Presidential Elections, the Sinhala mindset and the future of Sri Lanka

"Rajapaksa and his ardent supporters need to understand the fact that the LTTE is the product of Sinhala polity’s spiteful outbidding policies against the Tamil nation."

By Prof. A. R. M. Imtiyaz

(January 24, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) The voters in the island of Sri Lanka will meet the sixth presidential elections on January 26. Though the island of Sri Lanka is a home to two nations and some minorities, its elections are often carefully directed to absorb the attention of the Sinhalese. This is mainly due to competitive nature of Sri Lanka’s electoral system and the size of the Sinhalese population.

One key feature of Sinhala political establishment’s election campaign is anti-minority, particularly the anti-Tamil policies in strict political science language, ethnic outbidding policies. These ethnic outbidding polices radically helped politicise Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations and eventually led the Tamils to lose the trust in the system.

Mahavamsa: the Sinhala ideology

Elections in deeply divided societies can generate tensions and conflict. This is particularly true when politicians on their part resort to emotional politics. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala political establishment to exploit the support of the poor Sinhala masses tactfully speaks to the Sinhala mind set, which is largely a result of the Mahavamsa.

According to Mahavamsa, Sinhalese people are the preservers of Buddhism and the entire island is the sacred home of the Sinhalese and of Buddhism and explicitly preaches violent messages against the Tamil nation.

Therefore, in this election, the key three questions, as far as the minorities are concerned, need to be answered. They are (1) is Sinhala polity ready to accommodate the aspirations of the minorities and the Tamil nation (2) how much does Sinhala mentality play into the agendas of the major candidates? and (3) will the winner take meaningful measures to reform the Sinhala state by providing genuine power-sharing and autonomy to win ethnic reconciliation among the masses of the Tamil and Sinhala nation as well as the Muslim community to win real peace?

The major candidates: two Sinhala actors

There are 22 candidates in the field. However, the major competitors of the elections are incumbent Rajapaksa who came to power on November 17, 2005 on an anti-peace and anti-Tamil agenda and Fonseka who was carefully recruited to the Sri Lanka’s Army by the ruling Sinhala political establishment led by Rajapaksa to defeat the violent form of the Tamil resistance movement, led by the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Moreover, Rajapaksa represents the UPFA, the combine political vehicle of Sinhala extremists and the traditional Marxist parties as well as some minority parties while Fonseka portrays himself as a common candidate and contests the elections, using the swan symbol. The major opposition parties, including the UNP and the JVP endorse the candidacy of Fonseka. Also, Fonseka won the endorsements of the major parties, representing the minorities such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka were able to win the support of the minority political establishment. But the election polices and promises of these candidates do not recognise the special problems of the Muslims, existence of the ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, or for that matter the Tamil national question. In fact, it is unreasonable to expect such progressive attitudes and polices from these major candidates since they are the different representatives of the Sinhala mind set and hegemony, which aim to consolidate the identities of primordial rights of the Sinhalese.

Rajapaksa: the brutal face of Sinhala hegemony

For Rajapaksa, the major problem of the island is the LTTE, which successfully challenged state terrorism since 1983. The LTTE is militarily defeated, and Rajapaksa has been capitalising on the war victory to secure a second term to further fill his family and friends’ pockets in the name of narrow Sinhala patriotism and nation building.

Rajapaksa and his ardent supporters need to understand the fact that the LTTE is the product of Sinhala polity’s spiteful outbidding policies against the Tamil nation.

In 2005, Rajapaksa, employed the anti-peace and anti-Tamil policies to win elections. This time around, Rajapaksa has been aggressively pursuing war victory against the LTTE to maximise the Sinhala votes. During his tenure, Rajapaksa did not do any serious political actions to seek political solutions and thus it is safe to assume that he will not commit to any solutions (beyond the failed 13th Amendment) to win peace. In fact, his actions are logically compatible with the interests of the 5th century Sinhala mindset.

Coming conflict with the Muslims

The Muslims of the east suspect the government plans to “Sinhalise” the east – through development projects that will bring in new Sinhala settlers, environmental regulations that will remove public lands from use by Muslims.

In Ampara District, there are serious tensions between local Muslims and Sinhalese, with the government ally and Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) accused of working against Muslims interests. (International Crisis Group, 2008) JHU inspired Sinhala settlements are being progressed in Kurangkuppaangnchaan in the Kinniya DS division in Trincomalee District.

Mr. Fonseka: neo-Dutugemunu

On the other hand, Fonseka, the atrocious Sinhala warrior is seeking to deny the second term for his former boss — Rajapaksa. Fonseka wants the people of Sri Lanka to believe him as an agent for change. Also, he is assertively trying to represent himself as a human face of Sinhala compassionism.

It was reported in the media that Fonseka strongly believes that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese. According to an interview in Canada’s National Post newspaper in 2008, Fonseka said that “ We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country…We are also a strong nation … They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things…In any democratic country the majority should rule the country. This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74% of the population.”

Believable change or believable deception

Fonseka’s above statement represents his desire to transform the island of Sri Lanka only for the Sinhalese. His election manifesto, what he describes as believable change for Sri Lanka, does not recognise the existence of the Tamil problem nor does it come close to seeking ethnic reconciliation and peace by reforming Sri Lanka’s unitary state structure and its Sinhalanised political institutions.

Political reforms and changes are serous business in any human society. Such reforms and changes inexorably require genuine human actions to lead the process. Average politicians cannot emerge as an agent for any serious believable changes, because the major purpose of politicians is to win elections at any price. Therefore by and large, politicians need to understand the mood of voters and formulate policies and promises to win votes.

Hence, it is extremely unlikely that Fonseka will seek genuine measures to transform the island of Sri Lanka to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the minorities and the Tamil nation. Hence, it is politically naive to depict him as an agent for regime change in Sri Lanka.

Real Change: beyond the Mahavamsa mentality

The military campaigns, led by Fonseka what Tamils considered as an accelerated agenda of genocide led to dehumanise the Tamil life, and thus the war uprooted people from a normal life of peace and reduced them to wartime refugees.

The bottom line is that Sri Lanka needs progressive political actors to challenge the Mahavamsa mentality and to embrace human modernisation. These changes should recognise the aspirations of the minorities and the Tamil nation. It is very unlikely the major candidates who are fighting over the split Tamil blood will be committed to such a historical task.

When democracies fail…

Democracy is a beautiful political practice, but it also can produce protracted political instability when politicians manipulate the system to gain power. The major candidates in Sri Lanka’s presidential election provide no real programmes to liberate the island of Sri Lanka from the prison of the Sinhala mentality. Therefore, it is very likely that the island of Sri Lanka would confront the serious polarisation regardless of who wins the power. Moreover, Sri Lankans during election period are often confused with the theory of the lesser evil. What Sri Lanka’s experience proves is that the lesser evils become nasty leaders when they win power. The one result of such politics of deception is the brutal ethnic civil war.

(The author teaches Ethnic Politics and Foreign Governments and Politics at the Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.)