Opinion: JVP and TNA voters have seen thousands dead, but neither Presidential candidate seems to care

TNA leader R. Sampanthan and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake engage in talks on support for the 20th amendment which would abolish Sri Lanka's executive Presidency.

October 16, 2019 (LBO) – Violence in Sri Lanka has not been uncommon in the last few decades. Tens of thousands of people have been lost in civil wars and insurrections that have plagued the island nation for the past generation. Citizens of Sri Lanka know almost no other reality than one with a history of violence, militarisation, and fear.

As it stands today, Sri Lanka is a peaceful country, however concerns about security are at a multiyear high after ISIS inspired terrorists struck at churches and five star hotels this past Easter Sunday. The attacks left hundreds dead, and a population on edge with tensions among ethnic and religious communities elevated.

The security issue has become paramount again in the backdrop of a Presidential election which is now just 30 days away. The political fallout from the Easter Sunday terror attacks left the incumbent President and Prime Minister so damaged, that neither is coming forward in the election where close to 14 million people are expected to cast their ballots.

There are 2 major candidates that are likely to poll over 40% of the votes. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who successfully led Sri Lanka’s effort to militarily conclude a decades long civil war, has emerged as the frontrunner and will poll well over 40% of the total votes. Popular Cabinet Minister of Housing Sajith Premadasa (52), son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, is the second major candidate who will also poll over 40%.

With just 30 days until the election, the TNA is the only major political party that has yet to declare which candidate they will support, or whether they will participate in the election at all. Without their votes, Sajith Premadasa can not win the election, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa will walk virtually unobstructed into the Presidency. In order to win the election, Premadasa will likely have to secure the second preferences of the JVP voter as well. The JVP leader is contesting separately and will likely poll close to 5%.

It is therefore strange, that with election likely to be decided on the back of JVP and TNA votes, that no major candidate has made a concrete offer for their support. Not only that, no major candidate has even made a serious effort to empathise with their constituents, persons who have suffered the most from Sri Lanka’s civil war and insurrections.

The leading candidates for Sri Lanka’s Presidency just don’t seem to care about those who have suffered. Reconciliation and ethnic harmony are taking a back seat in political platforms, being superseded by security and economic development. The chants of protecting war heroes from both major candidates have overwhelmed calls to account for missing persons.

With regards to reconciliation, the two leading candidates are coming with major political baggage that has not been successfully offloaded. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has led a war effort which resulted rightly or wrongly in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Sajith Premadasa’s father, whose political legacy Sajith often takes ownership of, presided rightly or wrongly over the crushing of a JVP insurrection which also resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

Highlighting this loss of life is not meant to criticise the decisions made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa or President Premadasa which resulted in the loss of life, but rather to acknowledge that certain communities have suffered immensely. People were killed and maimed, children went missing and were never found, and families retain scars from these legacies that will remain till those who experienced such horrors are no more.

The major Presidential candidates in Sri Lanka need to show empathy and be contrite. Suffering needs to be acknowledged, apologies need to be tendered, and actions must be taken to try and heal the wounds. Denying them will not make them disappear. They will be remembered by voters who cast the ballots that will determine the next President of Sri Lanka.

Maybe Gotabaya Rajapaksa can politically afford to move on and focus the future. He may not need votes from the JVP and TNA to win. Maybe moving on is the right thing to do. There are some issues that are simply not possible to resolve.

However, if Sajith Premadasa wants to have a chance to win the Presidential election, he needs to deal with Sri Lanka’s dark past. Even if the sins of the past have nothing to do with him personally, he must show empathy. He needs the votes of those who have suffered. His narrow path to the Presidency is through them.