By Dr Kumar David
The local government elections of 23 July in so far as the North and East of Lanka are concerned bear far greater significance than the functions of the councils and sabhas warrant. The outcome is a barometer of the crucial relationship between the Ceylon Tamils and the Rajapakse state. (I use the term Ceylon Tamil to indicate the exclusion of the upcountry Tamil community of more recent Indian origin). During the run up the government, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the International Community, Delhi and Tamil Nadu well appreciated what was at stake. At stake was a simple question: Did the Tamils, post-war, accept that the way forward in the next phase was under the leadership of the Rajapakse government, or were they going to rebuff Rajapakse and repose their trust in an indigenous, nationalist Tamil movement?
The question has been answered with resounding clarity. The Ceylon Tamils, for better for worse, have rejected Rajapakse and sent a message of no confidence in his regime. Let me explain the scale of the defeat of the government in the Tamil areas and the significance of its victories in the Sinhalese areas before touching on some deeper issues.
The election results
There were a total of 23 Pradesiya Sabhas and Urban Councils in Tamil majority areas up for grabs (Jaffna District 16, Killinochchi 3, Amparai 2, Mullaitivu 1 and in Trinco just 1 Tamil majority urban council). The TNA or an alliance linked to the TNA won every single one except three small island sabhas that were locked down and rigged by a politico-military operation. The three were secured in the name of the Rajapakse led United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) by the alliance’s Tamil arm, the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party of Minister Douglas Devananda. The Kayts victory was genuine, it’s Devananda’s stronghold, the other two (Delft and Vaharai) were fakes because the military locked out access and rigging was routine. Typical of the emotions of the Tamil man would be Nallur, in the heart of the Jaffna peninsula, where the vote divided 81% to the TNA and 17% to the Rajapakse-Devananda UPFA. In the Jaffna district as a whole the TNA took a staggering 70% of the vote. This, for better for worse, is the fact of the matter; Tamils en masse rejected Rajapakse and reposed their confidence in a nationalist alliance.
It must be appreciated that the government was well aware of the political sensitivity of the outcome; it threw everything it had into the election. Mahinda Rajapakse joined the campaign, his brother and economic development minister Basil led teams of campaigning government ministers and politicos, the army was used to break up meetings and intimidate voters. The worst was in the Kilinochchi District were gangs, probably supplied by the army, were on the rampage on polling day, threatening voters and confiscating Polling Cards for use by impersonators. Still, the UPFA lost all three sabahas in the district. One can generalise that but for intimidation and rigging, Rajapakse would have lost by worse than a 80:20 margin in Ceylon Tamil areas.
The other side of the story is equally dramatic. Every council or sabha in the rest of the country (Sinhalese majority) was won by the UPFA with a 60 to 65% share and in some cases above 70%. The main Sinhalese opposition party, the UNP was held down to its core constituency of 30% – that is, it failed to secure any of the Sinhalese floating vote. The left leaning JVP was stuck at about 4%, well down from its heyday when it polled in excess of 12%. The Sinhalese people are not fools; they know very well the ubiquitous and unprecedented corruption of this regime and its rampant abuse of power. Nevertheless they decided, for certain reasons, to strengthen Rajapakse. On TV, in the press, on YouTube and in genteel society at large, even Colombo’s English speaking Sinhalese middle class has thrown its weight behind Rajapakse, rejecting war crimes charges without question, unconcerned about evidence.
The mind-gated communities
What lies at the root of the two communities locking their mental gates and turning their backs on each other? How does one comprehend a Westernised and Anglicised middle class, once upon a time spilling liberal verbiage, now unable to rise above knee-jerk emotions of ethnicity and race? Part of the explanation is the psychology (discretion prompts me to refrain from saying pathology) of identity consciousness, the other part the war crimes paranoia.
Bonds of identity persist in human communities with enduring tenacity. People cling to their kind (religion, race, tribe, colour) with a persistence that seems genetically ordained. It is not genetic or biological but the glue of the identity bonds is potent. If methodologically, there is one thing for which Marx can be faulted, it is that he so thoroughly explored class as a historically determinant category, but did not pay sufficient attention to ethnicity and identity. In his early work he did explore religion, but mostly as ideology and false consciousness.
Identity issues have overshadowed class in the post WW2 world; nevertheless identity bonds are rooted in material factors and only reflected in the mind. At the dawn of human history the group, the tribe or the clan could not have survived if it did not protect its land, its hunting grounds, its riverbank, in a word its boundaries, from intruding groups. This welded identity. The imperative to preserve the border separating us from them was born of material necessity. For thousands of years identity has survived in myth, faith, ideology, patriotism and communalism because of the material rationality of its origin. It persists in consciousness today irrespective of whether it is any longer rational or not, reactionary or progressive.
Culture (a word for a shared identity that has persisted for some time), identity and sentiments of racial pride or insecurity, are the survival in consciousness of material needs. The vehicles of the consciousness (am I a Seik or a Hindu, am I a Turk or a Tunisian) change but the need for some community identity persists.
Yet it is not biologically or genetically determined. Religion smears across genetic boundaries and Sunni and Shia Arabs slaughter each other with a gay abandon that would make a Boer and a Zulu, hell-bent on butchering each other, proud. Secondly, ethnicity as understood in racial parlance, has no genetic basis. The admixture of forerunner genes in the composition of today’s Sinhala and Tamil genotypes is so large that it absurd to speak of two races. These are two languages and cultures, two identity groups. Thirdly, identity groups change with time; the people loosely called Americans today are a potpourri. The proposition that identity as genetic roots, can therefore, be safely laid to rest.
Why deepening mistrust in Lanka at this time?
It would be natural for sentiments to freeze and aversions to harden as a consequence of the events of the final months of the war, however there is a nuance that runs deeper and this is what I wish to explore in the remainder of this paper.
In the two years after the war ended aversion between the communities has deteriorated, not improved. This bodes frightening prospects. The Tamils and the International Community are convinced that the Darusman Report is factual and the Channel 4 videos are not fakes. As people then trapped in the Vannie return, mingle and carrying their tales, Tamil attitudes harden. Then when the President makes preposterous claims (“our brave soldiers advanced, Human Rights Charter on their lips and rifle slung gently over shoulder”, or, “not one civilian” was killed), prospects of trust and respect breaks down irreparably. The aggravation of mistrust between the communities has at its root the Gobblesian proportions of these lies. I am negative about Indian and international brokers who hope that were Rajapakse to reach a political solution the problem will go away. They are well intentioned, but they overlook this importance of this psychological dimension; I am less sanguine.
The second reason for hardening on the Tamil side are the military and political conditions in the north and the east. The overwhelming anti-government Tamil vote was, in fact, an endorsement of TNA leader Rajavarotheyam Sampanthan’s statement in Parliament on July 7 and the eight page document that TNA-MP Sumanthiran tabled in the House a few days later. The Tamils said: “Yes that’s right, that’s what’s being done to us and that’s how we feel”.
Readers with an interest in Lanka should familiarise themselves of these statements since they mark something of a watershed. Sampanthan used a tongue in cheek rhetorical device, quoting from Rajapakse to prove that Rajapakse is doing nothing of what he had promised re a political settlement. I say rhetorical because my belief is that he has no faith in the President. The second part of Sampanthan’s statement was more interesting; he declared he would step out and lead civil disobedience if the oppression of his people does not cease. I think foxy old Sampanthan was able to correctly read the signs and saw victory impending at the local government elections. Repression is the subject of Sumanthiran’s piece and deals with militarisation, land-grabs, military assisted settlements, denial of livelihood opportunities, military occupation of churches, beatings and break-up of lawful meetings.
In summary then, first there is a deepening psychological divide, the Tamils, especially the diaspora, will not allow the war crimes issue to go away and they are gaining international traction. The Sinhalese are determined to deny all wrongdoing. Second, I am a pessimist on whether Rajapakse will agree to a reasonable degree of devolution to the Tamil areas. This makes the medium term future for Sri Lanka bleak.
Now don’t shoot the messenger, I am only reading what the tealeaves tell.
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.