Home » News

Elections arouse little enthusiasm in northern Sri Lanka – The National Newspaper

[MISC, Friday, 17 July 2009 07:52 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s northern region, finally cleared of Tamil guerrillas, goes to the polls next month for the first election to local councils in 11 years, but the contest has failed to excite remaining residents not displaced by the fighting.

“The people aren’t interested. They have too many problems on their hands,” said a lawyer by telephone from the northern town of Jaffna, nearly 400km from the country’s capital, Colombo. “Look … the situation hasn’t improved after the war ended. Military checkpoints and roadblocks still remain.”

Polls are being held for local councils on Aug 8 in only two areas – Jaffna and Vavuniya – both of which have been under government control for many years.

In the case of other areas, gradually freed of rebel control over a two-year period culminating in May, when government troops defeated the last remaining rebels and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, residents are yet to return to their homes due to unexploded land mines and badly damaged infrastructure.

The two council elections are the first since 1998 in the northern region, which has been troubled by separatist violence since 1983. Jaffna, the birthplace of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, is likely to see government-backed parties winning the municipal council poll through its use of intimidation and possible vote rigging, local analysts claim.

“If there is a clean election, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) should pull through. But that is unlikely to happen,” the Jaffna lawyer said.

Elections in many parts of Sri Lanka have often been marred by the ruling party’s use of unlimited state resources, intimidation and vote rigging, opposition politicians say.

The veteran Tamil politician and Jaffna mayoral candidate V Anandasangaree on Saturday accused an unnamed Tamil minister of terrorising residents in the run-up to election.

He was apparently referring to Douglas Devananda, a former rebel commander, whose party is contesting as part of a coalition of pro-government groups and is most likely to win a majority in the 29-seat council.

Mr Anandasangaree was quoted in the Daily Mirror newspaper as saying that opposition political parties were helpless as thugs unleashed by the minister were roaming around Jaffna, with no one able to challenge or subdue them.

“Bicycle gangs and armed groups are a common sight in Jaffna these days. They are preventing other political parties from doing election work,” Mr Anandasangaree, who is contesting from the Tamil United Liberation Front, said.

Mr Anandasangaree said the poll was a golden opportunity for the residents of Jaffna to exercise their will, but unfortunately it was being “hijacked by this man and the government [has] turned out to be a willing supporter of his crimes”.

However, residents and other politicians in Jaffna and Vavuniya, where candidates are battling for a total of six seats on the small urban council, say people are uninterested in the elections.

Sivanandan Kishore, a TNA parliamentarian from Vavuniya, said there was no need for elections as people are preoccupied with other, more immediate issues of day-to-day survival. “Most residents are in refugee camps. How can you have elections in this environment?” he said.

Close to 300,000 people who fled the fighting over the past year are housed in government-run camps near Vavuniya town.

Hemmed in by barbed wire fences, security is tight and the residents are not allowed outside; their relatives are not permitted to see them except on occasions where they speak to each other across the fences. The government says refugees are still being screened before they are allowed to leave the camps, and that security is tight because they fear rebels will infiltrate posing as relatives.

Nevertheless, of interest to government and opposition politicians will be the level of support for the TNA, which is widely regarded as a group backed by Tamil Tiger rebels. While the polls are not expected to be entirely transparent, they should provide an opportunity to gauge at least some opinion.

The TNA swept the polls in Tamil-dominated areas at the last parliamentary election in 2004, largely due to Tiger support. The TNA secured 22 seats in the 225-seat legislature and became the third-largest group after the ruling alliance of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, and the main opposition, the United National Party.

“We want to see the people’s reaction to us after the defeat of LTTE,” said Mr Kishore.

A Vavuniya resident said that despite the war ending, the mood of the people had not changed. “Relatives of camp inmates cannot see their loved ones despite staying nearby in Vavuniya, which is a depressing thought. Movement is also restricted due to the still large military presence in the area and the usual barricades and checkpoints,” he said.

In both councils, President Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance is contesting as a coalition with allied, though unpopular, Tamil parties.

The Jaffna lawyer said that at this stage, development and free movement is what residents want more than elections or anything else. He said there is also a fear that young expatriate Tamils returning home to see their relatives would be questioned at the airport on possible rebel links.

[Full Coverage]

(For updates you can share with your friends, follow TNN on Facebook, Twitter and Google+)

Comments are closed.