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Sri Lanka's political crisis a threat to reconciliation

Danger government will backtrack on commitments to Tamils after opposition SLPP sweeps most seats in local elections
Sri Lanka's political crisis a threat to reconciliation

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa talks with voters after a local council election on Feb. 10 in Colombo. His Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) won the most seats nationwide. (Photo by ucanews.com/S. Kumar)

A political crisis in Sri Lanka is disturbing the economy and threatening the reconciliation process nearly a decade after the island nation ended a bloody 25-year civil war, political analysts said in the wake of local elections.

Fortunately violence did not mar the Feb. 10 poll, the largest election in Sri Lankan history with a turnout of about 70 percent.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa secured the most seats across the 231 local councils but failed to seize a majority in most cases.

The party powered ahead of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) and President Maithripala Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which ranked second and third, respectively.

The SLPP surged ahead because voters were disillusioned by the government's failed promises in terms of clamping down on corruption and bringing criminals to justice, Harvard-educated political analyst Dr. Jehan Perera said.

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"The voters were fed false information about the proposed constitutional reforms and made to believe the country would become divided and Buddhism would lose its special place," he said.

"The public has seen no real economic benefits after three years of this government," added Perera, who also serves as executive director of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council.

During the course of the election the president attacked his coalition partner, the UNP, and the prime minister for corruption and for not being able to revive the economy.

Mahinda Rajapaksa appears after a press conference on the election on Feb. 12 in Colombo. He called on the government to dissolve parliament immediately. (Photo by S. Kumar).

 

The president made the situation worse when he misread his powers under the constitution and attempted to sack the prime minister, which was beyond his jurisdiction.

But the two ruling parties confirmed on Feb. 21 in parliament that they would continue their unity government.

Father Sarath Iddamalgoda, a prominent human rights defender, cited the role of nationalism in Rajapaksa's victory as his party promoted an ideology fusing Sinhalese culture with Theravada Buddhism, which appealed to the majority Sinhalese.

"He was able to create a great fear in people that if this government continues, Tamil Eelam will be formed," said Father Iddamalgoda.

He was referring to the Tamils' calls for an independent state in the north and east of the country, the same issue that sparked the civil war.

Rajapaksa's Sri Lankan Armed Forces crushed the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, ending the war.

"Rajapaksa's regime has never really recovered from that," said Father Iddamalgoda.

The army was accused of numerous human rights offenses in the last few years of the war campaign, including interning Tamil civilians in concentration camps.

Father Iddamalgoda said this, coupled with other scandals such as a huge case of suspected fraud involving the central bank, had caused the public to lose faith in the prime minister.

"The country has lost millions of rupees under his governance," he added.

The priest, who serves as a coordinator for the Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM), is also a staunch environmentalist. He often demonstrates against Chinese mega-projects that threaten fishermen and ecosystems.

Father Iddamalgoda said the rising cost of living has made life nearly unbearable for people close to the poverty line, with the prices of rice, vegetables and coconuts all having spiked recently.

As such, voters were showing their frustration with the present government as much as their support for Rajapaksa, he said.

Voters wait at a polling booth during a local council election in Colombo on Feb. 10. (Photo by S. Kumar)

 

Kasipillai Jeyavanitha, leader of the Forum for Forcibly Disappeared Relatives in Vavuniya, was among those who have had enough of the Sinhalese leaders.

"I and some women from our organization didn't vote for anyone," said Jeyavanitha.

She said she has been protesting in the northern town of Kilinochchi since February 2017 for information on what happened to missing persons during the war, at least some of whom are suspected of having been put to death.

"President Sirisena says he is not responsible for those who disappeared as that happened during Rajapaksa's regime," she said.

"But we believe they must both be held accountable."    

Rajapaksa remains popular among large sections of Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community but is generally distrusted by Tamil minorities.

Chathurangi Hettiarachchi, a Sinhalese university student, cast her vote for Rajapaksa. She praised his efforts to "defeat the terrorists and protect our motherland from the Tamil rebels."

"He ended a 26-year war and developed infrastructure across the country including the Tamil areas," she said.

Perera said the opposition SLPP secured victory by campaigning on the theme of how the government was betraying the national interest in favor of LTTE proxies. 

"This struck a chord with the ethnic majority Sinhalese electorate, which turned out in larger numbers to vote for the SLPP," said Perera.

"Now there is a danger the government will backtrack on the commitments it has made to both the Tamil people and the international community regarding constitutional reform and transitional justice." 

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