By Shabbir Cheema
(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on Jan. 31, 2010)
Post-election tensions are high in Sri Lanka, after the country’s election commission declared incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa the winner of last week’s contest with more than 57 percent of the vote.
Rajapaksa’s main opponent, General Sarath Fonseka, has challenged the validity of the election results, alleging vote rigging, intimidation and censorship. Soldiers blockaded Fonseka in a hotel, and the general says he fears the government is plotting to assassinate him.
Meanwhile, the government alleges that Fonseka was not registered as a voter and wants to challenge the validity of his candidacy even after he has been declared the loser. The government has also dismissed a number of senior military officers, at least some of whom are reported to have supported Fonseka in the election, as a “threat to national security.”
However this drama plays out, the election has exposed deep political divisions that are compounding Sri Lanka’s difficulty in recovering from 25 years of brutal civil war – with more than 80,000 people killed, widespread civilian suffering and deterioration of the Sri Lankan economy and environment.
Last May, President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka were credited with victory after the country’s military was finally able to defeat Tamil Tiger rebel forces. With their sky-high popularity, both decided to contest early presidential elections held last Tuesday, two years before the end of Rajapaksa’s present term. Formerly close associates, they ran a vicious race.
Rajapaksa argued for a strong presidency, national integration and continuity of present policies. The opposition led by Fonseka emphasized the need for good governance, including the eradication of corruption, abolition of the “executive presidency,” rule of law and economic opportunities for the poor.
Looming over the election and its aftermath is the bitter ethnic tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority (82 percent) and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority (9.4 percent) that was the root cause of the civil war. Exacerbating the situation even further, General Fonseka appears to have received more votes than President Rajapaksa in the Tamil dominated areas, which has the potential to make their governance more difficult.
In the 1970s, the Sinhalese majority undertook a variety of actions to assert its political power after perceived favoritism towards the Tamils during the era of British colonial rule, which ended with the country’s independence in 1948.
The government declared Sinhala as the country’s official language and Buddhism as its primary faith. Tamil migrant plantation workers from India were disenfranchised. Discriminatory university admissions policies were introduced in favor of Sinhalese.
Such policies led to extreme levels of resentment and alienation on the part of the Tamil minority. After the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam took up arms, igniting full-scale civil war, more than 200,000 Tamils fled to India. Many more became internal refugees.
Watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have described widespread human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. With the support of China and other friendly nations, however, Sri Lanka has been able to avoid a UN investigation into civilian casualties.
The irony is that during the early years after its independence, Sri Lanka had tremendous potential for political, social and economic development. It had the highest level of literacy and human resources in South Asia, a functioning democracy, and higher levels of access of the population to health and other basic services. Today, the country is a far cry from that potential.
Amid the charges and countercharges following the election, Sri Lanka stands at a cross-road. To have any chance at a meaningful recovery, whoever controls the government must place priority on rebuilding national consensus and creating an environment of political tolerance and negotiation among various parties.
No true progress is possible until the government is able to find middle ground between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil political leaders’ demands for a Tamil-speaking state and greater autonomy for the provinces where the Tamils are in majority.
To accomplish this, the authorities will need to integrate displaced Tamils into the fabric of society, eliminate discriminatory policies that impede access to economic opportunity for the Tamils, and launch poverty eradication programs to improve the living conditions of the poor in both Sinhalese and Tamil regions.
In the meantime, let us all hope that the conflict over the election will not lead to further bloodshed for a country that has suffered so greatly.
Shabbir Cheema is a senior research fellow at the East-West Center and director of the Center’s Asia-Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected] .