Why Sirisena’s Victory is Not a Victory for Sri Lanka’s Tamils

13 January, 2015

The defeat of former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa in the recently concluded Sri Lankan presidential election was clearly unexpected. But it is unlikely to usher in the kind of changes desired by those who did the most to ensure his victory—the island's indigenous Tamil and Muslim communities that constitute 11.2 percent and 9.7 percent of the total population.

Rajapaksa went into the elections confident that his popularity among the Sinhalese Buddhists would still be intact in the wake of the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. He had himself called for early elections, fearing that two more years in office might have further eroded an already diminishing support base among the Sinhala Buddhist community.

However, Rajapaksa had not anticipated that two months before the snap election, his trusted aide, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) general secretary and former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, would walk out of the government to join the New Democratic Front (NDF) and emerge as the main opposition candidate. The subsequent defections by a number of ministers in the cabinet coupled with Sirisena’s endorsement by long-time opposition leader and former prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) and former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, did not help matters either.

Polling 6,217,162 votes against Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090, Sirisena was able to claim a decisive victory, with a margin of 449,072 votes. This was in large part due to the support of the Tamil and Muslim population in Sri Lanka. In the north and eastern provinces—where Tamils and Muslims constitute a majority—Sirisena received 654,511 votes more than Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa’s Sinhala vote base may have shrunk. But it is clear that he still won a greater part of the majority community’s votes, with a margin of 205,439 votes. The only reason the Sinhalese vote for Rajapaksa reduced from 65 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in this election, was because they were unhappy with the family empire he had crafted during his years in power.

The Tamils on the other hand, voted for Sirisena not because they liked his candidacy but because they wanted to oust Rajapaksa. Even the largest Tamil party in Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) openly called for a vote for Sirisena, a few days before the end of campaigning. As far as this electorate was concerned, their vote for Sirisena was the only way in which they could voice their anger against a regime that had inflicted enormous suffering on them, almost threatening their very existence.

But, why are the Tamils sceptical of Sirisena? Sirisena was an integral part of the Rajapaksa regime that unleashed a horrendous war, a war that was waged not just against the LTTE, but also against the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka. He was a part of the Rajapaksa regime that not so long ago used the military to take over vast amounts of private land belonging to the Tamils in the regions dominated by them.The regime initiated a rapid process of demographic change in the northeast in favour of the Sinhalese, andendorsed the maltreatment of ex-LTTE cadres.

Sirisena maintained a stoic silence on literally all of these issues during his election campaign. To placate the Sinhala vote base, he repeatedly said that he would not withdraw troops from the north, citing security reasons. Sirisena also signed an agreement with the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), promising not to tamper with the unitary character of the constitution, even though most Tamils are close to unanimous in their view that a solution cannot be found within a unitary state. A unitary state centralises power in the centre. In a majoritarian democracy like Sri Lanka, this implies exclusive control of state power by the dominant community—the Sinhalese. For more than 60 years now, Tamils in Sri Lanka have been demanding self-determination against such a system, either through autonomous arrangements or a separate state. Furthermore, Sirisena has promised not to cooperate with the enquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014 to probe the conduct of both the government and the LTTE in the last phase of the war. Sirisena’s aides went a step further and claimed that Rajapaksa would be safe from the International Criminal Court only if Sirisena was voted back into power.

According to the newly elected president and his allies, such questions of accountability stem from a mismanagement of foreign policy and can be rectified by professionalising the foreign services. During his campaign, he even claimed some credit for victory in the civil war when he spoke of his role as an acting defence minister during its final fortnight when the mass killing of civilians was at its peak. Sarath Fonseka, the general who led this last phase of the war, was part of his coalition and may now emerge as Sri Lanka’s new defence minister. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Sirisena’s campaign completely ignored the key Tamil demands of demilitarisation and normalisation, a political solution that grants genuine autonomy and accountability for the crimes that were committed against Tamils during the war.

But I would suggest that Tamil scepticism of the Sirisena presidency has roots deeper than this immediate past. A common perception among external observers is that the problem in Sri Lanka lies with ultra-nationalist parties like JHU, while the two main political parties—the UNP and SLFP—represent the moderate face of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. This is not even close to the truth. No such thing as a moderate version of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism exists. The core commitments of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism include retaining the unitary state and providing Buddhism a primary place in the political affairs of the country. These commitments have been the core of the agenda of both the UNP and SLFP since their inception.

These commitments are fundamentally against the Tamil position that seeks self-determination, autonomy and a secular Sri Lanka. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is deeply entrenched within the democratic politics of the majority community, and no Sinhalese leader will risk distancing himself or herself from the fulfillment of these two obligations. Thus, it can be said with a high degree of certainty that Sirisena would not dare to step away from these commitments either. In fact, he and his coalition are well aware of their difficulties with the Sinhala voters and are unlikely to do anything that could jeopardise their political future.

As for the “known devil” who failed to sway the electorate, Rajapaksa will want to capitalise on the fact that he has not lost a majority of the Sinhalese support and come back as a prime ministerial candidate in the parliamentary elections, which are expected to be held midway through 2015. This can only be prevented if Sirisena and his ally, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga succeed in taking over the SLFP. Meanwhile, as these Sinhalese politicians sit in Colombo plotting and planning their respective political futures, one thing is for certain. The lives of Tamils will continue in pain and suffering, largely unchanged by what is optimistically being claimed as a victory for democracy.

Kumaravadivel Guruparan is a spokesperson for the Tamil Civil Society Forum and a lecturer in law at the University of Jaffna. He is currently on study leave, pursuing a PhD in Law at University College London.