly abducted and detained under the emergency regulations, without consistent or trustworthy follow-up investigation. Paramilitaries and political groups such as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) in the North and East are still armed in a time of so-called “peace.”

Even though President Mahinda Rajapakse declared the defeat of terrorism nearly nine months ago, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in place, and civilians displaced from the High Security Zones (HSZ) in the North and East are still unable to return to their homes.

Given these conditions of exception, the incumbent President Rajapakse has made it clear that economic investment and growth are more important than guaranteeing dignity and safety for Sri Lankan civilians. By placing the question of a political solution on the backburner, his decisions suggest that he favors centralized executive power and refuses to embrace and implement more devolved forms of power sharing throughout the country.

As Sri Lanka is at a critical juncture in its post-war history, its leaders and constituents need more nuanced ways to justly engage all members of the country’s polity. To do this would involve immediate demilitarization of civil society, decentralization of executive and state powers, and an opening of space for dissenting voices — not only for those in the opposition but also for those marginalized minorities of ethnicity, caste, class and gender.

For some Sri Lankans, the current political events may be laughable. And given the end of the LTTE, perhaps, these political events are perceived by some as less serious than those of the former, conflict-ridden Sri Lanka.

But for those progressives who actively seek long-lasting political reform and sustainable modes of civic participation, the election and its aftermath are leaving a sour taste. Until Sri Lanka’s leaders can question the legitimacy and transparency of their own politics and form solidarities on the grounds of dignity and justice for all, Sri Lankan civilians will not be able to reassemble their lives and heal their trust in the country’s democratic political system.

The writer, an activist and scholar, has chosen to write anonymously for her own security.