Pity the poor Sri Lankan voter. As presidential elections loom on Jan. 26,
the public is faced with a choice between two candidates who openly accuse each
other of war crimes.
The current exchange of charges and counter-charges between retired Gen.
Sarath Fonseka and President Mahinda Rajapaksa must be particularly confusing
to those Sri Lankans who consider both to be war heroes rather than war
criminals. Many from the ethnic Sinhalese majority feel that, regardless of the
human costs in the last months of the long-running civil war that ended last
year, both leaders deserve credit for finally finishing off the terrorist Tamil
With the Sinhalese nationalist vote thus split, the two candidates are
focusing their energies on winning the votes of the country’s minority ethnic
Tamils – which is surely one of the stranger political ironies of early 2010.
After all, both General Fonseka and Mr. Rajapaksa executed the 30-year conflict
to its bloody conclusion at the expense of huge numbers of Tamil civilian
By early May, when the war was ending, the United Nations estimated that
some 7,000 civilians had died and more than 10,000 had been wounded in 2009 as
the army’s noose was being drawn tight around the remaining rebels and hundreds
of thousands of noncombatants, who could not escape government shelling. The
final two weeks likely saw thousands more civilians killed, at the hands of
both the army and the rebels.
After the war, the Tamils’ plight continued. The government interned more
than a quarter million displaced Tamils, some for more than six months, in
violation of both Sri Lankan and international humanitarian law. Conditions in
the camps were appalling, access by international agencies was severely
restricted, and independent journalists could not even visit. Barbed wire and
military guards insured people could not leave or tell their stories to anyone.
By the end of 2009, most of the displaced had been moved, and the nearly
100,000 remaining in military-run camps were enjoying some freedom of movement
– important steps brought about mostly as a result of international pressure
and the authorities’ desire to win Tamil votes. However, a large portion of the
more than 150,000 people recently sent out of the camps have not actually
returned to their homes nor been resettled. They’ve been sent to and remain in
“transit centers” in their home districts.
Now, put yourself in a Tamil’s shoes, and decide whom to vote for in the
presidential election: Choose either the head of the government that ordered
the attacks against you and your family, or the head of the army that carried
it all out.
On Jan. 4, the Tamil National Alliance, the most important Tamil political
party, made its choice and endorsed General Fonseka after he pledged a 10-point
program of reconciliation, demilitarization and “normalization” of the largely
Tamil north. There is some hope his plan might be a sign that top leaders
realize that, after decades of brutal ethnic conflict, peace will only be
consolidated when Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves
toward a more inclusive and democratic state.
What counts more than campaign promises, though, is what the winner actually
does in office, and based on past performance, it is hard to imagine either
candidate making the necessary constitutional reforms to end the
marginalization of Tamils and other minorities – the roots of the decades-long
conflict. Left unaddressed, Tamil humiliation and frustration could well lead
to militancy again.
While Sri Lankan voters face a difficult decision, for the international
community, the choice is clear. Whoever wins, the outside world should use all
its tools to convince the government to deal properly with those underlying issues
to avoid a resurgence of mass violence. In the interest of lasting peace and
stability, donor governments and international institutions – India, Japan,
Western donors, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank – should use
their assistance to support reforms designed to protect democratic rights, tie
aid to proper resettlement of the displaced, and a consultative planning
process for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged, overly militarized north.
U.N. agencies and nongovernment organizations should have full access to
monitor the programs to ensure international money is spent properly and people
receiving aid are not denied their fundamental freedoms.
In short, this means not giving Colombo
any money for reconstruction and development until we know how it will be
spent. And if we see funds not being used as promised, it means not being
afraid to cut them off until.
While there may not be much to choose between the candidates, the rift
between General Fonseka and Mr. Rajapaksa – and the consequent divisions among
Sinhalese nationalist parties and the renewed vigor of opposition parties – has
at least put the possibility of reforms on the agenda. International leverage,
correctly applied, could help expand this small window for change, leading to
the democratization and demilitarization the country desperately needs to move
finally beyond its horrific war and its bitter peace.
This piece was first published in the International Herald Tribune.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.