Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Sri Lanka Elections and Tamil Participation

Why the Boycott?

 by R. Sriskandarajah

If the only explanation the Sinhala society can come up with for the Tamil non-participation in the presidential election is that the LTTE forced them to, then we have a problem. I am not referring to the loose gossips and conjectures being bandied about in such abundance in the Sinhala south. It is that even the more moderate Sinhalese seem to believe this.

None of the Sinhala opinion writers have entertained the possibility that maybe – just maybe – the Tamil people didn’t want to vote at this election. If only these writers had paused to look at the present Tamil attitude towards the Sri Lankan state, instead of focusing on their own wishful thinking, they would have seen a different picture. But, they only listen to Tamil collaborators and opportunists, to paint a picture that they like. As a result, they have become totally oblivious to a fifty-year transformation in the Tamil political consciousness.

For over five decades, since independence from the British colonial rule, Tamils dutifully voted at many elections, and in remarkably large numbers. Time after time they trekked to the polls and stood in line to cast their ballots. This, they did for a system of government in Sri Lanka that is fundamentally flawed, and wholly and indubitably stacked against them.

What did they get in return for their decades-long participation in this so called democracy? Their elected representatives got the ignominious privilege of sitting, and permanently so, in the back-benches of the opposition side of the parliament. Sinhala leaders took advantage of the presence of these powerless Tamil members in the parliament to portray Sri Lanka as a democracy, and then went on to legislate grievous harm, one after another, to those who sent them there.

This charade needed to end someday, but it is important to realize that it didn’t happen suddenly in 2005. The decline in Tamil participation in the Sri Lankan electoral process began a while ago and the process has been a gradual and a progressive one. Anyone who has taken pains to look at the voting pattern of the Tamils over the last several years, even cursorily, could have foreseen what happened this year.

Take, for example, the Jaffna district where the voters are all Tamil.  Unlike other districts in the northeast, where the populations are a bit mixed (but Tamil majority, nevertheless), the Jaffna district presents a unique place to demonstrate the Tamil thinking on this matter. In other districts, the compulsion to vote to counterbalance the other ethnic communities in their midst brings in a different set of dynamics. But, Jaffna district is an all Tamil one, and therefore a better place to test Tamil thinking.

From 1977 to 2004

In 1977, an impressive eighty-two percent of voters in the Jaffna district participated in the election (406,258out of 493,176 registered voters). By 2000 this number dramatically dwindled to twenty-one percent (132,733 out of 622,331). Although in 2001 the voter turnout rose modestly to twenty-nine percent (186,598 out of 633,457), these numbers are a far cry from the 80-plus-percent voting pattern that existed up until the late seventies.

Prior to 2005, the lowest voter turnout in Jaffna was in 1994, when 13,479 out of 596,366 registered voters cast their ballots (2.2%). This voter apathy in 1994 cost the Tamils dearly. Douglas Devananda and his coterie romped to parliament with nine seats (out of a total of ten), claiming to represent Jaffna! No Sinhala analyst worth his salt has ever commented on this travesty.

Even in the year 2004, with the LTTE urging all Tamils to vote for the TNA, only forty-seven percent voted in the Jaffna district (305,259 out of 644,279 registered voters). This is quite important. Despite the dominant view amongst all Sri Lankan Tamils that it is good to have the TNA in the parliament to at least keep the collaborators out of there, and the LTTE urging them to vote, fewer than half the registered voters in Jaffna took the trouble to vote.

Clearly the claim that the Tamils boycotted the election this year because of LTTE intimidation is utter nonsense. The decline in Tamil participation has been a Tamil voters’ own choice, and for good and valid reasons.

The assertion by the Sinhala opinion hucksters that the ‘Tamil people wanted to vote’ in this election is not tenable either. These commentators quite obviously don’t know anything about the present-day Tamil mindset about their future on the island. This is not surprising, as they are not in touch with the ordinary Tamil people.

If they couldn’t talk to the common Tamil person to find out what this mindset is, they could have at least learned it from those who do.

Views of Tamils living in the North-East

Arthur Rhodes, who visited the northeast in mid-November 2005, wrote in AsiaMedia (UCLA Asia Institute publication), about a conversation he had with a Tamil vegetable vendor:

“Things are much better since the fighting stopped, and we are happy for that, but we are all still very poor,” Kesevarajah says. “The politicians make promises, but they give us nothing.” She says she does not see a reason to vote. “Neither candidate will give us what we need. Eventually both will just bring war.”

He then talked to a young Tamil man.

… nineteen-year-old P. Selvan proclaims that he does not care one way or another about the Nov. 17 election. He talks fast, with his hands, and he does not smile. “These elections are not for the Tamils,” he says. “They do not care about us in the south. No matter what happens we will not get what we need to prosper and be free... both [candidates] will probably bring war. One might bring it sooner, but it will come. We have lost our hope for peace.”

Rhodes concluded his 2-part report saying, “The polls open shortly, but many Tamils in the north are convinced that the candidates don’t understand their real security and economic concerns. They will be staying away…”

Those Tamils who wanted to vote did vote. An AFP report dated November 20, 2005 stated the following:

… At a tea stall close to Kilinochchi, shopkeeper M. Srirananath said he had in fact voted for Rajapakse. Dismissing claims by independent poll monitors that Tamils had been intimidated by Tiger rebels from participating in the ballot, he said, he and about 50 others had taken a government-provided bus from the rebel-controlled area to government territory to cast their ballots. “No one said we couldn’t vote and no one tried to stop us going,” he said.

The same AFP report quoted a different Tamil person: “‘We have a leader already. We don’t need to vote for another one,’ said a man, who gave his name only as Rajah”

And then, there were those who didn’t want to vote, but went to the poll anyway for another reason. A posting on the BBC World Edition blog, by one P. Tharan, illustrates this:

I, a Tamil in Colombo, voted yesterday. My family and I wanted to boycott the election in solidarity with the Tamils in the NE. But, by not casting the votes, we would have been easily identified from our fingers that we haven’t voted. Finding my finger is not coloured, would indicate that I haven’t voted in the election. It in turn would send a wrong message to my Singhalese [friends] as we are supporters of the LTTE. That would lead to intimidation from the majority community. [Friday, 18 November, 2005]

The Bottom Line

That the Tamil leadership, the LTTE and the TNA, was of the opinion that the Tamil people should ignore this presidential election is no secret. They did make this quite clear to the Tamil people, and backed it up with valid reasons, reasons that the Tamil people understood. As leaders, it is in fact their civic-duty to analyze the political situation affecting their people, and advice them accordingly, which is what they did. But to say that they intimidated them into a boycott is hyperbole.

If one wants to see real intimidation one should walk the streets of Jaffna – hundreds of T-56 carrying Sinhala soldiers in full public view patrolling, army observation posts at every junction, mini army-camps every few hundred yards, heavy army vehicles barreling down the streets. Contrast this with the scenery in Kilinochchi or Paranthan or any other LTTE controlled town, where you don’t see a single gun in public.

To suggest that in the Sinhala army controlled Jaffna district the LTTE was able to intimidate the people into doing anything flies in the face of commonsense. As Thamilselvan rightly asked, “how [could] the allegation of intimidation… be leveled against the LTTE when the voters in question were living under the guns of the occupying Sri Lankan forces? There are forty thousand Sri Lankan troops in Jaffna alone exercising a clear intimidatory presence…” [TamilNet, November 22, 2005]

In the same report, Thamilselvan also pointed out that “LTTE members had long ago been withdrawn from SLA held areas in the wake of Sri Lankan military intelligence supported paramilitary attacks on them.”  

Some LTTE supporters or a few local civilian leaders may have gotten overenthusiastic about their leaders’ advice on this matter, and burnt a few tires here and there. Certainly, there was no marked increase in violence on Election Day, over the number of incidents related to the army instigated shadow war of the last several months.

The bottom line is Tamils didn’t vote because they didn’t want to, and not because they were forced to.

The choices offered in this election are not something an average Tamil voter could get enthused about. One candidate was totally anti-everything for Tamils. He had denied the existence of a Tamil homeland and the right of the Tamil people to have any control over their own affairs. The second candidate signed a ceasefire agreement that benefited mainly the Sinhalese and did nothing to improve the devastated lives of the Tamil people. He reneged on an agreed mechanism (SIHRN) for rehabilitation of the Tamil victims and went globe-trotting to build international support against the Tamil leadership. What choices did the Tamils have? Choose the lesser of two evils?

Tamils, tired of having to choose between two evils all this time, gave up playing this wicked game. Whoever they chose in the past didn’t bring any satisfaction. So, this time they decided not to choose any. What is wrong with that?