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Key issues in Lanka presidential poll

The election has brought to fore issues of ethnic and religious survival, writes PK Balachandran in Colombo Diary.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2005 03:41 IST

In the Sri Lankan presidential election of November 17, political mobilisation is being shaped by a variety of factors and a wide range of issues. These relate to questions of the identity, security, survival and economic development of ethnic and religious groups; Sri Lanka's unity and integrity; the LTTE's attitude; pan-ethnic matters relating to governance and economic development; personal attributes of the two principal candidates; and the effectiveness and credibility of their grassroots level political organisers.

Ethno-cultural issues

The election has brought to the fore issues of ethnic and religious survival. One of the principal candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is directly or indirectly mobilising support on the issue of the identity, progress and survival of the majority community -- the Sinhala Buddhists. They are about 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million.

Even though Rajapaksa himself is not blunt about it, and his public statements are politically correct, his alliance with the Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has given an impression to the voters that he is a pro-Sinhala Buddhist person.

The Sinhala-Buddhists see him as a protector of their culture, religion and country -- Sri Lanka (the only country Sinhala Buddhists can call their own, as they ever so often point out). It is believed that Rajapaksa will prevent the division of Sri Lanka into ethnic or religion based autonomous units like an autonomous Tamil or Muslim unit in a federal system.

The dress and mannerisms of Rajapaksa are contrasted with Wickremesinghe's Western attire and demeanor. Rajapaksa is portrayed as a dyed-in-the-wool Sri Lankan in general, and Sinhala Buddhist in particular.

The rallying round of the Sinhala Buddhist majority around Rajapaksa has alienated the minorities of the country, like the Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Origin Tamils, Muslims and Sinhala Christians. The minorities are flocking to Rajapaksa's principal rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

The Tamils, whether Sri Lankan Tamils of the North East, or the Indian Origin Tamils in the rest of Sri Lanka, fear that they will be discriminated against by a Rajapaksa regime. They fear that their political and economic progress will be thwarted by Rajapaksa. This is not because Rajapaksa is himself undesirable, (he is personally secular and also much loved) but because he could become a puppet in the hands of his allies, the JVP and JHU, which are perceived to be anti-Tamil.

The Christian minority's bugbear is the anti-conversion bill, which the SLFP government tried to enact at the instigation of the JHU. The Archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, wrote an open letter against it and Rajapaksa, in a knee jerk reaction, wrote back accusing the clergyman of virtually instigating Christians to vote against him. Rajapaksa pointed out that his manifesto never mentioned the anti-conversion bill.

The Muslims too are worried about the new "political Buddhism", spearheaded by the JHU. They resent the setting up Buddha's statues in Muslim villages in East Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe is indeed a Sinhala Buddhist, but many voters are reluctant to accept his credentials as a protector of the political and cultural interests of the Sinhala Buddhists. They have a doubt if he would preserve Sri Lanka as an undivided state with no room for an ethno-based sub-unit like an autonomous Tamil Homeland.

Of course, not all Sinhala-Buddhists think so. Many view the SLFP/JVP/JHU set as a backward communal one. Such people tend to support the UNP. UNP supporters do not make religion or community an issue at all. They look at Wickremesinghe as a secular, non-communal person who thinks of "Sri Lanka" as whole.

They believe that he will bring about economic growth. They believe in the efficacy of the peace process which Wickremesinghe initiated in February 2002. They do not believe that he will divide the country on ethnic lines and dismiss such allegations as malicious propaganda. They do not believe in Rajapaksa camp's allegation that Wickremesinghe has a secret pact with the LTTE.

Wickremesinghe, eager to get a lead among the Sinhala-Buddhists, has been trying hard to solve his image problem by announcing plans to promote Buddhism and displaying his knowledge of the religion. But this has not won many over to his side.

LTTE's attitude

Although the Sri Lankan Tamils living in the North and East are eager to vote for Wickremesinghe because he is non-communal and has brought about peace, they may not be able to vote for him because the LTTE's interest and agenda clash with their interest.

The LTTE, through its front organisations, has asked the Tamils of the North-East to stay at home and observe November 17 as a Black Day.

The LTTE views this election as an election of the Sinhala majority because both candidates are playing the Sinhala-majoritarian card, and neither of them has made any workable and acceptable proposal to solve the Tamil problem to the Tamils' satisfaction.

While this is the stated position, political observers say that the LTTE has an unstated reason for wanting a boycott. Articles in the media friendly to it have been hammering the point that actually, Wickremesinghe is more dangerous for the Tamils and the LTTE than Rajapaksa and that it will be good if he does not come to power. The argument is that if Wickremesinghe came to power, he would strengthen the "International Safety Net" for Sri Lanka which he wove in 2002. He will get India and the dreaded US to play a direct role in the peace process in Sri Lanka.

First Published: Nov 14, 2005 16:52 IST