Face-off


It is to take advantage of his current popularity that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to advance presidential polls by almost two years. Following the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May this year, the Sri Lankan president has emerged as a Sinhala-Buddhist hero. And it is to win himself another six-year term as president before this wave of support begins to dissipate that Rajapaksa has gone in for early elections. While he does indeed enjoy immense popularity, it does seem he will have to fight for the vote of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists. This is because former Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka, who led the military operations against the LTTE and is far more of a ‘war hero’ than is Rajapaksa, is likely to challenge the president. Fonseka is expected to contest as the common candidate of a new opposition alliance of around a dozen political parties, ensuring a keen battle between him and Rajapaksa.

With the contest for the Sinhala vote likely to be close, neither of the candidates can afford to ignore the votes of the island’s minority communities — the Tamils and the Muslims. And it is with this in mind that the two have made positive gestures towards the Tamils in recent days. In his resignation letter to the president last week, Fonseka expressed ‘great concern’ over the plight of nearly 2,00,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) still living in camps in northern Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa has sought to match that by announcing that all IDPs would be resettled by January 31. He has said that by early next month restrictions on the freedom of movement of the IDPs would be lifted.

For the lakhs of Tamils who have been languishing in the IDP camps, this is good news. They can leave the barbed wire camps to return home again. But what awaits them at home is another story. Very little infrastructure has survived the intense fighting that took place in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. The Tamils will need more than expressions of concern as they have suffered grievously. Fonseka and Rajapaksa will have to do more to erase the memory and devastation of a terrible war the former waged and the latter authorised.

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