‘It’s a ghost of the past,’ shouted the media in the south. The northern media, however, was relentless in creating the ghost of a new future.
The North had not seen an election of this kind for decades. In the first and only Northern Province Council (NPC) election, held in 1988, a dismal number of people turned out to vote – so embarrassing that the number of votes were not even widely published!
Then the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) in control of the north, with the Indian army, won all seats. Contrast that to the second NPC election 25 years later. On a 68% turnout 78.48% of the votes went to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) under the party name of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK). The TNA won 30 out of the 38 contested seats.
Voting did not take place under normal conditions. The government will most likely use this result to boost their false propaganda that democracy is blossoming in the country. Basil Rajapaksa declared that the very holding of an election in the north is itself a ‘victory’. But the level of election-related violence and the numerous breaches of electoral rules give the lie to any such claim.
The reaction of Tamils in the north to the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and their puppet, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), had an element of being a ‘political revolt’. The ruling party, their candidate, and the authorities tried many tricks – not to win the election but at least to prevent an outright majority for the TNA.
In the run-up to the election President Mahinda Rajapaksa and others in the government even admitted that they will not win. However they hoped to kill two birds with one stone: firstly, in response to critics who oppose his hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he hoped to brag that ‘free and fair’ elections had been held under his watch in the North for the first time since the 1980s; and secondly, to prove that the government enjoys significant support among Tamil masses. But both ‘birds’ flew off unharmed.
During the election campaign the TNA was able to hold meetings and the leading northern daily paper, Uthayan, acted almost as a ‘party paper’ for the party. However, a number of TNA candidates came under attack and intimidation, in particular Ananthi Sasitharan, the wife of disappeared political leader of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Just a day before the vote, pro-government groups released a bogus Uthayan paper with a headline claiming Ananthi had defected to the government. This was swiftly reported by Dan television – the only Tamil channel in the country and very pro-EPDP.
Hundreds of incidents of election violence were recorded, including a number of shootings. These were mainly between the EPDP and the SLFP – although both stood under the same symbol of betle leaves! Angajan Ramanathan, the SLFP’s Jaffna district organiser, was challenging for the same territory as Douglas Devananda of the EPDP. Douglas even said that not all betle leaves are good – some are rotten!
People are sick and tired of the EPDP who expect to be consulted before anyone carries out even minor tasks in Jaffna. But they now feel able to breathe a bit after Douglas was challenged By Angajan as apparently being a ‘close friend’ of the president’s son. A number of EPDP thugs were reportedly won over to Angajan’s side, reflecting the jostling for power and position with little regard for principles.
Both groups fought a number of street battles during the election. It wasn’t ‘safe’ to be at the pro-government election rallies. One of the main slogans of the ruling party, that they ended the culture of violence, severely backfired.
‘Development’ rhetoric was another key feature that dominated the pro-government propaganda.
There has been some development since the end of war. However, pro-TNA Uthayan repeatedly reported that this was only possible because of ‘Indian’ aid. Such vigorous propaganda limited the ruling alliance’s ability to gain from the so-called ‘development’. Feeling the heat, the SLFP’s leading candidate Angajan Ramanathan attempted to put a pathetic twist on this. He wasn’t only interested in building bridges and roads, he claimed. He also sought the ‘development of the people’! In the same election speech Angajan went on to claim that his “aim is to create a young generation that can think about self-determination”! Having been side-lined by the TNA election campaign offensive, many – even the ruling party candidates – resorted to ‘Tamil nationalism’ in the campaign’s last days.
“Through us you can even achieve Tamil Eelam and the right to self-determination,” declared one ruling party candidate. This reflects the SLFP’s absolute desperation to get votes once the writing was on the wall for the result. Just days before Election Day Suresh Premachandran, a key TNA leader declared: “if you call us Tigers for defending Tamils, we shall be Tigers”. This was carried in a banner headline on the Uthayan’s front page. At the same time the Sinhala media carried news of a court challenge by the racist Buddhist monks’ party to stop the northern election. Despite the enormous resources allocated by the pro-government groups to determine a favourable outcome, the result was sealed for them.
The masses are no longer prepared to buy the ‘development’ rhetoric. Unemployment is rising fast in the north. Huge numbers of families are slowly drowning in debt. Small businesses are beginning to suffer as the banks stop lending and deny overdraft facilities. Poverty is widespread. Desperation means people would be ready to vote for the devil if he offered a clear way out of the misery they suffer. But the government and its puppet Douglas Devananda are seen as an obstacle to any relief of the day-to-day suffering.
EPDP has a reputation as a boneless creature that does not fight for anything that the Tamil masses want and need. Unless you are on the EPDP’s side, you will lose out on everything – that has been the unwritten law of the north so far. Add to this the pain of the increasing role of the Sri Lankan military. The military is imposing itself on every aspect of life, including the prize giving day in the schools.
And of course the election process itself was not immune to galloping militarisation. People reported seeing military personnel putting up posters and bringing people to the ruling party’s meetings in their trucks. SLFP posters are displayed at a number of military camps – and remained there even after the 19th when electoral rule demands their removal.
The Navi Pillay factor cannot be under-estimated. The visit by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights prior to the election had a significant impact. The Omanthai check-point, a remnant of the war and a major irritant, was removed during the visit. All army personal were withdrawn to their barracks. Further special ‘decorations’ were made by the government – in the hope that Navi will at least give them some praise. But her statement that the Rajapaksa government is increasingly dictatorial went down like a bomb-shell.
Mirroring this was the TNA propaganda that they are engaged in ‘diplomacy’ with ‘international community’. The Tamil word ‘Rajathanthiram’ means bit more than diplomacy – a kind of Napoleonic manoeuvre. Sumanthiran spoke of this in every meeting. This illusion, created by TNA, will have consequences in the long-run, but for now it has lifted the confidence of the masses. “Navi Pillay came, Omanthai gone,” was how one student acknowledged the reasons for the government defeat.
People are undoubtedly happy that they no longer live in a war zone. But the government has nothing to heal their wounds. The granting of democratic rights and investment made to create decent jobs and services could have won some votes for the government. If they managed a genuine attempt to reach out to the national aspirations of Tamils, they could have given the TNA a run for its money. But the government’s continued chauvinism and increasing dictatorial measures destroyed all support.
The vote for the TNA is not a vote for a return to war, as some of the pro-government media reported in the south. It is not a declaration of a ‘third Eelam war’ as the TNA wanted the Tamils to believe. It is a vote against the government and their corrupt mafia puppets.
There was no failure on the part of the government to communicate its only partly veiled threats. Basil Rajapaksa said that if the government is not successful the so-called ‘Uthuru Vasanthaya’, the name given by the government to the developments in the north, meaning Northern renaissance, will be stopped. This statement was widely reported in the North and it contributed to the anti-government mood. He also warned that the Sinhala settlements ‘had not begun’.
The message of the voters in the north is this – the regime can be changed. But the TNA has no plans whatsoever to deliver what the people want. Of course the TNA could face repression soon after CHOGM is held in November. The monks’ Jathika Hela Urumaya party has said it will not let the TNA rule. The JHU could stage stunts against the TNA but this could backfire and instead further strengthen TNA support among the Tamil masses.
Comments made by TNA candidates during the election could be used to nail them ‘legally’. The justice department has been brought into the wide selection of Rajapaksa family puppets. The ex-Chief Justice was recently banned from leaving the country. Through this the current regime will make sure that the TNA will retain its support among the Tamil masses. It will reinstate the fear and hatred that is already rising. But if certain rights are allowed – even if only that a certain level of normality returns, peoples expectation would be higher. And of course the TNA will soon be discredited.
In speech after speech TNA representatives boasted that they have the ‘international community’ (IC), and India on their side. Among other lies they claimed that if they win the IC’s investments will be directly channelled to the North. This dishonest propaganda successfully hid the rotten role of the Indian state that defends the current regime. At the same time this helped forces in the south to fan the flames of chauvinism using anti-Indian and anti-imperialist rhetoric. A television channel flew the Indian flag just before they announced the NPC results.
The TNA manifesto was much debated for the reason that it mentioned the ‘right to self-determination’. But there is nothing in the manifesto on economic policies or a plan to achieve any improvement in people’s living standards. In fact the viciously neoliberal UNP and its leader Ranil Wikremesinghe are basically promoted by the TNA as it fully complies with their economic policies.
Instead, many TNA leaflets read like typical Tamil funeral notices in the sense that they detailed the candidate’s educational and family background, the names of kith and kin who are known, etc. Sarawanan’s leaflet was one such tragedy –( ‘Presidency College and Nehru university educated, Colombo university lecturer and brother of TNA leader Suresh Premachandran, Dr Kanthaiya Sarawanan B.A hons (pol.sc), MA, PH.d (senior lecturer), etc.)
Ironically, the answer came in the speech published in Veerakesari, another leading Tamil daily, on the day of election results in an attempt to glorify ITAK’s history. The speech was made by Rasamanikam in 1972.
In the speech Rasamanikkam argued for the ‘complete equal economic policies’. He attacked the 1972 constitution to establish a ‘socialist republic of Sri Lanka’. We demand ‘economic equality’ – we are the real ‘Sama tharma vathikal’, he declared. We may not expect such a change in the TNA for now, but we must demand they test the limits of any power given to them. They must engage in a vigorous campaign to not just defend the land but also to seek out opportunities to improve the living conditions.
Only one proper hospital exists in the north for a population of about 1.5 million. The TNA should fight to improve Jaffna hospital conditions and build a new hospital. This and provision of other much-needed services, including support for victims of violence against women, would create jobs and fulfil gaping needs in the community. The TNA should stand strongly against all planned privatisation of services and must oppose the government’s horrendous free trade zones.
Resettlement and getting the land back to the people and other economic demands are all linked to the national aspiration of the people. ‘We desire freedom at any cost’ declared Rasamanikkam. But the Tamils have been paying the high cost for decades. Through the NPC election once again they show their willingness to fight on. The TNA’s reputation and support will shatter if they fail to give expression to this desire.
This regime can be challenged – this is the message which many in the south want to ignore. ‘The rumble of discontent can grow into an explosive roar’ writes Mark Amarasinghe in the Times which must be noted. Workers and progressive forces should take this opportunity of a weak moment to strike against the Rajapaksa regime and fight in the best traditions of the Sri Lankan working class.
International Co-ordinator, Tamil Solidarity