The President and the country’s former first soldier square off in a crucial election – and the Tamil minority becomes kingmaker.
One year ago, Sri Lanka found itself in the middle of a military offensive that finally led them to win the 26-year war with the Tamil Tiger rebels in May. The government went out of its way to have no witnesses to commit war crimes, as a video that has since surfaced proves. The UN estimates that around 7,000 civilians were killed in the last weeks of the campaign then. The former head of the army, General Satah Fonseka, alleged that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Minister, ordered the troops to kill surrendering Tiger leaders instead of taking them as prisoners in the final days of the war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa denies all allegations, but also resists an independent investigation by the United Nations. He has called for an early election as his popularity with the Sinhalese majority soared after the war. It will take place on January 26th. The opposition candidate will be no other than General Fonseka himself, who stepped down from his army post in autumn.
The election campaign has been bitter, with the President’s camp trying to portrait the popular Mr. Fonseka as a traitor who did not have any say in what became the military campaign to defeat the Tamil Tigers. In a twist of bitter irony of this close race, both candidates court the Tamil minority – the very people who have been suffering badly and were largely ignored since the end of the war. Mr. Rajapaksa has eased travel restrictions for Tamil people and has allowed tens of thousands of civilians to return to their homes, after they had been stuck in detention camps for months. Mr. Fonseka has gained the report of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the political arm of the Tamil Tigers, by committing himself to start a devolution of powers in the Tamil provinces (a step the President condemns).
It is likely that the President will be forced into a second election round. But one should not put to much hope in both candidates‘ promises, as they both are Sinhala supremacists who never showed much regard for the minorities in their country. Sooner or later, there might be devolution of powers in the Tamil north – but it might take years of peace to achieve it and neither Mr. Rajapaksa, nor General Fonseka are the right people to lead this process.