Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has embarked on a mission to win over the minority communities since lately, apparently as a part of his effort to form a new political party. He last week convened a meeting of his Muslim loyalists at his office and also talked to the Tamil journalists separately.
During the meeting with his Muslim friends he had said that it was due to the lack of support by the Muslims he had lost the last Presidential election. He had expressed this view at an interview with the Japan Times as well during a recent visit to Japan.
However, he put the blame on a certain minister in his government as well as in the present government, claiming that the minister had threatened him to take to the streets with thousands of monks if his government took action against those who were harassing Muslims. He also had given an assurance that the Muslims would be protected in a future government of his.
While addressing the Tamil journalists the former President had stated that the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, who is in a centre of a controversy after his much publicized “Ezhuga Thamil” procession and the rally in Jaffna on September 24, was not a racist, but was playing politics. According to Tamil media he also had acknowledged the need to release the Tamil prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 9 PTA), a piece of legislation much hated by many in the North and the South. Rajapaksa had also repented his failure to address the Tamil people politically after the end of the war, though he had attached more emphasis on the economic development of the North during the period.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa talks to Muslims and Buddhist leaders in Athulgama, after the communal clash in 2014
Mr. Rajapaksa would have to go a long way in his endeavour to win over the minorities as he apparently has not diagnosed properly what went wrong with his relationship with the minorities. First and foremost point that can be attributed to his confrontational or at least lethargic attitude towards the problems of the minority communities was his overestimation of the impact of the war victory on the majority Sinhalese. After the 2010 Presidential and Parliamentary elections which endowed the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) with a near two thirds majority in the Parliament as they were held amidst an euphoria over the war victory, ministers of Rajapaksa government challengingly said that the era of auction of vote banks by the minority leaders had come to an end.
The then UPFA leadership seemed to have obsessed with this notion even five years after the war. However, Sinhalese who hailed Rajapaksa as a king after the war were gradually moving away from the government by 2012, due to economic reasons and high handed activities of the government. Tamils had already been at odds with the Rajapaksa government due to sentimental reasons after a Tamil rebellion was crushed by “Sinhalese” armed forces and Rajapaksa’s failure, as he had acknowledged, to address the Tamils politically. Hence, the support of the Muslims who had divided right in the middle at the 2010 Presidential and Parliamentary elections between the UPFA and the United National Party had been crucial.
However, it is doubtful as to whether Mr. Rajapaksa calculated the situation correctly. He might be correct when he stated during the meeting with Muslim friends that a foreign conspiracy was on to oust him, a point that had been pointed out by one of his right hand men and minister, Wimal Weerawansa as well during the Halal controversy in 2012 and 2013. But it was ignored by Rajapaksa.
Conspirators, if the foreign conspiracy theory holds water, had identified the significance of Muslim votes for Rajapaksa and had taken steps accordingly. According to Rajapaksa, the three year long tense situation due to controversies over Halal products, beef consumption and attacks on religious places have to be taken as a part of the conspiracy. However, he cannot blame the conspirators alone; since it seems that they had known that he could not or would not calm down the situation owing to his over reliance on the majority community as well as the mind set of leaders of the government.
The outcome is that the Halal products and beef consumption still exist in the country while Rajapaksa has gone. Besides, the former President’s assurances on the future protection too seem to be self-contradictory. If the alleged threat by a minister had been a valid justification of an executive President’s failure to maintain restraint in the country for about three years, it is also a negation of his assurance of protection to Muslims in a future government of his, since there is no assurance of non-recurrence of threats as well.
Mr. Rajapaksa must be commended for his acknowledgement of his failure to address the Tamil people politically. However, while he was saying that Wigneswaran was not a racist, one of his lieutenants, Udaya Gammanpila calls for the arrest of the same person. Likewise, while he acknowledges the need to release the PTA detainee, his team, the Joint Opposition agitates against such releases by the current regime.
Mr. Rajapaksa miserably missed a lot in this regard. His government easily could have conducted the Northern Provincial Council elections soon after the end of the war when the Tamil National Alliance was not so organized while the pro-government Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) was in a somewhat strong position. Even the Sinhalese hard liners such as Udaya Gammanpila who was then a bigwig in the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) suggested holding of that election in one of his columns “Pradeepaya” in Lankadeepa on June 29, 2011. But what happened was that leaders of the government, on the contrary, attempted to prune the Provincial Council’s powers before the election, further irritating Tamil leaders.
On the human rights front, the former government missed a very good opportunity to side step international pressure as well as to address the grievances of the Tamils, soon after the end of the war. The mood of the country was such that even the General Secretary of the JHU, Minister Champika Ranawaka suggested taking action against those who violated human rights during the war. Pointing out the action taken by former Prime Minister Sirimavo Banadaranaike against the perpetrators of rape and murder of Premawathie Manamperi during the JVP insurrection in 1971, Ranawaka in one of his columns “Doramadalawa” in Sunday Lankadeepa on June 26, 2011 argued that action against those who committed murder and rape during the war would deflate the international pressure. JVP also demanded a post-war policy of safeguarding human rights whereas the government acted otherwise.
The previous government was so lethargic in responding to the demand after the war by the Tamil leaders to release the lands occupied by the security forces during the war, but hurriedly agreed to release some of them on the eve of the Presidential election, which was too late. Also it is incomprehensible as to why the previous government as well as the present government were dragging their feet in releasing the Tamil prisoners, at least those who are languishing in prisons without any charge for years, (some even more than a decade) or to prosecute them.
However, the seeming mind change in the former President in winning over minorities must be encouraged on the one hand and he too, on the other, must be able to show his genuineness to the country in this endeavour.