Is Sri Lanka “careering back to where it was” after election?

Written by: Nita Bhalla

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Sri Lanka’s bloody 25-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May – but commentators reflecting on the country’s first post-war elections last weekend expressed little optimism about a peaceful future for the Indian Ocean island. The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance swept to victory in Sinhalese-dominated Uva province and scraped a win in Jaffna, while the Tamil National Alliance — political allies of the defeated rebels — won control of Vavuniya. Both Jaffna and Vavuniya are just outside the shadow state which the Tigers controlled for decades. “The victory in Jaffna, the heartland of the country’s ethnic minority Tamils and birthplace of militancy, will give the government a chance to claim it as an endorsement of its handling of ethnic relations, postwar rehabilitation and a rejection of separatism,” Krishan Francis of the Associated Press wrote in the Washington Post. But the results do not fully reflect public opinion in these war-battered regions, with more than 77 percent of the Jaffna voters staying away and only half of the Vavuniya voters casting ballots. The London-based Financial Times pointed out that it was hard to know what really happened in the elections – foreign journalists were banned from the north, just as all journalists were during the final stages of the war. “But the real purpose of the poll seems to have been to test the popularity of President Mahinda Rajapaksa before he calls an early general election to secure a second six-year term, in the afterglow of military victory,” the Financial Times wrote in an editorial. The newspaper added that the notion of devolution to deal with Tamil grievances had been taken off the table and the government no longer wishes to discuss minority rights, only individual rights within the new national identity it intends to forge. US and British officials fear this may involve the forced dispersal of Tamils across the island so they can no longer cluster, said the broadsheet. “Put simply, while the conflict has ended, Sri Lanka is careering back to where it was when the conflict began. Its precarious identity as a mix of ethnic and linguistic, cultural and religious influences is in danger of being swept away by a triumphalist wave of Sinhalese chauvinism,” the FT said. According to the Christian Science Monitor some analysts believe the elections were held too soon after the end of the war for people to vote and for democracy to be truly tested. “Certainly, normalcy in the battle-scarred north is a long way off: Nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians are being forcibly held by the government in camps near Jaffna and Vavuniya,” wrote Mian Ridge. “Both towns are still surrounded by government checkpoints, and are largely inaccessible to non-residents. Even residents can’t leave without permission.” Ridge added that foreign – and many Sri Lankan – journalists were not allowed to cover the elections and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said that the decision to bar the media “dashes any hope of a transparent election.” Sudha Ramachandran from the Asia Times said the Jaffna and Vavuniya elections were seen as an important indicator of the mood among the Tamil people in the north. “Some have interpreted the ruling party’s strong showing in Jaffna as a sign that the Tamils are endorsing Rajapakse’s approach to the conflict in Sri Lanka,” said Ramachandran. But she pointed out that this interpretation amounts to little given the poor voter turnout, especially in Jaffna. Charles Haviland from the BBC added that poor turnout was not just down to apathy amongst Tamils, but because much of the area is depopulated with about 300,000 Tamils detained in nearby government camps after the war, and others either dead or displaced to other parts of the island.

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