The people of Sri Lanka are facing some crucial choices

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) in a press release has stated that “The people of Sri Lanka are facing some crucial choices. The outcome of the Parliamentary Elections set for August 5, 2020, has the potential to determine the country’s course for decades. Democratic fundamentals and pluralist character of the state are at stake without exaggeration.”

The GTF urged citizens of Sri Lanka, including those from Tamil and Muslim communities, to view the Parliamentary General Elections 2020 with a long-term perspective and exercise their franchise prudently and responsibly. Otherwise, the price of apathy could be too high.

All Sri Lankan citizens: an opportunity to influence governance processes

The authoritarian trajectory of the Rajapaksa Presidency is unambiguous – Presidential rule through decrees and task forces, key civilian functions entrusted to serving and retired military officers (some of whom credibly implicated in serious human rights violations), an atmosphere of intimidation and fear leading to media self-censorship and silencing of civil society activists, and insecurity among the minority communities.

It is in this atmosphere that Rajapaksas are seeking 2/3rd majority to change the constitution, in particular, to abolish the 19th Amendment. It is not difficult to contemplate where this will lead to – executive power without checks and balances, marginalization of Parliament and Judiciary, and key institutions made irrelevant.

In such a quasi-democracy, rule of law and human rights will become expendable, and impunity will reign. The argument that a strong leader with unconstrained power is a must for development and prosperity is phony and self-serving.

The last two attempts at constitution-making (1972 and 1978), where the political parties that drove the process had 2/3rd majority, were disastrous, and their effects are still crippling the country. Democratic fundamentals and the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious character of the state were severely compromised to satisfy the power greed of the rulers.

There is no indication that politics or statesmanship will be any different this time. In fact, if history is a guide, the outcome could be worse than what was achieved during the last two attempts. It is crucial, therefore, that all citizens should unite in denying the present rulers unfettered freedom for constitution-making, rather ensure that only a widely consulted and compromised charter will be possible.

While a functioning democracy with checks and balances are important for all citizens, it is so paramount for the minority communities. When the fangs of the majoritarian state unfairly target minority communities, even the theoretical possibility of legal recourse can be significant. So, it is vital that Tamil, Muslim and Christian communities study their electoral options and act wisely.

Tamil community: need for honest reappraisal

Eleven years after the end of war, re-evaluating political circumstances and electoral possibilities is a must for the Tamil community. Gaining a respectable and secure status in the country is still a dream and there are many disappointments to contend with – no tangible outcomes on constitutional and accountability fronts, lack of momentum in returning to normalcy for the war-affected, and lingering concerns about protecting the identity of the Tamil majority North-East.

However, it is also undeniable that during the last five years there was notable relief for the Tamil people due to de-escalation of the military stranglehold in the North-East and people enjoyed some normalcy and freedom which included the right to memorialize the war-dead. How much of these could be lost due to the electoral outcomes is one important question to consider.

The Tamil political leadership during the last decade has earned some positive marks on the national politics of the country – its role in the 2018 constitutional crisis being one notable example. A far-sighted political approach has somewhat weakened the apprehensions and animosities existed between the Tamil and other communities. Further, the Tamil nationalistic politics in Sri Lanka is viewed in the major capitals of the world as a far more progressive one than what it used to be. These fundamental building blocks are crucial for future political settlements and need to be further strengthened, not weakened, as Tamil struggle moves on.

Tamils in Sri Lanka is a significantly weakened community today – the population is relatively small with reduced electoral strength, and its educational and economic performance are among the worst in the country.

Meeting political aspirations, though overwhelmingly the dominant issue for Tamils, is one of many objectives for the rest of the country. While the Tamil community should never take its eyes off from achieving political outcomes, it is no longer tenable that it be approached in a sequential manner, i.e. – ‘political resolution first, economic development later’. It is crucial that the Tamil political leadership become more cognizant of this reality and take necessary initiatives in this direction.

The Sri Lankan political leadership’s intransigence in accommodating the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community, made the Tamils look to the international community and India, with hope and expectation. While this is an integral part of the Tamil political struggle and need to be strengthened and leveraged to the maximum, this cannot substitute an effective political and civil society engagement with all communities in the country. This, too, needs to be a factor when Tamils consider their political choices.

Tamil votes: crucial choices

The Tamil community face monumental challenges today. The Rajapaksas-led political ‘movement’ does not have many parallels in Sri Lanka’s history. It relies entirely on Sinhala-Buddhist vote and highly insensitive to the concerns and aspirations of the minority communities. No commitment to accountability and reconciliation (withdrew from co-sponsorship of UNHRC resolution), increased militarisation of civil functions (military officers for every village in the North-East), and the appointment of all-Sinhala task force to ‘preserve the historical heritage of Sri Lanka’ in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province are a few examples. More ominous is the possibility of losing some of the fundamental reforms such as power devolution under 13th Amendment and the parity status for Tamil language. A major economic contraction Sri Lanka is expected to undergo could lead to intensifying authoritarianism and militarisation, and in all likelihood the minority communities will be used as scapegoats for the wrong doings of the powerful.

The period ahead will test the capability of the Tamil political leadership. Forming effective partnerships with the elected representatives from all minority communities and with those from the majority community with progressive views could be critical, so is fostering effective engagement strategies with the international community and India. If Rajapaksas are denied the 2/3rd majority, such coalitions would be particularly powerful in preventing the constitution from being amended on their own right. Perhaps the better strategy for the Tamil community could be protecting its hard-won gains while exploring opportunities for furthering its community interests.

So, what should the Tamil community do at this election? First and foremost, ensure that people appreciate the significance of this election and the power of their vote – every vote matter. Second, no vote should be wasted on the multitude of independent groups and those representing country-wide parties, as these could only dilute the strength of the Tamil representation for future political engagements. Overly unrealistic agenda and an inward-looking insular political strategy is not the most suited in the present circumstances. The question for the Tamil voters is, among the parties that represent Tamil national interest, which party and candidates are the best suited to navigate Tamil politics through the turbulent times ahead.

Appeal to vote

Despite the fundamental weaknesses in Sri Lanka’s democracy, the country is often viewed favorably by the international community because it unfailingly conducts elections which are viewed largely as free and fair. In such circumstances, voting is fundamental and in fact the most powerful tool available to effect political, social and economic transformations in the country. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) appeals to every citizen of Sri Lanka, and the Tamil people in particular, to cast their precious votes and cast it wisely, keeping the long-term interest of the country and their political, economic and democratic rights in mind.

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