Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Tigers and Elections

by The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2008

[Karuna's] political party, the Tamil People's Liberation Party (TMVP), remains armed and appears to be loosely allied with the government now. The run-up to the election saw frequent reports of voter and candidate intimidation; two major opposition parties boycotted the election, citing security fears. Little wonder the TMVP won eight of the nine district councils; President Mahinda Rajapakse's People's Alliance won one.

Part of the problem is that Mr. Rajapakse isn't necessarily willing to address the legitimate grievances of Tamils. His coalition rode to office in 2005 on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism and has since done little to reach across the aisle to moderate Tamil parties. In January, the government formally abandoned peace talks and concentrated on an all-out offensive against the Tigers in their northern stronghold.

As Sri Lanka's civil war approaches its 25th year, the government is trying to move its military offensive into a new phase: elections. Municipal polls in the majority-Tamil eastern province Monday were far from perfect, but symbolically, they represented a big step forward. The question now is whether the government can keep the momentum going and hold freer and fairer provincial elections next month.

As recently as a few months ago, an election in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa looked impossible. The area was long overrun by the terrorist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam -- a group best known for its use of roadside bombs and child soldiers. In 2004, the local Tiger general, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, known as Karuna, defected to the government. The region became a battleground between the Tigers and the Karuna faction.

Karuna now sits in a British jail after pleading guilty to immigration-document fraud late last year. But his political party, the Tamil People's Liberation Party (TMVP), remains armed and appears to be loosely allied with the government now. The run-up to the election saw frequent reports of voter and candidate intimidation; two major opposition parties boycotted the election, citing security fears. Little wonder the TMVP won eight of the nine district councils; President Mahinda Rajapakse's People's Alliance won one.

Part of the problem is that Mr. Rajapakse isn't necessarily willing to address the legitimate grievances of Tamils. His coalition rode to office in 2005 on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism and has since done little to reach across the aisle to moderate Tamil parties. In January, the government formally abandoned peace talks and concentrated on an all-out offensive against the Tigers in their northern stronghold.

Still, showing democratic progress in a pacified east would bolster that effort. To that end, Mr. Rajapakse trumpeted Monday's election as "peaceful" and a harbinger of "success in the historic march to strengthen and widen democracy in our country." That's overstating things. Thanks to the opposition boycott, the government's support of TMVP and the group's own arms, the winners were a shoo-in. Government forces could have done more to guarantee the safety of voters.

Events over the next few weeks will show how serious Mr. Rajapakse really is about bringing democracy to Tamil areas. Province-wide elections in the eastern province could take place as early as mid-April. But the government has been dragging its feet on key non-electoral reforms. Mr. Rajapakse has failed to appoint a full complement of members to the Constitutional Council that oversees important independent bodies -- such as the Human Rights Commission and the National Police Commission -- and the courts. If the government really wanted to show its commitment to resolving the conflict, it could allow the All-Party Representative Committee, a multi-party negotiation forum, to finalize its work on a devolution plan for newly democratic Tamil areas that would transfer more power from Colombo to local control.

Blame for the violence lies squarely with the terrorists, and Mr. Rajapakse has already made a dangerous gamble by aligning himself with one of their factions in Batticaloa's local elections. Now he needs to move ahead with other political reforms. Whatever the virtues of his military offensive, it will work only if he can offer a political solution to the legitimate grievances of the Tamil civilians left in the terrorists' wake. Batticaloa is just the beginning of that long process.