Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Is there a tiny chink of light at the end of Sri Lanka's tunnel?

Two years ago today, 26 January 2010, I left for Sri Lanka, for what was to be a 3 month adventure of a lifetime. It turned out to be one of the most life changing experiences I've ever had. I will never forget it, will be forever grateful for it and if you kick me out of parliament, I'll be back there in a flash!
Sri Lanka doesn't have a lot to be grateful for. A thirty year civil war that tore the country apart and prevented it developing at the rate it could have done. The Boxing Day tsunami that we all saw unfolding on our TV screens and the misery that followed. Numerous floods and bombs and corrupt politicians of all parties and, as a result of all that, far too many people living in dire poverty.
Today, 2 years after I first set foot on Sri Lankan soil, they are voting in the Presidential elections and I'm not sure either of the candidates gives cause for hope! I visited again last summer and I spoke to politicians and human rights activists about the incarceration of the Tamil people after the bloody end to the long war. The opposition MPs of course claimed that they would give the Tamils a far fairer deal. Ordinary people told me they were no less corrupt than the existing party of government. They said it was not possible to win an election if you showed any understanding of the needs of Tamil people.
And yet, here we have Mahinda Rajapaksa being challenged by the former head of his Sri Lankan Army, General Sarath Fonseka. And you would think, on the face of it, that there's not much point in that challenge seeing as they're both singing from the same songsheet. You can't help wondering what difference it will make.
Anyone who's been in Sri Lanka since the end of the war would have rated nobody's chances against Rajapaksa. The government-funded propaganda campaign is in your face and portrays Rajapaksa as anything from a conquering hero to a saint, the saviour of little children. It's hard to see how anyone could break through that. Indeed there wasn't much appetite amongst even journalists who were commenting that Sri Lanka would need no further elections, so great was this man! (Mind you, given the propensity of opposing journalists to "disappear", that was perhaps a good move!)
But it seems that the result, to be announced tomorrow, is, against all the odds, extremely close.
And whilst I really doubt what I'm about to say, and I mean REALLY doubt, you just never know: if Fonseka wins, he might just make a difference. Because he's running him close DESPITE the usual accusations of "cosying up to Tamils" and despite the public support from the Tamil National Alliance. Normally the kiss of death, that doesn't seem to be making a huge difference.
As I said I'm cynical the Tamil people have any real reason to believe in either of the presidential candidates. I will leave you with a quote from the man who COULD be the next President of Sri Lanka, Gen Fonseka.
In 2008 he said: "Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese" although minorities must also be treated "like our people".
A typically Nationalist (note the Upper Case "N") attitude but perhaps an acceptance that the Tamils deserve a better deal than they've had so far. I won't hold my breath but I WILL allow myself to hope that this little boy I'm pictured with, Aathif, who is Tamil and started nursery a fortnight ago, will have better life chances than his parents and grandparents all of whom were so kind to me two years ago.

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