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London's Sri Lankans divided over presidential polls

Tamils protesting in London in 2009
Tamils protesting in London in 2009

By Saroj Pathirana
BBC Sinhala service

As voters in Sri Lanka prepare for the presidential elections on Tuesday, the expatriate community in London is divided not only on ethnic lines but also whether to encourage their relatives to vote.

It is estimated that there are nearly 200,000 Sri Lankans living in UK. While the minority community back at home, Tamils, form the majority among the diaspora, Sinhala and Muslims also form considerable numbers.

There have been no estimates, however, over the size of the Sri Lankan diaspora in London.

Nineteen candidates, including incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former military chief Gen (rtd.) Sarath Fonseka, are contesting to be the next head of state in Sri Lanka.

Rajesh Kumar, a founding member of the Tamil Tiger rebel group together with Velupillai Prabhakaran, has later become a strong critic of the LTTE.

He is currently a leader of Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF).

Mass protests

He says the SLDF "is concerned that neither of the major candidates has addressed the two most pressing needs facing the country: demilitarisation and a political settlement."

The enforced boycott of Tamil votes by the LTTE at last presidential elections paved the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa's victory. For many Sri Lankan Tamils, the military defeat of the LTTE in May last year was a huge shock.

The British Tamils Forum (BTF), a pro-LTTE lobby group that organised mass protests in London calling for immediate ceasefire during the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka, is yet to announce any cohesive policy over the elections.

Suren Surendiran, a senior member of the BTF, has meanwhile called on the Tamil voters in Sri Lanka not to vote for any of the main candidates.

One of the main reasons for the split between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army chief is who should get the credit for war victory.

Suren Surendiran is very critical of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, for agreeing to support the former military chief.

Quoting from the US campaigner Max Lerner in a recent opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper he says: "When you choose the lesser of two evils, always remember that it is still an evil."

Call for a boycott

The Tamil Legal Advocacy Project (TLAP), a London based campaign group for Sri Lankan Tamils, says it is concerned that many Tamil displaced people still remain disenfranchised and the ground situation is not conducive for people to vote in a free and fair election.

Sinhala pro-government protest
Sinhala pro-government protest

"If they are able to vote they should vote for a candidate who would accept the International Criminal Court's jurisdiction with respect to war crimes allegedly committed in Sri Lanka," a TLAP spokesman told the BBC Sinhala service.

Saba Navalan, a political activist and a writer, meanwhile says that Tamils cannot chose either of the main candidates as both are supported by "Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic" parties.

"This election is meaningless for Tamils. There is an opportunity before the people to express their disgust and opposition to the system and the main candidates; and the proper way to do it is to boycotting the elections," he said.

Strangely, though, there doesn't seem to be a strong support in the Tamil diaspora for the only Tamil candidate, MK Sivajilingam, MP.

Mr Sivajilingam, a member of the TNA political party has failed to get his party to support his candidacy.

"On the one hand the Tamil candidate is breaking up the TNA," a Tamil human rights activist who wished to remain anonymous told the BBC.

"We cannot support the TNA stance at the elections, but at the same time breaking up the TNA is not going to help Tamils in Sri Lanka," he said.

Though Sri Lanka allows duel citizenship, unlike in some other democracies there are no arrangements made for diaspora communities to vote at national polls.

Sinhala community

Then why is the diaspora in London so concerned about the elections far away in Sri Lanka especially as they have no voting rights?

"Future of our families in Sri Lanka depends on this election," says Ajith Dharmakeerthi, a Chartered IT Professional from Enfield.

He is a member of the Sinhala community which is also heavily divided over political allegiances.

Accusing the West and certain NGOs of being partial towards the main opposition candidate, Mr Dharmakeerthi says he is lenient towards the incumbent.

"Removing GSP Plus just near to the elections and Transparency International's announcement of theft of Tsunami fund are well timed to influence voters. But no one is discussing real issues like peace and reconciliation," he told the BBC Sinhala service.

Darshana Hettiarachchi, main organiser of opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in London, says that Gen Fonseka is the best choice for voters.

His party supports Gen Fonseka's candidacy who has pledged to abolish the extremely powerful executive presidential system.

"It is fundamentally wrong and undemocratic to allow one individual to decide on the fate of a nation," Mr Hettiarachchi told the BBC.

"And we have seen how the executive presidency was exploited for nepotism and corruption," he said adding that the expatriates have a right to influence politics at home as the country depends a lot on foreign exchange revenues sent by them.

Janaka Alahapperuma, a journalist and a member of Sri Lankans Against Terrorism (SLAT) campaign group says, though very concerned about pre-election violence, he would like to see President Rajapaksa re-elected.

"On 18 May the whole country was united under one flag," he said commenting on the military victory over the Tamil Tigers.

"But now the country is once again equally divided. Whoever wins the elections, this division will definitely hamper future development."

Tamil group backs former general
06 Jan 10 |  South Asia
Sri Lanka timeline
04 Feb 11 |  Country profiles
Sri Lanka president woos Tamils
12 Jan 10 |  South Asia



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