|Caption: The President|
It is never easy being Sri Lanka’s president. The island’s chief executive has to deal with a seemingly intractable civil war, a faltering foreign-aid-dependant economy and a crumbling infrastructure. It is even more difficult being Mahinda Rajapakse these days. The rural politician, who became a human-rights activist and trade unionist on his way to becoming the most powerful person in the country, now spends time behind an extraordinary wall of security. Roads in Colombo are closed for hours when he ventures out of ‘Temple Trees’, his well-guarded official residence. Heavily armed commandos line the roads as his convoy speeds past, guards anxiously motioning away passers-by. While none of this is particularly unusual for a Sri Lankan president, just over a year after he took office President Rajapakse is looking particularly besieged for other reasons.
The most prominent recent furore has been over whether President Rajapakse cut a deal with the LTTE during the 2005 presidential elections to block Tamil votes for his opponent, Ranil Wickremasinghe. A recently sacked minister from his cabinet, Sripathi Sooriarachchi, said in March that he had been present at a meeting between the president’s brother Basil and Tamil Tiger representatives when the alleged deal had been discussed. Sooriarachchi claims that he walked out of the meeting because he “did not agree with what was being said”. (In February, Sooriarachchi was sacked along with former Foreign and Ports Development Minister Mangala Samaraweera, after they publicly opposed President Rajapakse over a cabinet reshuffle during which Samaraweera was demoted. Samaraweera claims he lost his job because he raised concerns over human-rights violations and the growing power of Rajapakse’s brothers in government.)
As with previous elections, the central issue in the 2005 poll had been the on-going civil war. At that time, Rajapakse had campaigned on a hard-line platform with the backing of the Sinhala-nationalist parties, including the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Both of these parties oppose the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, which Rajapakse’s main rival, Ranil Wickremasinghe, signed with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. As a result of this dynamic, President Rajapakse had attracted a significant number of votes from the Sinhala-dominated south. Wickremasinghe had then pledged to carry on with the peace process he had begun, and expected heavy Tamil support.
Rajapakse, who was then prime minister, won the presidential elections by a margin of less than 181,000 out of a total 9.7 million voters. In line with Sooriarachchi’s allegations, election observers at the time noted that hundreds of thousands of Tamil voters did not come to polling stations because the LTTE called for – and violently enforced – an election boycott. The chief of a European Union election observer mission noted: “In the areas which the LTTE either controlled or exercised influence, there was little tangible evidence to show that an election process had actually taken place. Political campaigning was nonexistent, and voters were prevented from exercising their franchise because of an enforced boycott by the LTTE and its proxies.”
As a result, the number of voters who turned out in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna District, for instance, was abysmal. Out of around 650,000 eligible voters on the peninsula, less that 10,000 voted – 71 percent of whom chose Wickremasinghe, to just 25 percent for Rajapakse. The former’s supporters continue to contend that if Jaffna and other Tamil-dominated areas had been allowed to vote freely, Wickremasinghe would have won the presidency.
For his part, Wickremasinghe has revealed that his party, the United National Party (UNP), had indeed been in negotiations with the LTTE on the eve of the 2005 elections. He says that a UNP emissary met Tamil Tiger representatives and “urged them to respect democracy and allow the people of the north and east to vote freely”. Wickremasinghe says the LTTE wanted guarantees that he would support an interim self-governing authority in the north dominated by the LTTE; when he refused to do so, he says, negotiations broke down.
Although President Rajapakse’s government spokesmen have denied that any pre-election meeting took place, the president himself has remained silent on the matter. Wickremasinghe, who now heads the opposition, has directly challenged the president to prove that the new allegations are untrue, noting that “the legitimacy of the outcome of the  elections is otherwise in doubt.” Sooriyarachchi has also asked for a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate his allegations, a move backed by Wickremasinghe’s parliamentary group. Currently, the JVP, the other major party in Parliament, has yet to take a side on the issue.
The government’s reaction has come through Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. “There was no such pact with the LTTE,” he has insisted, “so there is nothing to reveal and nothing to investigate.” Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa says that while his – and Rajapakse’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has won the most votes during previous presidential elections in Jaffna, this time around those who voted did so for Wickremasinghe. The boycott, he contends, therefore hurt Rajapakse, and “this proves there was no pact with the LTTE.”
At the moment, political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda does not see a serious crisis developing for President Rajapakse out of these allegations. “Most of the major political parties have cut deals with the LTTE before elections from the 1990s onwards,” he notes. Nonetheless, he believes Rajapakse and the government are “slightly shaken” because of the resulting uncertainty. “The president expected monolithic support from [the SLFP]. That has changed because there appears to be a realignment of the forces that actually brought him to power.” While at deadline an official probe has yet to be appointed, if the allegations are found to be true, there is every reason to assume that it will spell trouble for the current Colombo administration.
Uyangoda says that the larger issue right now is the developing crisis over human-rights violations. Since Rajapakse came to power there has been an escalation of violence, with attacks and counterattacks by both the military and the LTTE leaving the Ceasefire Agreement in shreds. Government forces have made significant progress in occupying areas previously held by the Tamil Tigers, particularly in the eastern districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Buoyed by these successes, the military has indicated it will go deeper into LTTE-controlled areas in the near future. Pro-government commentators justify such action by saying that, because the LTTE is “irredeemably militaristic, it needs to be neutralised militarily.”
But these military successes have come at a cost. More than 4000 civilians, military personnel and LTTE cadres have died since serious hostilities resumed in November. In addition, around 200,000 civilians living in the midst of the current operations have been displaced, adding to the million or so already without homes because of the conflict and the tsunami of December 2004.
The fighting and its consequences have prompted international concern over human-rights violations. The United States, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, among the principle donors to Sri Lanka, have expressed alarm over a recent spate of abductions and disappearances, particularly of Tamils living in the government-administered regions of the country. The country’s Human Rights Commission says that from January through early March, its office has received complaints of nearly 100 abductions taking place in Colombo, Batticaloa and Jaffna; such statistics have been criticised, however, for not including abductions from within LTTE territory, which rights groups say are significantly higher. On 7 March, Defence Affairs spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said that the government has arrested at least 20 security personnel, some of whom “may be involved in abductions and killings and disappearances”. In mid-March it was also announced that the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights would both visit Sri Lanka in the coming months.
Still, President Rajapakse’s regime is not about to collapse. The military victories against the LTTE have been well received by his core electorate in the Sinhala community, and recent opinion polls have found that his support base remains strong. Indeed, after several smaller political parties and an 18-member group of MPs from Wickremasinghe’s party joined his government in February, President Rajapakse’s parliamentary majority is for the moment relatively ironclad.
One particular thorn remaining in the president’s side, however, is Mangala Samaraweera, the former minister. At the moment, his supporters are actively canvassing MPs to form a group that would push for him to become head of the largest parliamentary group (likely to comprise of breakaway factions from the SLFP and several smaller parties), and thus make him prime minister. If Wickremasinghe stays neutral, President Rajapakse could end up with a hostile Parliament, quickly making him a weak president.
~ Arjuna Ranawana is a journalist based in Colombo