Sri Lanka Scene: Close Fight in the South

by T. Sabaratnam; Colombo, March 29, 2004

Weekly Review

Close Fight in the South,
Massive Backing for TNA

Peace Talks

Sri Lanka votes on Friday and opinion polls and political analysts indicate that neither of the feuding leaders will muster enough majority to form a stable government.

“Right now, it does not look like either party will win a majority,” said Rohan Edrisinha, a political analyst at the University of Colombo.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, professor of political science of the University of Colombo concurs. “No camp is likely to obtain a clear majority,” he says.

The calculations this columnist obtained from the main contending camps- Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Front (UNF) and President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) show that neither of them anticipate a clear majority. They say their camp would obtain more seats than they had in the last parliament.

The Sunday Times, which published the results of two opinion polls conducted last week, gave the UPFA a slight advantage over the UNF. It said the margins were very close and that neither party was expected to get the 113 seats required to have a simple majority in the 225-member parliament.

“A sure fix scenario for a hung parliament at the April 2 election according to current trends,” the paper said. “From all accounts, the country is in for more political instability.”

“That raises a lot of worries about how to proceed with the peace process,” Edirisinghe said.

But both leaders, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, have pledged to continue the peace process and start talks with the LTTE quickly,

Wickremesinghe, who signed a ceasefire with the LTTE more than two years ago, is campaigning almost exclusively on his peace bid, saying he needs a new mandate to complete the process.

He is asking for a mandate to commence the talks from where he left off. In the concluding stages of the campaign, he vowed to commence the talks in May, soon after he completes the formation of the new government. That is his first priority, he said.

“I talked to the LTTE and brought peace to the country. Give me a mandate to continue the talks and usher in permanent peace to the country,” he tells the voters in a television advertisement repeated every 15 minutes.

“We need Ranil to continue. Only he can deliver the future,” reads a UNF campaign advertisement.

Wickremesinghe told his election meeting that the return of the UPFA would lead to war. He gave two reasons. Firstly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a constituent of the UPFA is opposed to talking solely with the LTTE, wants to change the facilitator and wants to renegotiate the ceasefire agreement. The LTTE is opposed to these conditions and, thus, electing the UPFA would mean deciding to go for war, he said.

He cites Kumaratunga’s past accusations as his second reason. She accused Wickremesinghe of endangering Sri Lanka’s security by giving away too much to win peace with the Tigers. “Wickremesinghe’s peace process is dangerous,” she had repeated since his signing of the ceasefire agreement.

Sinhala People Want Peace

Finding that most of the most of the voters are backing the resumption of peace talks and her anti-peace stand is hurting her election campaign, Kumaratunga switched her position to support peace.

The entry of Buddhist monks into the election fray has also prodded her about turn. About 280 monks are running for parliament under the newly formed Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), on the Sinhala extremist platform.

Polls show the monks could win at least four seats, drawing mainly the Sinhala extremist vote bank which the JVP hoped to draw to itself through its Sinhala nationalist campaign. The monks are tapping the nationalist sentiment which Kumaratunga and the JVP hoped to do through their campaign that Wickremesinghe is yielding too much to please the Tigers.

“Our purpose is to serve everyone, not only the Sinhala nation, all those ethnic groups who are living in the country, to make them happy,” said candidate Omalpe Sobitha, surrounded by saffron-robed monks at one of Colombo’s biggest temples.

The monks oppose a solution to the ethnic problem based on the federal model saying that that would endanger the unity of the nation. They say that a foremost place for Sinhalese must be preserved in any solution to the Tamil problem.

“The entrance of the Buddhist monks into mainstream politics suggests that the two main parties have failed. There is a great deal of disillusionment and distaste for their corruption,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who heads the independent Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The monks say that they can bring peace and prosperity to the country by cleaning the country of corruption, alcoholism, gambling and other vices. “We can clean up the country of corruption. We can do that. We are trying to find a permanent peace according to the way of the Buddha,” said Sobitha.

Kumaratunga had gotten her secretariat to print a second UPFA election manifesto and had written an Open Letter to the Tamil People in her bid to win the Friday election, a gamble she took to enable her to continue in power after her second term of office as president expires.

In the second manifesto, which bears the name ‘Action Plan,’ the UPFA had undertaken to talk to the Tigers without conditions. In the open letter to the Tamil people Kumaratunge had promised to talks to the Tigers without condition and had said she would honour the ceasefire agreement.

Cost of Living

After abandoning the campaign that the UNF had conceded too much to the Tigers, the UPFA is concentrating its attack on the rising cost of living and corruption.

Kumaratunga is saying that Wickremesinghe’s government is dancing to the tune of the World Bank and is assisting the capitalists. It does not worry about the common man who is finding it difficult to bear the burden of the rising cost of living. “The cost of living is rising so fast that our monthly earning is not sufficient to meet one week’s expense,” a UPFA advertisement says.

The cost of living factor is going against the UNF and has forced Wickremesinghe to do a lot of explaining. He tells the voters that his government was elected to office for six years and he had carefully planned for the economy to take off. “I told that I will have to lay the foundation for economic growth in the first two years which I have done. From the third year the people will derive its benefits. Before that happened Kumaratunga had dissolved parliament,” he said.

Such explanations do not win over the people who are struggling to manage their family budget. Wickremesinghe is also finding it hard to explain the charges of corruption leveled against his government.

“Your corruption swallows what our peace saves,” said the alliance’s latest advertisement.

The common man believes it. They ask, “Where are the billions of rupees you are saving by putting an end to the war?” The belief that most of the ministers in Wickremesinghe’s government are corrupt is widespread.

Wickremesinghe has successfully played on the inclusion of the JVP’s Marxist economic policies included in the UPFA manifesto to scare the business community and the voters. His propagandists call Kumaratunga “Madame Comrade,” and question the Freedom Alliance’s economic policies, which include references to a “mixed economy.”

Kumaratunga’s Action Plan, which the UNF call the UPFA’s second manifesto, softens the economic policy announced in the manifesto. Kumaratunga met the representatives of the business community to explain that ‘mixed economy’ does not mean going back to import controls.

The business community generally sees Wickremesinghe’s party, which had pursued privatization and courted foreign investment, as more business-friendly.

The Role of the TNA

Political analysts predict a vital role for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the next parliament if the two main contenders for power fail to obtain a clear majority. The current prediction is that the TNA will win 20 to 22 seats in the northeast.

In Jaffna peninsula it looks possible for the TNA to win all the 9 seats. Anandasangaree’s and the EPDP’s election campaigns are not making headway. In Vanni, if the voters in the LTTE-held areas vote in full strength, the TNA can capture 3 of the 5 seats and in Trincomalee it can get one of the 4 seats. That will give the TNA 13. With one national seat, it will be 14.

Batticoloa elects 5 members and Tamils won 3 during the 2001 election. If the voters in the LTTE-held areas vote in strength the TNA can get 4. In Ampara Tamils can get one.

The Karuna factor will come into play with this group of 4 or 5 MPs. Karuna is trying to get the voters of Batticoloa-Ampara to elect his supporters. His men summoned the TNA candidates of Batticoloa and Ampara and directed them not to speak about Tamil nationalism, but to talk only about regional development. Joseph Pararajasingham refused to fall in line and was asked to leave the meeting. Pararajasingham continued his defiance and has been told to suspend his campaign and leave Batticoloa.

Pararajasingham stopped his campaign, but refused to leave Batticoloa. He told the media that he stands by the TNA position on Tamil nationalism and his supporters had assured him of protection. Reports from Batticoloa say his house is guarded by his supporters.

His is not the only instance of revolt against Karuna. On Saturday posters appeared in the two districts. The poster, written in poetry, is titled, Poda Po Neeyum Un Poiyum, which means ‘Go. Go away, You and your lies.’

The rough translation of the poster:

You asked for a cadre from each house to protect our land
You told us that we will get Tamil during the lifetime of our leader- but today
You are selling Batticoloa for money and position
Go, go away, you and your lies.

Leaflets containing the LTTE’s charges against Karuna are also distributed. A revolt has also taken place in the LTTE newspaper Thamil Alai published from Kokkadicholai. The group that had split from the editorial department of the Thamil Alai now controlled by Karuna has started its own web site, It was posted on Monday and Tuesday this week.

Reports from Batticoloa say that cadres under Karuna’s control are leaving in groups and are in hiding. The LTTE which had infiltrated is trying to bring those groups under its control. Reports also say confusion had set in in Karuna’s group.

Cadres have begun to tell the leaders of the Kauna group that they joined the LTTE to fight the Sinhala army and not to fight their brothers from the north in collaboration with the Sinhala army. Parents also have begun to protest against their children being used to fight Tamils.

Varathan, Karuna’s media spokesman, telephoned his media contacts in Colombo and told them that the LTTE has infiltrated the district in large numbers and a clash with their group is imminent

Kilinochchi sources told me that they have no intention to launch a military onslaught on Karuna.

“That is not necessary. The people have begun to realize the truth. They will deal with Karuna and his few men,” an LTTE spokesman said.

The pressure on Karuna will be increased on Tuesday to Thursday and voters would be told to cast their preference votes for the candidates who had supported Tamil nationalism and who continue to support it.

Kilinochchi believes that it could manage the situation of any candidates loyal to Karuna being elected on 2 April. “Any future government will have to deal with us,” the spokesman said.

The UNP won in 2001 with a slim majority of 114 seats, but the Tamils kept it afloat by voting with it parliament. Analysts expect a similar situation after this election. And that would give the LTTE a new role.

A record 6,024 candidates from 24 political parties and 192 independent organizations are seeking seats in the 225-seat single-chamber Parliament, 196 of them elected directly and 29 chosen from party lists based on the party’s percentage of the vote.

Originally published March 30, 2004

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