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The Space Between Politics and Reality: A Minority View of the Sri Lankan Elections

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On May 19, 2009 the Government of Sri Lanka announced that it had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ending one of the longest civil wars in South Asia. The legitimacy of this victory for President Mahinda Rajapaksa could only be measured in the ability of the ethnic Sinhalese majority to address the political grievances of the ethnic Tamil minority (300,000 of whom were isolated in internment camps). In late November, when then-Army Commander General Fonseka announced his bid for President, credit for the victory (and responsibility for its aftermath), was suddenly divided. It is within the slim cracks of this divide that a new political space has emerged, offering some hope for the articulation of minority interests at the national level.

While analysts place a significant amount of electoral power in the hands of a minority community (roughly 17%) recently rendered powerless by a brutal military campaign co-directed by both Presidential hopefuls -- most anticipate historically low voter turnout rates across conflict-affected districts in the North East of the island. A common, if condescending, view claims that after years of living under various forms of political oppression the Tamils cannot think for themselves. Others cite the paralysis of a collective memory: the traumatizing large-scale loss of lives and livelihoods in the final months of the conflict.

As agendas and priorities for the national election are debated and determined amongst superpowers, politicians, and donors -- how do we gauge the political will of the Tamil people? Residents in the Northern town of Jaffna, enjoying a curfew-free existence for the first time in fourteen years, are surprised to find imported versions of locally-produced basics (rice and daal) for sale in the markets. A Tamil woman living in a displaced camp washes dishes in a nearby home, earning the meager amount necessary for travel to visit her detained husband. A recently released Muslim family arrived home with their 5000 rupee (USD $50) stipend to find that their ancestral land had again been appropriated.

While Tamil politicians work to represent the concerns of this population in Parliament, an ear closer to the ground might hear Tamil voices demanding much simpler, more immediate, concessions. These voices remain unheard as alongside battered homes and hospitals, the war also saw the near complete destruction of a once-vibrant Tamil civil society. Rather than push for the revitalization of Tamil political activism through community based organizations, most find it easier to develop misguided top-down solutions that threaten longer term damage in their implementation from the outside-in.

Amidst the murky complexities of this national election, one thing is clear. Those in the North East who cast a vote on January 26th, are likely to do so based on the reality of living in the 'temporary' physical space of a refugee camp -- rather than the possibility of a 'permanent' political space for all disenfranchised minorities. While the latter remains an admirable, if optimistic, goal -- it can only be achieved through a vigorous political debate rooted in the underlying historical issues of land, dignity, and language. Rather than one driven by the geopolitics, ego, and rhetoric of the moment.

Pushing for a hard line Buddhist nationalist agenda, the ruling party (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) led Presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa has enjoyed a near deity-like status. As one Tamil scholar put it, in Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka one could "be Tamil, so long as you understood your place". While General Sarath Fonseka had for years served as the faithful military arm executing this policy, his bid for candidacy has spurred unexpected alliances (an opposition coalition including the more moderate United National Party and the Marxist People's Liberation Front, or JVP) and even more unexpected promises (general amnesty for those detained and the devolution of power to Tamil provinces).

Despite politicians' desperate efforts to narrow the gap between the elitist majoritarian politics of Colombo and concerns in the rural areas of the majority Tamil North Eastern provinces (most have recently taken the 8-10 hour road-trip multiple times) -- there remains a general disinterest amongst minority communities. Election monitors note that even amongst those interested, citizens displaced prior to 2008 have been unable to register. Despite a justifiable mistrust in domestic political actors, those that do vote may not be aware of the extent to which their decision will also determine the role that international actors will play in shaping their future.

Though Sri Lanka has been heavily dependent on foreign aid in various forms since its independence, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami increased both the size and influence of both donors and implementing organizations -- permanently shifting the political landscape of the island. Some local groups decry the neo-colonial nature of intervention by INGOs and donor countries, while others feel this excuse conveniently allows for violations of humanitarian and human rights norms to occur without repercussions. In recent weeks, the pre-election vote grab has opened avenues of access and information that reveal elements of both to be true.

While domestic political enemies strategically chose to ally under the umbrella agenda of regime change- linkages between outside actors, as framed by contentious campaign politics, may find some surprised at their supposed bedfellows. Those opposed to the ruling party are pro-U.S./pro-India/pro-INGO/pro-Tamil. While not as explicitly stated as such -- those who support the ruling party are the logical opposite to each (with pro-China challenging the pro-India position).

In reality, each remains protective of their own interests. The United States, wary of China and India's increasing influence, has provided humanitarian support, (gently) pushed for an independent inquiry into war crimes, and explored post-conflict investment opportunities for U.S. companies. India responded rhetorically to the concerns of its domestic Tamil constituency, but in the end backed the policies of the current administration. Neither the Tamil community nor the ruling party trust India's intentions as Indian companies partner with local companies across the North East. China (perhaps the only major donor to act with no humanitarian pretense) is heavily invested in state development projects across the island. The United Nations and large INGOs hope that regime change, or the space for discourse in the electoral process, will push the Government of Sri Lanka to adhere to basic humanitarian and human rights norms in the rebuilding process --a condition that they have thus far been hesitant to attach to donor funds. Regardless of the election results, The International Crisis Group urges international actors to "strengthen voices for reform by collectively pressing for democratization and demilitarization throughout Sri Lanka". (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6462&l=1&m=1

The lasting impact of election politics and promises can only be fully understood after the completion of this election cycle (late spring). The best-case scenario would see a larger and more permanent political space that welcomes cross-ethnic progressive agendas, the inclusion of women as at every level, and a civil society free from the bonds of self-censorship. While the prospect is appealing, the disillusioned voter in the North East is more likely to expect that the historic patterns of Sri Lanka's top-heavy Presidential system will persist - and when the polls close, the barbed wire around this nascent political space will be resurrected...once again excluding the voices of the minority.