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SRI LANKA: Elections Planned in Ex-Tamil Tiger Country

IPS Correspondents

BATTICALOA, Mar 13 2008 (IPS) - Having secured local body polls in alliance with the armed Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), Sri Lanka’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) now plans to hold provincial elections in this eastern district, seized by the army from the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) 10 months ago.

At the Batticaloa civic body polls  Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

At the Batticaloa civic body polls Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told newspersons in Colombo on Wednesday that the plan to hold provincial elections was part of a road map to solve the ethnic conflict on the island, as promised when the government unilaterally abrogated its 1992 ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in January.

The TMVP’s landslide victory was expected after the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) boycotted the local polls held on Monday, on the grounds that situation was not conducive for free and fair elections. Both the UNP and the TNA are now opposed to the government’s plan to hold provincial elections in the district.

A splinter of the LTTE the TMVP was formed in April 2004 by Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna, after he broke away from the Tamil Tigers. It is now led by Sivasuntharai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, who led an internal putsch against Karuna last year.

Bogollagama welcomed the TMVP victory as a triumph for democracy. ‘’Firstly, areas formerly under terrorism have now come under democratic rule. Secondly, a group that used to engage in terrorist activities entered the democratic process. Thirdly, the success of the election has paved the way for the conduct of provincial council elections, probably in May," he said.

But others, including election monitors, have expressed fears that a still armed TMVP&#39s democratic credentials were yet to be established. "They are yet to give up weapons – that is a worry," said Kingsley Rodrigo, head of the citizen-based, election monitoring body People’s Action For Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL).

Several rights groups have accused the TMVP of child recruitment, extortion, murder and abductions.

An independent report ‘Afraid to Say Even a Word: Elections in Batticaloa,’ released on Feb. 27 by a group of nine civil society organisations, had described the elections as ‘’legitimising brutality through forced political authority and participation’’.

According to the report, the presence of international and independent election monitors only brought on the possibility of legitimising the elections, to which most people were apathetic. "The perpetrators of violence have sought to make a good impression on election monitors as they seek to legitimise their influence on local communities by entering mainstream politics while retaining their arms and using them as they wish," the report said.

"Faced with mortal fear of post-election retaliation, affected communities feel unable to report violations or even protest against them,’’ the report said. It also spoke of a nomination process which ‘’involved violence against unwilling candidates’’.

As the truce collapsed, rights groups reported a spiral in killings, abductions and disappearances that were blamed on the armed forces, the LTTE or the TMVP. Many saw it as a renewed phase of the civil war raging on the island since 1983 and responsible for more than 70,000 deaths.

The TMVP has denied indulging in violence or intimidation and said that the elections were important for establishing itself as a genuine political party. "It will mark our entry as a political party and we know how valuable it is to us," said Edwin Krishnantharaja, alias Pradeep Master, who came second in the preferential votes for the Batticaloa municipality.

"There was a lot of pressure, especially on the TNA not to contest," Manorajan Rajasingham, PAFFREL’s district coordinator in Batticaloa, told IPS.

"Had our party fielded candidates, they would have been brutally murdered by the paramilitary groups,’’ said TNA member of parliament for Batticaloa, S. Jeyanandmoorthy. ‘’I was unable to visit my own constituency."

Rajasingham said the absence of political rivalry resulted in lowered violence, especially in the Tamil majority areas. "They (TMVP) know that they stand to lose more than gain if violence erupts," he said.

But the boycott also severely narrowed the choices available for voters. Rukshan Fernando of the Colombo-based advocacy forum, the Law and Society Trust (LST), told IPS that most people he met in Batticaloa seemed uninterested in the elections. ‘’They don’t have much choice in selecting candidates, which is what an election is all about," Fernando said.

"There is scepticism that a militant group, namely the TMVP, which is armed and whose former leader (Karuna) is on the verge of facing charges of war crimes in Britain, has overnight had a change of heart and entered into the democratic mainstream," Fernando said.

PAFFREL said in a statement that a good voter response was an indication that the civilians wanted a change. "The relatively healthy turnout of voters is an indication of the desire of the people for a change from the conditions of war and militancy and for a restoration of democratic institutions," it said.

That is a sentiment shared by most of those who cast a vote for the first time in almost 15 years. ‘’Let’s hope that at least this time we will have peace," Kanapathipillai Thangaraja, a voter, told IPS.

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