x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sri Lankan government yet to win the peace

Analysts says municipal council results show Tamils voted in support of their minority rights and not for the ruling party in Colombo.

COLOMBO // Sri Lanka's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) pulled off victories in two out of three elections yesterday, in the first test of government popularity after Tamil rebels were soundly defeated in May, but analysts say the government is still a long way from solving the Tamil issue. Two of the polls were held in Tamil-dominated areas and the results showed that Tamil nationalism - generally perceived to be the demand for equal rights for the minority community - is still strong, despite the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.

"The results show that the people voted for Tamil nationalism and not with the government," said Jehan Perera, a political analyst and the director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council. Tamils are the largest minority group in Sri Lanka and claim discrimination in a number of sectors by successive majority-Sinhalese governments. In a separate development, investigators at an undisclosed location in Sri Lanka were questioning Kumaran Pathmanathan, the new LTTE leader who took over after Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed in the fighting in May.

Mr Pathmanathan, previously the group's international leader who has given the slip many times to security agencies worldwide, was believed to have been arrested in Kuala Lumpur - with the help of international agencies - and flown to Colombo. Iqbal Athas, a defence analyst at Sri Lanka's Sunday Times newspaper, wrote yesterday that Mr Pathmanathan holds the key to a number of questions that have baffled successive governments during over 25 years of fighting, including "sources of LTTE funding, arms procurement, supporters both abroad and in Sri Lanka as well as the intricate details of their international operations".

In northern Jaffna, the UPFA won the municipal council election but largely due to the government minister Douglas Devananda, a former Tamil rebel commander and leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Front (EPDP), whose pictures, cut-outs and billboards were splashed across the city, a cut above the rest of the parties that contested. Leading a campaign in which Mr Devananda's candidates contested under the UPFA banner, the ruling party secured 50.67 per cent of the votes against 38.2 per cent for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a former proxy for the Tigers, the other main contender.

At Vavuniya, about 160km south of Colombo, the TNA won the urban council poll with 34.8 per cent of the vote against 33.6 per cent for the Democratic People's Liberation Front and 24.7 per cent for the UPFA. The first two are Tamil parties working for greater rights for the Tamils and the victory there against the ruling party is seen as a reflection of the concern for about 300,000 displaced people languishing in camps in Vavuniya for the past few months.

"Residents voted against the government because their relatives are in camps and are not being released," a retired teacher in Vavuniya said by telephone. The government says residents, who fled the last stages of fighting in the north between government troops and rebels, would be released in batches after establishing they were not rebel fighters. The third poll was in the central Uva region, where the UPFA won 72 per cent of the vote against the main opposition United National Party's 22 per cent in a majority-Sinhalese area. The election was to pick members for the local provincial council.

The polls were quiet across all three regions, with few or no incidents reported. In Jaffna there was little enthusiasm, with only 18 per cent of the those eligible voting. Suresh Premachandran, a TNA parliamentarian, said in an interview just before the vote that the election was an attempt by the government to show the world that the Tamils were supportive of president Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime despite the bloody battles against the rebels in the last stages of conflict, which resulted in many civilians deaths and injuries.

That government strategy however did not work as 50 per cent of the vote in Jaffna was against the government and in support of Tamil needs. Mr Devananda, the government minister, is also trying to win more administrative powers for the Tamils in the areas where they are dominant. "Mr Devananda, although an opponent of the Tigers and a key ally of the government, has consistently pushed for more powers for the Tamils. While backing the military campaign against the rebels, I don't think he endorsed the civilian deaths that occurred," said Mr Perera of the National Peace Council.

Mr Rajapaksa fell out with western powers after rejecting their calls to halt the last stages of intensive battles against Tamil guerrillas. Journalists in Jaffna, who declined to be named, said the government was hoping a win there would restore financial support from the international community for the massive reconstruction of the north, which has been devastated by the war. The ruling party was insistent that Mr Devananda contest the election under the party's betel leaf symbol although he wanted the governing party to contest under his party symbol, the veena, a sitar-like musical instrument.

"The government planned to use Devananda's popularity to win the poll under the ruling party banner," one journalist who did not want to be named said adding that though this happened, "everyone including the international community knows that the ultimate vote was for the rights of the Tamils". fsamath@thenational.ae