As many as 35 candidates are running for President in Sri Lanka’s November 16 election, but northern Tamils view it as a two-cornered fight between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa. And they know who they don’t want in power.
The incumbent government, formed in 2015 after Sri Lankans voted out Mahinda Rajapaksa, has not substantively altered northern Tamils’ post-war realities. They are very disappointed with its failure to deliver on many promises. However, voters across the Northern Province dread the possible return of a Rajapaksa — this time the former President’s brother and a powerful war-time Defence Secretary — to the helm.
Less than a fortnight for the polls, “the white vans might come back” was a common refrain in Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni, the mainland area covering Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi districts, where former combatants and civilians abducted in white vans were never seen again. A decade after the civil war, their fear of the Rajapaksas — with whose administration they associate the war’s brutal end in 2009 — is intact.
That explained the “silent wave for Sajith Premadasa” that a senior cooperative society leader spoke of, requesting anonymity. Referring to the LTTE’s assassination of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa, he said: “Not everyone is comfortable with that. We feel it was carried out by someone with a motive and it ended up giving the Tigers a bad name.”
“We all know that the government [led by the United National Party to which Mr. Premadasa belongs] did not do much. But in the case of Gotabaya, families see him as the one who presided over their relatives’ death or disappearance. They are terrified of those days,” the community leader said, at his office in Kilinochchi. “They’re [contestants] all chillies. The difference is in the degree of hotness, and we’ve to choose prudently.”
It is the fear and aversion that he referred to that manifested in the overwhelming mandate that the Tamils gave the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe combine in 2015. Nearly 80% of voters in the Northern Province backed their coalition , but the administration is not particularly popular either.
While the Tamil political leadership — the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — has often highlighted the government’s failings in completing constitutional reform for power devolution and ensuring swift measures towards post-war accountability and reconciliation, the people emphasise a host of other concerns too, pertaining to lack of jobs, livelihoods, adequate income, housing and household debt.
“We faced a huge destruction in Mullivaikkal [the final battle], lost so many of our people and our assets and belongings through the years of war. At least now can’t we live in peace?” asked Santhan Stanis Rejidas, 34. As leader of a fishermen’s federation in Anthoniyarpuram village in Mannar district, he is witness to the everyday assault of poverty on the people of his village.
“There is a common perception that no Sinhalese leader can win a national election without minority votes. And yet, our own leadership is unable to use that bargaining power well for our rights,” he said, voicing sharp criticism of the TNA whose MPs, he said, “rarely show up”.
“The voters are not waiting for the TNA to direct us now, we have already made up our mind about which of the two presidential candidates is less dangerous for us. We don’t want the white vans again,” Mr. Rejidasa said.
The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi, the TNA’s chief constituent, recently declared support for Mr. Premadasa, while Douglas Devananda of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party — who has a base in the islands off Jaffna peninsula — has aligned with the Rajapaksa camp.
Not who, but what
The question should not be ‘who should win’, but ‘what might change’, according to Sanathani Mahendran, based in Thiruketheeswaram, Mannar. “Many in our village have only one good meal a day. This has to change,” she said, pointing to Mr. Premadasa’s manifesto that promises free mid-day meals in schools and housing for all.
“At least 100 families here returned from India, where they went as refugees. They have absolutely nothing as they try to rebuild their lives. Most of us here survive on daily wage labour. We work so hard, all in the hope of a better life,” said Sharmalita Sakthivel, a mother of two.
Voters in the north may have strong criticism against the government, but “at least we breathed a little without the military watching us all the time,” said H. Manohar, a pastor in Mannar town.
“We may be utterly disappointed with this government, and with good reason. But to say Gotabaya and Sajith are the same is rather simplistic. For those of us living here, the democratic space that opened up means a lot. We must vote to retain that.”
Others too pointed to the many instances they took to the streets in the last five years without fear. “A leader like Gotabaya, who represents a base of hardcore Sinhala nationalism will only feed into hardliners in Tamil polity. That will be fatal for our community and for the country.”
In his view, it was time the Tamil community stopped thinking “parochially” and started thinking of democratic rights and freedoms for the country as a whole. “That is the only way we can secure our own rights. In case Gotabaya comes to power, it is likely that they will go after the Muslims, as they have in the past. We, as Tamils, should stand with them and resist that by all means,” the pastor said.
Nearly 8.5 lakh registered voters in the Northern Province will get to exercise their franchise on November 16. Bound by a resistance to Mr. Rajapaksa, they appear poised to back Mr. Premadasa. However, unlike in 2015, their vote will carry more scepticism than hope.