Election results in Sri Lanka: justice for Tamils remains elusive

IndiaResists.com interviewed senior Indian journalist Satya Sivaraman, on the implications of the recent election results in Sri Lanka. Satya is a journalist, a public health activist, and also the  Chairperson of the Senate of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, an elected political body of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora worldwide.

Does the defeat signal the fissuring of the majoritarian vote bank that Rajapakshe’s politics had manufactured and relied upon?

And a related question, the majoritarian Buddhist ideology, esp. in the radical monk group started to target the Muslims once the Tamils were decimated. Do we see a democratic alliance between Tamils and Muslims now and in the future?

Satya Sivaraman
Satya Sivaraman

The defeat of Mahinda Rajapakshe is not a defeat of the Sinhala majoritarian approach of successive government in Sri Lanka since its independence from British rule. It is rather the result of a break within the majority Sinhalese over which chauvinist ruler would deliver better results for them in the long run. Back in 2009 when Rajapakshe crushed the LTTE using ruthless and even barbaric tactics such as shelling civilian populations and bombing hospitals or carrying out summary executions he was hailed as a ‘saviour’ of the Sinhala people. The current winner of the Presidential elections Maithripala Sirisena was very much part of the the Rajapakshe regime at that time and has never condemned the war crimes carried out then. He has also categorically stated that he will never handover Mahinda Rajapakshe to any international war crimes tribunal to face trial for the war crimes of 2009. In fact it is precisely the fact that the regime of Rajapakshe and his brothers has become an international liability that sections of the Sinhala public have voted for Sirisena, who will have better relations with the international community at least for some time in the foreseeable future.

It is true that the Tamil and Muslim populations have voted en masse for Sirisena but that is simply because he is the lesser of the two evils and they hope to have some more democratic breathing space under him as compared to Rajapakshe who was simply the most naked face of majoritarian fascism in the modern history of Sri Lanka. Whether the Tamils and Muslims will go on to have a stable alliance in the future is something yet to be seen as historically the tendency of the Muslim leadership has been to stay out of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict and look for concessions from the Sinhala majority. It is only now that they have come under serious attack by extremist Buddhist monks that they are beginning to seek other alliances with the various minorities of Sri Lanka.

What are the lessons for the South Asian region from this election?

The fact that Rajapakhshe has been defeated in a peacefully conducted democratic election is a very good thing for Sri Lanka and for South Asia in general. Peaceful transitions of power are always preferable to those that involve bloodshed. However, the election does not solve the problem of ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka whose rights have been repeatedly violated as part of the majoritarian vote-bank politics practiced by Sinhala politicians. Sri Lanka will need a new constituent assembly to draw up a new Constitution that will at the very least set up a federal structure for the country giving greater autonomy to the ethnic minorities. Since any devolution of power is going to be unacceptable to Sinhala political parties, as we know from past experience, the only solution is to allow a referendum among the people of North and East of Sri Lanka on the question of formation of an independent Tamil Eelam. This is the only way long-term peace can be ensured otherwise despite the defeat of Mahinda Rajapakshe there is going to be  a return to conflict over distribution of power to ethnic minorities. The lesson for South Asia really is that the nation-state boundaries and administrative systems inherited from British colonialism need to be seriously reworked to ensure the dignity and rights of all ethnic minorities living within these boundaries.  Elections under the current structure, by themselves, do not signify any major change in the situation as far as the ethnic minorities are concerned.

What are the first steps that a new government must undertake to initiate a process of national reconciliation?

The Sirsisena government must firstly withdraw the Sri Lankan army from the North and East where Tamil populations live. Secondly, it must return all the land of Tamil families that was grabbed by the state after the end of the civil war in 2009. The government must release thousands of Tamil youth who are still in prison on trumped up charges of ‘terrorism’. It must immediately stop and even reverse the process of ‘Sinhalisation’ of the Tamil homeland through razing of Hindu temples and replacing them with Buddhist monasteries, relocating Sinhala populations in Tamil areas and erasing the history of the Tamils from their own land. No large-scale development projects must be undertaken in the Tamil areas without the consent of the local populations.

Is there any possibility of a war crimes tribunal now? What will be the response of the Srilankan Tamil diaspora, in terms of the campaign for justice?

The war crimes tribunal, if it happens, will be conducted by the international community after the report of the UN investigation into war crimes is presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March this year. The Sirisena government must cooperate fully with the international investigation and also the tribunal If necessary it must handover Mahinda Rajapakshe and whoever else in the highest echelons of power in Sri Lanka was responsible for these war crimes.

However, all this is certainly not going to happen given the fact the new President is committed to protecting Mahinda Rajapakshe and others involved in the war crimes. For all his newly minted democratic credentials Maithripala Sirisena and people like the former army chief Sarath Fonseka are themselves likely to be indicted in any impartial war crimes investigation.

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora will continue to demand full justice for the victims of the 2009 massacre in Mullaivaikal committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. It will also demand a long-term solution to the problem of sytematic discrimination against the Tamil and Muslim populations of Sri Lanka, thorugh a referendum to decide whether or not the North and East should remain within the Sri Lankan nation state or form an independent nation.