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The April Election and Prospects for Sustainable Peace in Sri Lanka

Darini Rajasingham Senanayake is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore.
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  • April 22, 2010

    On April 12, 2010 the majority of citizens of Sri Lanka’s main linguistic communities celebrated the “Sinhala and Tamil New Year”, and the categorical end of war and terrorism with considerable optimism despite lack of a clear political solution to the ‘ethnic conflict’. The New Year, the first since the end of the State’s 30 year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), happened a week after parliamentary elections that returned the ruling coalition to power. President Rajapaksa, who in January had already won the Presidential elections for another six year term, noted that the New Year brought into focus shared culture and kinship ties between the Sinhala and Tamil speaking communities in the island. There was little talk of ‘human rights violations’ or ‘war crimes’ or the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s plan to set up an Advisory Council on Sri Lanka. Members of the international community congratulated the regime and seemed circumspect with regard to questions of reconciliation, reconstruction and the detritus of 30 years of war in Lanka.

    The outcome of the April general election makes clear that Sri Lanka would be evolving its own model of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation to address the causes of conflict -- with the help mainly of Asian neighbours and donors, principally, India and China, which tend to be less demanding than western donors on the human rights front. The ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was returned to power with a comfortable majority in the face of a divided and lacklustre opposition, whose leader Ranil Wickramasinghe would now be required to consider exit strategies if the United National Party (UNP), historically the country’s oldest and most inclusive political party which has been dealt a stunning defeat, is to pose a challenge to the hegemony of the emergent Rajapaksa dynasty. Rajapaka has consolidated power with a hat trick of three victories if one counts the defeat of the LTTE, the victory at the Presidential elections and the parliamentary elections, and is in a position to work out an equitable solution to the ethnic conflict unencumbered by ultra-nationalist coalition partners that he had to rely on in his first term.

    The April elections marked a new beginning for the people in the post-conflict zones of the north and east, who had been prevented from participating in previous elections by the LTTE. They were able to exercise their vote freely and they voted for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA/ITAK), formally the political face of the LTTE. However, Douglas Devanandan, an ally of the ruling UPFA alliance, and former militant of PLOTE (Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam), was able to secure almost a third of the votes in the north. Also noteworthy at the recently concluded elections was the defeat of the ultra-nationalist and Sinhala majoritarian Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led Democratic National Front (DNF) coalition headed by the jailed former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka (who nevertheless won a seat), signalling that the majority of the southern population are not impressed by extremism. With a clear majority Rajapaksa will be able to bring down the number of cabinet members and work with the TNA which has promised to cooperate with him in finding an equitable solution for the minority question within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

    It is fairly well established that once an insurgent or terrorist group is destroyed, if the underlying or “root causes” of identity or resource conflicts are not properly addressed, insurgents may regroup and return years or decades later to challenge the State. The Colombo regime’s preferred solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka clearly privileges an economic model – rapid development and reconstruction of the conflict affected region – over a political solution, along the lines of the authoritarian democracy visible in countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where the state’s emphasis on economic development has trumped and muted ethno-religious identity conflicts. This approach just may work in the medium term, until a comprehensive plan for devolution of power to the north-east regions is worked out. This is especially so since often conflicts that have their roots in poverty or economic marginalization by the modern nation-state tend to be articulated in terms of ethno-religious identity conflicts. In other words, ethnic conflicts tend to have a resource base, and there is a need to de-ethnicize conflict analysis in order to identify and address the root causes of identity conflict. Ordinary people in the former conflict zones are tired of conflict and simply want to get back to their homes and rebuild their lives and livelihoods at this time. In the medium term the following conflict transformation challenges are apparent:

    1. Demilitarizing democracy and governance and actual implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution in the post-conflict northeast region. This requires restoration of development and reconstruction decision making, planning and policy making to civilian administrative structures in the north and east, and enabling de-centralization of decision making at the provincial and district levels.

    2. Divesture of the High security zones to enable internally displaced people (IDPs) to return and settle in their villages as well as the disarming of Tamil paramilitary groups in the north east now that the LTTE threat no longer exists is necessary.

    3. Dealing with the Tamil Diaspora since Diasporas often tend to be far more intransigent and unwilling to compromise than those who remain in the country and remain conscious of co-existence and of the fact that their histories are intertwined with the island’s other ethno-religious communities.

    4. Doing development right and balancing a political solution for the minorities with economic development for all will require demonstrating that a win-win solution is possible, and that the progress and development of the Tamil and Muslim minorities need not be a loss for the majority community.

    5. International aid donors will need to co-ordinate and target their assistance to maximize assistance to the people while maximizing accountability of the State. In this context the EU may wish to revisit its decision to revoke GSP Plus concessions that would hurt the business community and poor women in the garment sector, while IMF would need to get right its aid conditionality for loan disbursement, if at all, to the government.