The Sunday Leader

Rajapaksa’s ‘Long March’

  • Sri Lanka Perspectives: July 2016

by Col. R. Hariharan

President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa

In a bid to deprive the support base of President Maithripala Sirisena within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and to rally his supporters former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was leading a Pada Yathra from Kandy to Colombo from July 28 scheduled to end on August 1.  The 117 km walk vended its way despite various efforts to obstruct its progress.

The United National Party (UNP) partner of SLFP in the ruling coalition caused some anxious moments to the organisers of the Pada Yathra in their passage through the strongholds of two UNP ministers. The Colombo Hyde Park venue for a meeting at the end of the march has also raised some questions.

Though President Sirisena did not directly criticise the Pada Yathra, in a veiled attack on Rajapaksa, he said “If the former leaders had performed their duties and governed properly, there would not be a need for them to undertake long marches for political purposes, hurting their feet.” However, the President made his mind clear at a meeting of SLFP members. He warned that those found working against the party would be removed from the SLFP; despite this 40 members of the joint opposition are reported to have joined Rajapaksa’s long march indicating the divisions within the SLFP.

Banners carried in the long march sported slogans such as “Stop the political witch hunt”, “Don’t arrest soldiers”, “Hold the postponed LG elections”, “No foreign war crimes courts,” “Stop removal of subsidies for people” and “Ninety two ministers; What’s is the difference.” These reflect Rajapaksa’s points of criticism of Sirisena government aimed at whipping up nationalist sentiments and take a dig at the lack of progress in Sirisena’s electoral promises.


Jaffna University students clash

A clash between a group of Tamil and Sinhalese undergraduate students studying at the University of Jaffna’s Science Faculty on July 16 resulting in injuries to four Sinhalese students, including one seriously injured, has highlighted the continuing ethnic divide between the two communities though the Eelam War ended seven years ago.

The Jaffna University had been admitting Sinhalese students since 2011. Well known columnist DBS Jeyaraj to say a quarter of the Jaffna University’s undergraduate population of 6,590 were Sinalese predominantly in the science faculty. Generally, their relationship with the faculty and Tamil students had been cordial though lack of knowledge of each others’ language and limited proficiency in English restricted their mingling.  However, Sinhalese students had minor grievances like non availability of campus accommodation and understanding circulars which were only in Tamil. Though there had been mixed cultural events in the past, where Sinhala and Tamil students had participated together, this year the Freshers welcome event organised had been the source of friction. Unlike the previous years when the Kandyan dancers were allowed to perform indoors, this year Sinhalese students requested that they be allowed to join the welcome procession along with Tamil drummers. This was not acceptable to Tamil students and the faculty decided to continue with the old format. This resulted in clashes between factions of Sinhalese and Tamil students. The Dean quickly intervened and sent the Sinhalese students to their homes.

The government has sensibly tried to play down the incident.  However, it is to the credit of President Sirisena not to shy away from discussing the issue. While inaugurating a training institute in Kilinochchi, he referred to the student clash at Jaffna University and said “reconciliation should be included in the school curriculum as a subject. All our educational institutions should be reformed to prevent recurrence of an incident such as that which occurred in Jaffna.”

He also told the Sinhala Buddhist community that they would be able to “live happily only after solving the issue pertaining to the issues pertaining to other communities in the country and first step in this regard is to acknowledge that the people in the North have a problem to solve.”Political parties, particularly the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have generally not allowed political polemics to overtake the need for maintaining harmonious relations between the two communities. The University authorities have already appointed a committee to inquire into the incident and the Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella has promised to punish those guilty.  Northern Province chief minister CV Wigneswaran has suggested appointing a commission to inquire into the incident lest it creates further disharmony.

However, inevitably the event has drawn attention to bitter feelings still simmering in the two communities due their factitious relationship in the past. Tamil grievances over continued military occupation of their land, signs of Sinhala Buddhist cultural “invasion” and Tamils own sordid experience of ethnic abuse and discrimination at the hands of Sinhalas. Mischief mongers already seem to be at work as provocative posters in Sinhala have appeared social media though Sinhalese students have disowned them. In the past, Jaffna University students have shown strong pro-LTTE sentiments and parties toeing the Eelam line still enjoy strong following.

It is high time shows both communities and the government redouble their efforts at the social and political level to rebuild bridges between the two communities lest chauvinists on both sides exploit the event to further damage the situation. The incident sows, the Sirisena government efforts at ethnic reconciliation is still a work in progress despite claims of success.

 [Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 90. E-mail:  Blog: ] 

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, August 2016 issue


1 Comment for “Rajapaksa’s ‘Long March’”

  1. This man is clutching at straws!!

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