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Sri Lankan election a last chance for healing

Supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa take to the streets wearing his party colours, chanting slogans and distributing propaganda material
(Dinidu de Alwis/Perambara)

Sri Lanka's first post-war election may not deliver any substantial improvement in healing long-lasting divides between the country's majority Singalese and minority Tamal communities unless the winner institutes substantive power sharing.

Neither of the frontrunners, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, nor his main challenger, former army commander Sarath Fonseka, has offered any concrete measures on how to address these issues after the 26 January poll.

Both have promised to be much more active in addressing the grievances of the country’s 2.64 million Tamil minority but have stopped well short of clearly defining what they plan to do.

“A lot will depend on how far the winner is willing to go,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based advocacy group National Peace Council. “[There are] a lot of promises, but no guarantees.”

The International Crisis Group echoed that sentiment in a report released on 11 January, Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace, which states that neither had offered credible proposals for political reforms that would address the marginalization of Tamils and other minorities.

“Whoever wins, donor governments and international institutions should use their development assistance to support reforms designed to protect the democratic rights of all of Sri Lanka’s citizens and ethnic communities,” the report said.

More than 14 million Sri Lankans are expected to elect their sixth executive president to a six-year term. 

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Both frontrunners are from the majority Sinhala community, thus making the minority Tamils, who comprise about 12 percent of the population, a deciding factor.

But Tamil politicians have divided themselves between Rajapaksa and Fonseka.

Tamil member of parliament Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna, who broke away from the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2004, supports the incumbent along with several other Tamil parliamentarians, while the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the major Tamil party in Sri Lanka's parliament, has weighed in behind Fonseka.

The TNA has the single largest representation in parliament with 21 members.

Crucial elections

Although their politics may differ widely, both camps agree the election is vital to the minority Tamils.

“For the first time all the voters are looking at the national picture and deciding. The Tamils know that their vote will be decisive at [the] national stage,” Muralitharan said.

“This is a very important election for the Tamil people. The reason is that this is the first time that we have asked the Tamils to support a candidate [outside the TNA],” Mavi Senathiraja, a TNA member of parliament, told IRIN.


A scene inside the Menik Farm camp outside Vavuniya following heavy rains on 17 August 2009. Menik Farms is the largest of 14 camps in the district, with more than 208,000 residents
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Interview with top government official on IDP camps, returns
A scene inside the Menik Farm camp outside Vavuniya following heavy rains on 17 August 2009. Menik Farms is the largest of 14 camps in the district, with more than 208,000 residents

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
A scene inside the Menik Farm IDP camp outside Vavuniya. Hundred of thousands of ethnic Tamils were displaced at the end of the war in 2009

The TNA has been calling for greater development of the Tamil areas and speedy resettlement of tens of thousands of civilians who were displaced by the final phase of the fighting last year between government forces and the LTTE, who had fought for an independent Tamil homeland for more than two decades.

More than 280,000 were displaced in the fighting and living in government camps soon after the war ended in May 2009.

Since December the government has accelerated their resettlement and some 170,000 have returned to their villages, but the TNA says the resettlement process is not to their satisfaction.

“The IDPs are not being resettled properly. They are taken from one camp to another. If this continues, the Tamils will lose their sense of belonging to a particular place; their sense of identity. Therefore, the Tamils have to vote in order to stop this,” Senathiraja told IRIN.

Political support

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe is backing Fonseka, and it was he who swayed TNA support, Perera said. A former prime minister and leader of the country’s largest political party, Wickremasinghe was the principal mover behind the 2004 peace accord with the Tigers and is largely seen by them as a more moderate national leader, although it is unclear what role, if any, he would play in a Fonseka government.

However, Senathiraja told IRIN that Fonseka and Wickremasinghe had promised to look at a long-term political solution to address Tamil grievances.

“They have responded in a positive way and have given us the assurance to address these issues,” Senathiraja said.

Photo: OCHA
More than 14 million Sri Lankans went to the polls on 26 January

“Fonseka has given us the assurance that he will make every effort for the reconciliation process once he is elected.”

However, Muralitharan still feels the incumbent holds the best chance for the Tamils, adding that a change of administration could derail ongoing development projects.

“The Tamils need to think before they vote. Many development projects are being carried out, especially in the north and east. There may be delays but all these will be affected if the wrong person is elected president.”

More autonomy for the Tamils has been a long-standing TNA demand, and the Tamils have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens.

In addition, they feel government decisions and policies in education, agriculture and natural resources have further marginalized them.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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