"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
 
- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

UNP loses in the South

April 1994

The Sinhala dominated United National Party which had ruled Sri Lanka since 1977, suffered its first major defeat at the Provincial Council elections for the Southern Province when it lost heavily to the opposition Sinhala Peoples Alliance led by Chandrika Kumaratunga in early 1994. It was a defeat which paved the way for the Peoples Alliance victory at the Parliamentary Polls later in the year and the subsequent election of Chandrika Kumaratunga as Sri Lanka President.


What went wrong for the UNP in the South? The SLFP led People's Alliance victory with 54% of the votes and, in Parliamentary electoral terms, 20 out of 21 seats, reportedly sent the Colombo stock market into a tail spin. But why did the UNP which had so easily 'won' in the East lose so badly in the South? After all in the East, just three weeks previously, on 1 March, ballot boxes had been stuffed with impunity. Why was the UNP unable to stuff the ballot boxes in the South?

For one thing, it is always easier to stuff ballot boxes where the registered voters have been either driven by the army into 'refugee camps' or have fled from their homes to the North for safety. For another, in the East, where the Sri Lanka army is waging war against the Tamil people, the Sinhala army and Sinhala goon squads had little compunction in using their armed force, quite openly, on what was after all an alien Tamil people. John Stuart Mill put it rather well many years ago in 1872:

''Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities... the grand and only effectual security in the last resort against the despotism of the government is in that case wanting: the sympathy of the army with the people. Soldiers to whose feelings...the subjects of the same government are foreigners, will have no more scruple in mowing them down, and no more reason to ask the reason why, than they would have in doing the same thing against declared enemies''

In the South, however, there were limits to which a Sinhala security force could be used against its own Sinhala people. It was the same limitation which prevented President Premadasa from resorting to aerial bombardment of the Sinhala South, even at the height of the JVP insurgency. Here, the comment by the unsuccesful UNP Chief Minister candidate M.S.Amarasiri, tells its own sorry tale. He said that one of the reasons for the UNP defeat was ''the way 'some' police officers were behaving in the South during the elections!''

Again, a week before the elections, the SLFP General Secretary, D.M.Jayaratne, in a 6 page letter to the Election Commissioner (copied to Buddhist religious leaders, and newspaper editors) had threatened a mass uprising if the elections were tampered with. He said:

''In the Eastern elections on March 1, we are aware that fully armed highly placed UNPers with the help of certain Police officers have gone to police stations, intimidated the polling staff, placed a cross against the Elephant (the UNP symbol) and forcibly put them into ballot boxes... We earnestly appeal to prevent attempts being made unfairly to win the Southern Provincial Council elections by the violations of laws... which otherwise would provoke the masses to act against the abuse of power by the government''

So it was that the UNP which 'won' in the East was routed in the South. After the results, UNP General Secretary, Sirisena Cooray said: 'What surprises me is that in a predominantly Sinhala South the UNP lost.'

But if a government has presided over the liquidation of 60,000 of its own Sinhala people (many of them from the South) over a period of two years, it should not be too surprised if the relations and friends of the dead harbour a deep seated grievance against the ruling party and all that it stands for.

In the Provincial Council elections in early 1993, that opposition vote was split between the Peoples Alliance and the DUNF. This time round, the Peoples Alliance polled the DUNF vote as well, leading UNP General Secretary, Sirisena Cooray to comment: ''The return of Gamini Dissanayake to the UNP did not help'. But, then, neither did the discovery of the mass graves in Suriyakanda, in early January this year, further the UNP cause.

However, the state controlled Sri Lanka Sunday Observer was not altogether wrong when it said, a week before the elections: ''The deep south may be radical in complexion, but it is also Sinhala territory where Sinhala Buddhist sentiment forms the bed rock of the political discourse.''

After all, the deep South was JVP territory and Rohana Wijeweera was not always backward in pitching his appeal to Sinhala chauvinism. But, in the event, President Wijetunga's brand of Sinhala chauvinism was not enough to erase the memory of 60,000 killings and bridge the increasing alienation of the Sinhala rural voter, from the ruling Sinhala elite 'living it up' in urban Colombo.

Furthermore, SLFP's Chandrika Kumaranatunga was careful not to offend basic Sinhala chauvinist sentiment. She stated repeatedly: 'We are against Eelam. We are for devolution without Provincial Councils'.

The sophisticated Sinhala voter in the South had enough political savvy to know that devolution (with or without provincial councils) was, ofcourse, the 'run around' that Sinhala political parties had given the Tamil people for more than 40 years. Again the voters were well aware that the SLFP had a respectable Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist pedigree dating back to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's Sinhala Only and Eksath Bhikku Peramuna days.

Also, the unsuccesful UNP Chief Minister candidate, M.S.Amarasiri's assessment that the UNP defeat was due to 'residual JVP elements being involved in the Peoples Alliance campaign' was significant.

In the 1970 General Election, for instance, the JVP backed Mrs.Bandaranaike's SLFP as the 'softer' option and within an year of the SLFP win, the first JVP insurrection broke out. The SLFP victory in the Southern Province may well be a sign that the JVP is regrouping with intent to settle old scores.

It is not that the JVP loves the Peoples Alliance (led by Vijaya Kumaranatunga's wife and which includes its old enemies the CP and the LSSP) but that it loves the UNP far less. JVP strategists may well have felt that 17 years in office had consolidated the UNP stranglehold on the levers of patronage and power and that the immediate need was to defeat the UNP and loosen that grip.

Be that all as it may, the election results also show that as the unwinnable war against Tamil Eelam has progressed, the internal contradictions in the Sinhala body politic have begun to fester and surface. It was not only a matter of the colossal annual defence budget of Rs.25 billion rupees and the soaring cost of living that the Sinhala rural poor have had to face. As Pooneryn showed, it was the Sinhala rural poor who have had to offer their children as cannon fodder in an unjust war against the Tamil people - and it has become increasingly difficult to hide this truth from the Sinhala people

What then of the immediate future? Asiaweek commented in September 1991 :

'In the end it is Sinhalese, not Tamils who must answer the question: Is Tamil Eelam worth dying for?''

Presumably, the 15,000 Sinhala youth who deserted the Sri Lanka Army last year also asked the same question and gave their answer with their feet.

But, those in the ruling Sinhala establishment whose children are not in the line of fire in the Wanni, may look at events differently from the kith and kin of the Sinhala foot soldiers, from rural homes and who are putting their lives at risk at the front.

Again, the UNP may find it difficult to eat its own jingoism without further loss of political credibility and it may prefer to fool itself into believing that a military adventure in the NorthEast is the answer to its poor showing in the Southern Province. And, ofcourse, political parties facing predictable defeat at the polls usually change pillows to cure the prospective headache and President Wijetunga cannot be sleeping too soundly these days.

However, in the end, so far as the Tamil people are concerned, it is not a matter of great moment as to who rules Sinhala Sri Lanka - what matters is that whoever who rules does not seek to extend his (or her) rule to Tamil Eelam. And here the bottom line, as always, is the strength of the resistance led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the extent to which that strength is nourished by the Tamil people.

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