Last May, after more than a quarter century of civil war between government forces and Tamil separatists, a fragile peace came to Sri Lanka.
Now, observers hope that parliamentary elections scheduled for April 8 can help unify the island nation. But if the government pursues the same discriminatory tactics it used for the presidential election in January, it will further alienate the island’s Tamil community and diminish hopes for peace.
The presidential balloting was the first in more than a quarter century that was not in the midst of a war. But it was marred by the misuse of state resources to aid the ruling party’s candidate, unfair coverage by the state media, poor transportation to carry internally displaced Tamils to their voting places, problems with Tamil voting IDs, and violence, according to independent election monitors.
Within days of the election, numerous advisers to defeated opposition candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka were arrested, and police raided his campaign office. On Feb. 8, in a gross display of political retaliation, Fonseka himself was arrested and accused of planning a coup.
The official presidential election results, when broken down by district, illustrate the deep polarization between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities that fueled a 26-year civil war and left about 100,000 dead.
The island’s northern and eastern provinces (the areas that Tamils consider their homeland) and other areas with large Tamil-speaking populations overwhelmingly supported Fonseka. Tamils (who make up roughly 20 percent of the population) were so opposed to incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brand of Sinhalese nationalism that they embraced Fonseka by more than a 3-to-1 margin in most areas, even though he was the Army commander who crushed the Tamil insurgency and killed its leaders during the May 2009 military campaign.
At the same time, election monitors reported that voter turnout in some Tamil areas was less than 20 percent – underscoring the extreme lack of faith Tamils have in a political system that has oppressed and alienated them for generations. Low turnout also reflected official government efforts to disenfranchise Tamil voters by refusing them the right to return to their homes, denying them national identity cards, and locking many of them in virtual concentration camps.
The message in the election numbers is clear and alarming, showing how fragile the current situation could be if the disenfranchisement of the Tamils does not end, and if they are not given a seat at the table.
Mr.Rajapaksa’s new government needs to reach out to the Tamil community and repair the economic, personal, and physical wreckage from nearly three decades of fighting. The Tamil community must be reassured that they are safe on the island and can truly call it their home.
Even more important, the government of Sri Lanka must heed the nearly unanimous demand of the international community to address the underlying issues that gave birth to the conflict: equality for Tamils under the law, particularly with regard to basic freedoms and human rights. Paramount are the rights to free speech, freedom of movement and a free press, all of which are essential to guaranteeing the legitimacy of next week’s parliamentary elections and ensuring that Tamils are stakeholders in the island’s democracy.
Beyond the balloting, there is growing recognition that Rajapaksa is not taking the steps necessary for reconciliation between the island’s different ethnic and religious groups. The government must end politically motivated arrests and release the tens of thousands of Tamil citizens, including women and children, who are incarcerated in detention camps without charges.
The government and international partners must focus development aid on war-ravaged Tamil communities, which are in dire need of new schools, hospitals, and homes. Infrastructure projects, economic and jobs programs, demining, and demilitarization are vital.
It is imperative that the United States and other friends of Sri Lanka press the newly reelected government to stop its blatant abuse of power and end its attempts to engineer a ruling party victory in the upcoming elections. International groups must send monitors to oversee the voting and help ensure elections that are free of manipulation and intimidation.
Tamils are weary of war and will work with a government that will give them their due place on the island. The Rajapaksa government is missing a moment to help propel Sri Lanka into a brighter future.
Peace-loving people everywhere can help this process by demanding free and fair parliamentary elections on April 8, and by mobilizing support for dramatic steps for reconciliation that can truly bring justice and peace.
Karunyan Arulanantham, M.D., is a member of the Tamil American Peace Initiative, a group of Tamil Americans formed to help bring lasting peace, justice, democracy, and good governance to Sri Lanka, and to focus attention on the destruction of Tamil communities and culture caused by the war.