The Deepest Division in Sri Lanka

The deepest division in Sri Lanka is not the so-called ethnic divide but the split between supporters of democracy and supporters of totalitarianism, and the recent elections proved this point. Bitter arguments within the Sinhalese community generated by the candidacy of Sarath Fonseka completely demolished the manufactured image of a community united behind Mahinda Rajapaksa which had been projected immediately after the end of the war. There was understandable relief among Sinhalese that there would be no more bomb blasts in buses, trains, shops and markets, no more young men being sent to the front to die in their thousands or come back disabled. But this did not necessarily translate into universal approval for Rajapaksa.

Gratitude to Rajapaksa for winning the war was indeed the main reason why Sinhalese voted for him. There were also negative perceptions of Fonseka. His opponent was a seasoned politician, Fonseka a novice, and he lacked the charisma that might have compensated for this deficit. An atrocious speaker, his abusive language put off many Sinhalese, while traditionalists found it unseemly that he should stand against his former boss. The rag-tag coalition backing him, including parties which had earlier been sworn enemies of each other, did not help. Among Tamils, he was seen as a Sinhala chauvinist who shared responsibility for the carnage at the end of the war.    

Given these circumstances, it is surely amazing that 4.2 million votes were cast for Fonseka. Indeed, it is likely there would have been many more had the election been free and fair. Statements by the Election Commissioner before the election and while announcing the results made it clear that his guidelines had been ignored by the ruling UPFA, and that he was unable to ensure the safety of even one ballot box. It is true that he later recanted under pressure, but that does not make his earlier statements untrue: Galileo too was forced to recant under pressure after arguing that the earth moves and is not the centre of the universe, but that did not make his original statement untrue! Reports by independent monitors like CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections) confirm that Fonseka might have received many more votes if the election had been free and fair.

So why did people vote for Fonseka? Tamils felt Rajapaksa was responsible for the unspeakable cruelty inflicted on the survivors after the war. Civilians who escaped from the war zone cursing the LTTE (Liberation Tigers) for holding them hostage and using them as human shields, conscripting adults and children to be used as slave labour and cannon fodder, found themselves locked up in internment camps, unable even to look for missing family members. It was only when Fonseka entered the electoral fray that most of them were released, and to this day the majority live in flimsy shelters without adequate rations. Although the promises of basic human rights made in Fonseka’s electoral manifesto and a signed letter to the TNA were minimal, it was more than Tamils could expect from Rajapaksa.

For Sinhalese who voted for Fonseka – and it is worth pointing out that the majority of those who voted for him were Sinhalese – the catastrophic erosion of democratic rights and good governance during Rajapaksa’s first term was the most serious concern. The arrest of Fonseka after the election was allegedly because he was planning a coup, but any intelligent person might ask: why would he leave the army if he were planning a military coup? Obviously one of the real reasons was that he had challenged Rajapaksa in the polls, although that is surely not a crime. And the reason he was arrested by military police for court martial was that if he had been charged in a civilian court, he would have had to be released for lack of evidence, as many of his arrested supporters were; whereas a military tribunal, in which the officers are beholden to their commander-in-chief Mahinda Rajapaksa, would effectively be a kangaroo court.

The insinuation in a post-election speech by Rajapaksa that the millions of people who voted for Fonseka were traitors evoked this eloquent response from one such voter:

‘Now I, along with 4.17 mn. other citizens, am being compelled to accept … that a personal choice in the exercise of the franchise, is an act of treachery against my country. As a citizen I need to consider this statement seriously and with trepidation; to me it seems to carry with it an ominous echo of approaching fascism, a suppression of civil liberties and a denial of a citizen’s fundamental right … I decided to take a risk with the unknown and unlovable Fonseka, in the hope that a change would bring about … order in to what is fast becoming a lawless society; that marauding parliamentarians would at last be as equally subject to legal restriction, as any Citizen Perera; that public and private corruption would be minimized or curtailed to an extent that it is no longer a suppurating sore on the body public; that journalists who voice a dissenting point of view could ply their trade without incurring the risk of armed attack, abduction and even loss of life; that unaligned news broadcasters could function without fear of being shut down for disseminating unpalatable truths; that the unconscionable expenditure of public funds on the aggrandizement of the politically powerful could be halted; that the minorities of this country who have suffered loss of life, livelihood, shelter, education and the opportunity of participation in mainstream national activity, would at last be given equal opportunities along with the majority. I sincerely believe that some, if not all of these issues, would have been in the minds of many of those who voted for Fonseka on the 26th of January.’


The signs were so alarming that the Mahanayakes of all four Buddhist chapters issued an invitation to a meeting at the Dalada Maligawa to discuss democracy and good governance. The fact that the meeting had to be postponed indefinitely due to threats of violence by Rajapaksa supporters was, ironically, proof of the very danger that the Mahanayakes had feared.  

A substantial section of the electorate of Sri Lanka is willing to back the Rajapaksa regime despite all this, and we can conclude that they benefit from, or can live with, a totalitarian state. The majority of those who voted for Fonseka, on the other hand, did so because they felt that was the only chance for democratic change. Taken together with those who did not vote at all because they felt Fonseka was not a credible candidate, and those who belatedly awakened to the dire situation after the arrest of Fonseka, we might conclude that supporters of democracy constitute the majority.

That is the good news. The bad news is that they lack political leadership. It was predictable that the opposition alliance would disintegrate after the presidential election, and that in itself is not a disaster. If the opposition parties could work together to defend democracy – for example, to oppose the renewal of the Emergency and make sure that the parliamentary elections are free and fair – then they could still play a positive role.

The problem arises because of the past record of leaders of the some of the parties. Wickremasinghe was part of the government during the Jayawardene and Premadasa regimes, and implicated in the destruction of democracy and atrocities against Tamils in 1983 and Sinhalese in the late 1980s.

Unless he is replaced as leader of the UNP, it cannot take the moral high ground. The JVP needs to critique its past totalitarianism and anti-Tamil bias; while the TNA, which has correctly distanced itself from the LTTE demand for Tamil Eelam, also needs to distance itself from the LTTE’s authoritarianism, its killings of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians and ethnic cleansing of Northern Muslims. These parties must strengthen their own democratic credentials if they are to spearhead a democracy movement in Sri Lanka.

Rohini Hensman is an an idependent scholar, writer, and activist based in India and Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Rohini.

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  1. kalidas said on March 9th, 2010 at 10:57am #

    Please don’t expect any of the three desert so-called religions and their societies/adherents, whether conformists or not, to give one iota of interest in what amounts to Buddhists vs. Hindus.

    In this case, East is East and West is West and well, you know the rest..