SRI LANKA'S Aug. 16 parliamentary elections may pave the road for a political solution to the civil war that has plagued that country for more than a decade.
The People's Alliance, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), won 105 seats in the 225-member Parliament against the 94 seats of the ruling United National Party (UNP). Since neither party won a clear majority, the balance of power is held by the minority Tamil and Muslim members who make up only 10 percent of the legislature. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), independent Tamil members, and the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress form a critical swing group.
Whichever party forms a government, it will have to listen carefully to the views of these traditionally marginalized political groups. Not surprisingly, the issue most important to them is minority rights for Sri Lanka's 4.7 million Tamils and Muslims. Significant progress on minority rights would increase the prospects for a peaceful end to the decade-old civil war with Northern Tamil separatists.
Caught between the tranquillity of an island paradise and an 11-year-old civil war, Sri Lanka is a land of contradictions. This was apparent in the recent election campaign, where the ruling party of 17 years was pitted against an alliance of socialist parties that saw the first realistic possibility of victory in a decade. The incumbent UNP tried to woo voters with social programs, agriculture subsidies, and a free-lunch program, while the People's Alliance tried to convince the business community that it had shed its socialist ideology in favor of free markets.
As often happens in an election year, neither side let the issues stand in its way. Ethnic strife has rocked the country for more than a decade, but no party platforms or campaign posters promised a resolution to the war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Likewise, unemployment and the rising cost of living remain serious problems, despite a growing economy. But neither party built its campaign around this issue.
Instead, the campaign centered around a few personalities and accusations of corruption and nepotism. Judging from the outcome, neither party's message deeply motivated the voters.
Ethnic Tamils make up the largest minority community in Sri Lanka, 17 percent of the population. The northern Jaffna peninsula and the land areas immediately surrounding it are populated almost exclusively by Tamils. Since independence in 1948, the conflict between the majority ethnic Sinhalese and the Tamil community has escalated.
Neither the UNP nor the SLFP has been particularly sympathetic to the Tamils' plight. In the 1950s, an SLFP government passed the Offical Language Act, which made Sinhala the only official language in the country, severely restricting employment and educational opportunities for Tamils.
In the late 1970s, a UNP government began redistributing traditional Tamil lands in the northeast to Sinhala farmers. SLFP and UNP governments have continued to discriminate against and marginalize the Tamils. Both parties have used this Sinhala chauvinism as an effective political tool in winning votes at various times in their histories.
Sri Lanka's longstanding ethnic conflict ultimately turned violent, and by 1984 civil war erupted between the LTTE, the most powerful of the various guerrilla groups, and the government. Since then, the north and east Tamil regions of the country, especially the Jaffna peninsula, have been in open revolt.
After defeating and absorbing several other Tamil insurgent groups, the LTTE has carried out military offensives against the government Army in addition to sustaining continuous terrorist attacks throughout the country. By 1987, the LTTE had assumed effective control of much of northern Sri Lanka, including Jaffna, where it announced that it had taken over governmental administration.
Fighting between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan armed forces reached its height in mid-1991 and has trailed off slightly since then, although the LTTE has been implicated in the political assassinations of President Ranasinghe Premadasa and opposition party leader Lalith Athulathmudali in 1993.
The results of the parliamentary elections have already provided a message to the political parties regarding the upcoming presidential election in November: The next president, whether UNP or SLFP, will be forced to acknowledge the agenda of the Tamil and Muslim members of Parliament. This political necessity, combined with progress in guaranteeing minority rights, could provide the catalyst for a resolution of the civil war.
The new president and the Parliament have a critical opportunity in the months ahead. Over the years, each party had, and lost, important opportunities to resolve the Tamil-Sinhala conflict. The single most important item on the agenda of Sri Lanka's political parties and leaders should be to resolve the lingering war with the LTTE. Eloquent accusations or shadowboxing around the definition of the free market may be more comfortable, but Sri Lanka's new political reality demands a resolution to the country's bitter ethnic problem.
The parties could do nothing better for their people or for their economy than to bring an end to the civil war. Let us hope that this election will elicit a pragmatic agenda for addressing the problem that the parties have, thus far, refused to acknowledge. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.