Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: The irony of the LTTE boycott

Arthur Rhodes explores the politics that obscure the stories of Tamil people in Sri Lanka

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The decision of the Sri Lankan rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to withhold its crucial endorsement from both candidates in the Nov. 17 presidential election has sparked a wildfire of debate and conjecture in the Sri Lankan media.

The most popular theory of the moment alleges that the de facto Tiger boycott is an intentional move to sabotage the candidacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. What is ironic -- or at least seems to be -- about this theory is that Wickremesinghe is generally seen as being much softer in his stance towards the rebels than his opponent Mahinda Rajapaske.

Both men are Sinhalese and both are faced with the daunting task of resolving Sri Lanka's protracted ethnic conflict. "The national question," as it is called here, has plagued every executive politician since the country's 1948 independence.

Wickremesinghe, the candidate of the United National Party, has remained conspicuously silent on the national question. Rajapaske, of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, has allied himself with the nation's two most vocal nationalist parties. This move seems to have alienated a large number of the island's Tamils, who believe that Rajapaske and his alliance will bring with them a return to the days of oppression at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.

The LTTE, however, has declared both men intolerable and thus unsupportable.

At a press conference last Thursday, LTTE political leader, R. Samdandan, told the media that "the Tamil people do not have reason to be concerned with this election...they have no faith in the Sinhala leadership. As a result, our people are not prepared to be deceived any longer." [CORRECTION 11/22/05: Samdandan is a leader of the Tamil National Alliance, or TNA, the political wing of the Tamil seperatist movement. He is not a leader of the LTTE.]

Rajapaske's alliance with jingoists is a clear threat to the aspirations of the Tamil people, the LTTE says, and Wickremesinghe's reluctance to take a stance demonstrates that he lacks the political will to make the unpopular decisions that can ensure a long-standing peace.

Because Rajapaske, in the eyes of most Tamil voters, should clearly be the more repugnant of the two candidates, the LTTE's unofficial boycott is certainly damaging to Wickremesinghe's campaign. Regardless of his nebulous stance on the national question, Wickremesinghe has been slated to receive the "lesser-of-the-evils" vote from those Tamil citizens still determined to engage with the political process. Tiger leadership officially says that it will do nothing to physically discourage any of its citizens from crossing over into government territory to cast their vote, but even an unofficial boycott will be enough to keep many would-be voters away from the polls.

The LTTE's decision to abstain is clearly an expression of the apathy with which many Tamils view national politics. However, there is perhaps a more cynical explanation for their disengagement, and it is this explanation that has received the lion's share of the media's attention over the past few weeks.

With their unintentional -- or, at least, unofficial -- sabotage of the Wickremesinghe campaign, the LTTE has given a huge boost to Rajapaske's campaign. Wickremesinghe is a neo-liberal who knows that the foreign investors he covets will never come to Sri Lanka in the droves that he desires until a lasting peace is in place. For this reason alone, the LTTE could see Wickremesinghe as a potential ally in the quest for peace -- a quest that they say they have been long ready to undertake -- but Wickremesinghe has also proven in the past that he is willing to accommodate the wishes of the LTTE. As Prime Minister in 2002, it was Wickremesinghe who signed the Cease Fire Agreement which officially ended hostilities and still stands today, albeit precariously.

For this it seems that the LTTE might be willing to forgive the candidate's silence about the national problem. With the recent assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a move that sent outrage rippling throughout the international community and is widely considered to be the work of the LTTE, the nationalist flag is flying fairly high. This is no time to appear to be an LTTE appeaser.

Set against this backdrop, it seems credible to speculate that the LTTE might perhaps be maneuvering for a Rajapaske victory.

True, Wickremesinghe might reinvigorate the peace talks, but as the LTTE showed in 1995 when they walked out after six months of unproductive negotiations, they can quickly run out of patience with talking. A heavy increase in killings and attacks against military personnel seems to indicate that the Tigers have begun to run out of patience with the ceasefire as well. They cannot, however, openly return to war with their current reputation within the international community in shambles. Amidst calls for an all-out ban on the organization as a terrorist group, the Tigers were officially prohibited from travel within Europe shortly after Kardirgamar's assassination, a development that has greatly hurt their ability to lobby their case for a separate homeland.

With the world's patience at an all-time low, the LTTE must know that a capricious move toward open hostilities could bring any number of countries to the rescue of the Sri Lankan government.

A win by Rajapaske and the jingoists, however, could allow the LTTE to proclaim the situation unsalvageable and begin lobbying the international community to support their bid for a separate state. The death of a tsunami aid-sharing mechanism at the hands of the Sinhalese nationalists -- the same parties Rajapaske has aligned himself with -- has been a key aspect of the Tiger's lobbying package and was beginning to convince many that the LTTE had a legitimate contention. The mechanism would have given the LTTE sovereignty over the distribution of foreign funds intended for tsunami survivors living in their areas. LTTE leadership says the nationalists, in striking down the agreement, have badly hampered the process of post-tsunami reconstruction in the northeast.

A Rajapaske victory, therefore, offers them a pitch of moral high ground from which they can launch a renewed campaign for independence.

So, it seems logical to assume that the LTTE might in fact intend to nominate Rajapaske with their unofficial boycott of the elections, and many analysts have begun to speculate that this is, in fact, what they hope to accomplish.

This speculation, however, ignores the agency of a crucial actor in the electoral process: the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. If the Tamil vote on Thursday's election is untraditionally low, analysts across the island will write for days of the LTTE's election boycott and its consequences on the outcome. If Rajapaske actually wins, the Tamil people will be cited as pawns in the great LTTE elections coupe of 2005.

There is a danger, though, that the actual truth -- that at least some Tamils feel hopelessly apathetic toward their nation's political system -- will be summarily forgotten. Ironically, many of the Tamils who choose to abstain will do so because they are disenchanted with a system that has long ignored their voices.

Editor's Note: Arthur Rhodes visited Sri Lanka's Northeastern Province last week to speak with people about their expectations, hopes and aspirations for the upcoming election. What he found was not shocking: many people in the region do not feel compelled to vote. What was shocking, however, was what they had to say about the future of their country.

Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Tamils explain why they will not vote