Between ‘curtailing cooperation’ and outright alienation…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

UNP Minister Sagala Ramanayake has denied reports that he is crossing over, to support rival SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential elections. Former army commander, Gen Mahesh Senanayake (retd) has similarly denied reports that he was withdrawing his candidature mid-stream, in favouur of UNP’s Sajith Premadasa. Senanayake has declared that he was very much in the race for the 16 November polling.

Between such rival claims lists the truth that both major campaigns are tied close to each other, and wants to ensure that “every vote counts and will (have to) make every vote count” but in their favour. This could mean a tougher and at times rougher campaign, and even vote-count. The latter is anyway going to take more time, as there are 35 names on the ballot, in the place of less than 10, which mostly used to be the case.

God help the counting officials if they were to go into ‘second preference’ vote. The delay is also the time for the nation to be on guard, about unwarranted rumours and the security forces to ensure that there were no untoward incidents, especially triggered by such rumours. Their impartiality may be under stress, or at lest multiple perceptions thereof would be…..

Promises as promises

The voter has become wiser over decades of electoral democracy. After all, he can take pride in being the first one to obtain universal franchise as far back as 1931. Whether the procedures and processes of democracy has decreased or increased is the question. The voter has his way of evaluating individuals and institutions alike.

Thus, the average Sri Lankan voter is not swayed by emotional issues, which anyway is not there this time round. At least there are no new issues. Old issues alone are even drummed up again, to create a mass hysteria, which is unlikely to happen in the normal course.

On the ‘divisive issue’ of political solution for the war-weary Tamils, ten years after the exit of the LTTE, the Gota camp has publicly declined proposals for talking to the TNA, pre-poll. The Sajith campaign is playing hide-and-seek for the benefit of the Sinhala public. His manifesto, when released, may say a lot of things on the Tamil concerns without saying much – the UNP’s SOP for years and elections now.

Other than on the ethnic issue, barring editorial writers, no one reads election manifestos of parties and candidates, and they are happy for it.  All stake-holders have understood that what is promised and what is practised later on are two different things. Poll promises are better if they are kept as promises, and nothing comes out of it.

Imagine, for instance, that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as UNP leader, had lived by his pre-poll commitment from 2015, even on the ethnic issue, which alone may qualify to be an election issue still. What would have the Sajith campaign promised the Tamils more this time than what had been achieved already, to woo them back to the poll-booths…. After all, he would have continued to require more Tamil votes than otherwise, in this election as their candidate and estranged incumbent, Maithripala Sirisena, got in the previous polls.

Sense of security

There is still no denying that the voter’s sense of personal security is an underlining factor that might influence the results this time, too. Between 2010 and 2015 polls, the voter’s sense of security shifted from national security to personal security, and incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa had to go.

Rather, in post-war 2010 polls, it was still the war hang-over from the previous decades. It was all about security physical security of the individual as that of the nation. Five years down the mind, when physical security of the individual had been ensured, ‘liberty’ took the form of ‘personal security’.

This time, round, the poll issue lies in between. It is about ‘security’ and ‘liberty’, as seen from different sections of the population. Post-Easter blasts, a sense of personal security has returned – but only the majority Sinhala community seems to have been concerned, affected, if at all, though they were not the direct victims on 21 April.

For the rest, comprising mainly the SLT and Tamil-speaking Muslims, it is still ‘security’ combined with ‘liberty’. In the case of the latter, it is also about their right to practise their religion with all attendant paraphernalia, like the head-gear for both men and women. In its time, the Tamils, their women, were targeted for wearing the sari, the traditional way, with the bindi on their foreheads. They were all straight giveaways during and long after Pogrom-83.

Today, most Tamil women in multi-ethnic societies like Capital Colombo, wear split-skirts and slacks, with their Sinhala counterparts from the past. There is no statistics but more Sinhala women may have taken to wearing sari, but their traditional Kandyan way, during the period.

Accountability, et al

Testifying before a US congressional hearing, Robert Destro, the official in charge of human rights issues in the US State Department, has reportedly said that the appointment of war veteran, Gen Shavendra Silva as the army commander, undermined Sri Lanka’s commitment to promoting accountability at a time when the need for reconciliation was paramount Coming as it weeks after the condemnation by the UN and rights groups and stake-holder nations in UN affiliates, the question is if the ‘Silva issue’ could turn the presidential vote one way or the other.

“We have made it clear to the Sri Lankan President and other senior officials that Silva’s promotion to army commander will significantly curtail bilateral cooperation with the Sri Lankan Army under the US law, while accountability for Silva and other perpetrators could lead to easing restrictions and greater military engagement,” Destro told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Appearing before the panel, Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, the top South Asia official in the State Department, also said that the US was encouraged by Sri Lanka’s progress in establishing offices for missing persons and reparations and the continued return of land in the north and east to its original owners. However, progress in other areas had been slow or had stalled, including on constitutional reform, replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, establishing a truth and reconciliation commission, and creating a credible accountability mechanism.

There is nothing to suggest that the US House panel hearings were timed to come ahead of the Sri Lankan vote. Anyway, in this part of the world, Americans are seen as being full of themselves, and may not have time to consider the timing of the House panel hearing, which is an annual affair as for as they are concerned. Yet, to conclude that such testimonies would have a bearing on the Sri Lankan election miles and oceans away, is not on this time round – unlike the last time, when they also seemingly left behind foot-prints and the rest.

The European Union which is stickier still on human rights issues for historic reasons, which they too have begun using as tools of diplomacy like their trans-Atlantic cousins, have reportedly declared that they won’t intervene in the presidential polls (this time). But their concerns were limited to attempts to discourage (SLT) voters in the North and the East from exercising their franchise (as only the LTTE had done, back in 2005).

According to Dimitra Ioannou, Deputy Chief Observer, EU Election Observation Mission, now in SriLanka, the EU mission couldn’t intervene in case an attempt was made to discourage the voters in the Northern and Eastern provinces from exercising their franchise. Be it as it may, it is unclear if the EU missions in Colombo holds similar views on the elections.

Success on terror front

In a meeting with Defence Attache’s in Indian Embassies overseas, the nation’s Navy chief, Adm Karambir Singh, recently praised the Sri Lankan success in neutralising (LTTE) terrorism, if only in the passing and alongside other cooperative ventures that they could undertake in the region. Cooperation was a ‘big buzzword,” he said adding, “We … need to work together. Bangladesh Indonesia know a lot about HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief), Sri Lanka has successively tackled terrorism, Seychelles and Mauritius have worked on marine ecology and conservation, Myanmar’s indigenous shipbuilding and various other navies in the region,” he said.

While the limited Indian observations are clear and addresses specifics, especially in the context of 26/11 Mumbai terror-attacks with a maritime element to it, the same cannot be said about the American statement on ‘curtailing cooperation’ because of Gen Shavendra’s appointment. But the US semantics is worth noting. In the days of the Rajapaksa regime, it tended to take the appearance of ‘outright alienation’, but going along the same route, the incumbent leadership in Colombo has till managed to get some brownie points, whether they matter to domestic constituencies or not. The Americans have stopped with talking about ‘curtailing cooperation’.

In a recent interview to the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, Basil Rajapaksa, brother and campaign head of Candidate Gota, said that they had ‘learnt from our mistakes’, though he was not clear if it stopped with India relations when third brother Mahinda R was President, or if it related to western nations, too. If it was the latter, then clearly, the Rajapaksas, if Gota were elected President, seem wanting to follow in the incumbent’s footprints – to be seen as doing something for the West to appreciate but not doing enough, less their electoral stock nearer home could depreciate.

If anything, Gen Silva’s appointment as Army chief after allegations of human rights violations when he was a field commander during the crucial stages of the war, may be one such, where the incumbent Government, despite being divided on ideological and personality lines, still went ahead with what it thought was right for the nation and its armed forces. It’s curtailment of cooperation that the US is talking about under the outgoing dispensation still, but it was outright alienation that they ended up practising viz the predecessor Rajapaksa regime, whatever the reason and justification – much of which should honestly apply to the present rulers, at the end of their five-year term together.

But then, did you say such cooperation, its curtailment or outright alienation may be centred on pre-disposed attitudes of the West to the parties and personalities in Sri Lanka, and may not be based on facts and the democracy era foreign policy concept of working with the Government that the people elect?

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head, Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: