Will Tamils boycott the election?

Daily Mirror

One of the 35 presidential candidates – the highest ever number to contest so far – is former Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah who was branded by many politicians, especially those aligned to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), as a Muslim fundamentalist. He was also accused, by the same politicos, of constructing a university to spread ‘Sharia Law’ in the country. 

Parliamentarian Athureliye Rathana Thera on May 31 this year launched a ‘fast unto death’ demanding the expulsion of three Muslim politicians including Hizbullah, whom he accused of having supported the terrorists who had attacked three churches and three deluxe hotels on Eater Sunday.   

“There is a popular claim that Southern politicians succumb to minority votes and betray national security and interests. But the reality is that even those who make this claim disappear when their leaders give in to minority demands”

Nevertheless, none of the politicians and so-called patriots seems to perceive any ulterior motive in Hizbullah’s candidacy despite it being obvious that even he was not hoping to win the election at least in his dreams.   

The reason is clear. Muslims in the country who voted en masse against Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election still seem to be aligned to the United National Party (UNP). Although there was a slight trend among them towards the SLPP after the party swept the electorate at last year’s local government elections, it turned back again following the post-Easter Sunday hate campaign against Muslims. Hizbullah’s candidacy will help dilute, though slightly, the Muslim concentration in the UNP-led coalition’s vote bank, whatever his real motive might be.   

Interestingly, the anti-Muslim hate campaign that was revived after April 21 bombings, mainly by politicians, monks and the media that had direct or indirect links with SLPP, have almost vanished. Earlier, it was presumed to take a dangerous turn with the approach of the presidential election due to their presumption that Muslims were already embedded with the UNP and that there would not be any point in attempting to win them over. Their strategy seemed to be to eat into the UNP’s Sinhalese vote bank through the hate campaign. President Maithripala Sirisena also predicted that the hate campaign against Muslims would last until the presidential election as it was politically-motivated.   

However, surprisingly, that was not to be. Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, who was accused of having sterilised over 4,000 Sinhalese women against their will, seems to have been forgotten. The issues of Madrasas or Islamic religious schools, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), Arabisation of local Muslims which are used to demonise the Muslim community are not taken up on SLPP election campaign platforms. Minister Rishad Bathiudeen who was the Muslim version of Prabhakaran for many SLPP politicians a few moons ago seems to be no longer a threat to national security. The mind-change in SLPP ranks could partly be attributed to their fear of the small percentage of Muslim voters who are with them deserting them too.   

With concerns over the compulsory 50 percent of valid votes to win the presidential election heightening patriotism seems to have taken a back seat. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the SLPP Leader, on August 5 told at a meeting with a group of Tamil politicians including Varadaraja Perumal – accused of declaring Tamil Eelam in 1990 by Southern politicians and the media – that his famous “13 plus” solution would be implemented while granting police powers to the Northern Provincial Council during a future SLPP Government.   

There is a popular claim that Southern politicians succumb to minority votes and betray national security and interests. But the reality is that even those who make this claim disappear when their leaders give in to minority demands. Hence, no agitation was seen against the SLPP Leader’s promises and only one English newspaper apart from the Tamil media carried the story about the meeting.   

“If the ITAK/TNA is to stick to the stance that they would not support any candidate who did not agree with the demands, they would have to call on the Tamils – the majority of whom otherwise would vote for Sajith Premadasa – to boycott the election”

Meanwhile, an interesting development is underway in the North which might result in a situation like the one that arose in 2005 when the LTTE ordered the Tamils in the North and the East to boycott the presidential election; it was a known fact that the outcome was in favour of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate at that election, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Leaders of the UNP that lost the election still accuse Rajapaksa of bribing the LTTE to boycott the election.   

Five Tamil political parties including the two most popular ones — Illankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) led by Mavai Senathirajah and Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA) headed by former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran — have inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Monday declaring their stance on the presidential election. The parties united at the instance of the students unions of Jaffna and Eastern Universities claimed that they would support any of the three candidates – SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa of UNF/New Democratic Front (NDF) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake of JVP/National People’s Power (NPP) – who agreed with the 13 demands they had compiled in the MoU.   

The demands are not new. Some of them had been put forward at various fora and negotiations with various government delegations since the famous Thimpu talks in 1985, and others are in the public domain since the end of the war in 2009. Recognising the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces as the homeland of Tamil people who have the right to self-determination, recognising the sovereignty of the Tamil nation and resolving the ethnic problem under a federal structure are the demands hailing from Thimpu days.  Conducting an investigation into the allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against Tamils during the war through an international mechanism, repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), unconditionally releasing all political prisoners, institution of an international mechanism to mete out justice to the victims of enforced disappearances, withdrawing of the armed forces to the original places from private and State-owned lands occupied during the war, expediting resettlement of people displaced by the war are recent demands.   

The MoU included some old and modified demands such as stopping State-sponsored Sinhalisation and Buddhisisation and Sinhalese colonisation in Tamil areas, scrapping of the authority of Mahaweli Development Authority to carry out projects in the North and the East as it helps Sinhala colonisation, stopping Sinhala colonisation in Wanni through projects under the Moragahakanda development scheme, stopping invasion of Tamil lands and Hindu religious sites by the Archaeology, Wildlife and Forest Conservation Departments and removing legal obstacles to Tamil diaspora to invest in lands and acquire funds for such investments.   

“Hizbullah’s candidacy will help dilute, though slightly, the Muslim concentration in the UNP-led coalition’s vote bank, whatever his real motive might be”

It is the UNP-led coalition that would be disappointed with the agreement arrived at by Tamil parties as it would find it difficult to agree with the demands especially during an election time and also due to its Northern ally, the ITAK/TNA being party to the agreement. In fact, no South-based political party, except for a few minor leftist parties, would accept these demands. It is not clear as to what TNA’s response would be in the event all three candidates it would approach rejected its demands.   

Going by the reports carried in Tamil newspapers, the newfound unity and the agreement among Tamil parties is hailed by majority of Tamils in the North. Hence, if the ITAK/TNA is to stick to the stance that they would not support any candidate who did not agree with the demands, they would have to call on the Tamils – the majority of whom otherwise would vote for Sajith Premadasa – to boycott the election. If Tamil people agree to such a call by the TNA, it would be a repetition of history and would be favourable to the SLPP candidate who interestingly happens to be another Rajapaksa.