Sri Lanka’s Domestic Politics: Camp Closures and the Coming Election

Sri Lankan Consul General Bandula Jayasekara on the progress of closing government-run camps housing Tamils and Canada-Sri Lanka relations.

The United Nations’ John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, recently ended his inspection of the Sri Lankan camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The camps were created by the Sri Lankan Government to house the hundreds of thousands of people (mostly Tamils) who were fleeing the fierce fighting in the rapidly shrinking territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) in the final phase of the civil war. Holmes observes that 1,000 to 3,000 people are leaving the camps every day and the camps are expected to be empty by January 31, 2010.

There is now a debate on why the camps are being closed.

The Sri Lankan Government has maintained since the end of the civil war that all the camps would be closed once the Tamil Tigers hiding among the civilians had been found and the landmines in civilian areas had been cleared. Some where sceptical of this position, but perhaps the Sri Lankan Government is proving them wrong.

Others believe that the international community’s pressure on the Sri Lankan Government has forced the closure of the camps.

However, a developing theory on the closure of the camps centres on the coming Sri Lankan election. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to easily win the coming election. Then General Sarath Fonseka resigned from the military.

Fonseka, who led the final assault on the LTTE, said in his resignation letter that he had been sidelined since the end of the conflict by government officials who feared his personal popularity would lead to a coup. Many were expecting Fonseka to run for president. In his farewell letter to his soldiers, Fonseka wrote, “I want to assure you that I will commit myself to protect democratic freedoms which we are rapidly losing.”

These suspicions were proven correct today, as the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), announced Fonseka will be their presidential candidate. The election date will be set in the coming days, but the Sri Lankan media is anticipating a Jan. 23, 2010 poll date.

According to the Times of India, support for Fonseka and Rajapaksa among Sinhala nationalists is almost equally split, so in a surprising move the presidential candidates will have to fight for Tamil support.

Thus, President Rajapaksa’s decision to close the camps is being interpreted by some as an attempt to gain Tamil support. Even though President Rajapaksa isn’t considered popular among the country’s Tamil community, he could be seen as preferable to General Fonseka who conducted military operations in areas with large Tamil populations.

While Tamils may become a fought-over group in the Sri Lankan election, they still face many challenges. There are still concerns about the conditions in the camps. Also, Al Jazeera English reported on Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing the country out of fear being second-class citizens in post-war Sri Lanka.

Original Post | TVO | November 24 2009

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