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Voter disenchantment clouds Sri Lanka’s east

[BBC, Monday, 25 January 2010 10:47 No Comment]

_47165368_tnaampara004 Sri Lanka is gearing up for a presidential election on 26 January. But for the Tamil and Muslim electorate of eastern Sri Lanka, disenchantment prevails.

This stems from a widely-held perception that neither of the main candidates will address their concerns. This part of the east used to be a Tamil Tiger stronghold – the rebels were defeated here in 2007.

The main issues for people here are the rehabilitation of displaced Tamils who were interned in camps in 2006 as the army fought the rebels in this area and poverty alleviation – people here are still suffering as a result of the tsunami of 2004.

Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main rival, Sarath Fonseka, have announced various policy statements to win Tamil support for their campaign, critics say that neither has made concrete manifesto commitments to help them.

‘Suffering’

Many of those released by the government from camps in the east of the country complain that they still lack adequate housing, education and healthcare and have no access to agricultural land – their main source of livelihood.

For example, Muslims and Tamils constitute 62% of the population in the eastern Amparai district. Yet they have less than 20% of the available land.

Those who do own land say that they lack the wherewithal to farm it properly.

"We used to have vast tracts of land up until recently," says Francis Joseph, president of the Agricultural Labourers Association in the Navithanpalli district of Ampari.

"Our land has been taken over by Sinhalese people. Now we are working as labourers on land once owned by us. Promises to restore our land to us have never been implemented. We are reconciled to our fate of suffering."

In the 1950s and 1960s, the years following Sri Lanka’s independence, a number of ethnic Sinhalese were settled and given land in predominantly Tamil districts in the east.

This policy had ended by the 1980s and 1990s when Tiger rebels periodically controlled the area. However, there have been some allegations that unofficial settlement has been continuing – these claims are as yet unconfirmed.

The Batticaloa area has long been a stronghold of the breakaway Tamil Tiger leader, Col Karuna, who defected from the mainstream rebel group in 2004.

His Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal party (TMVP) was one of the few to compete in local polls in 2008. Voters for the most part boycotted the last presidential elections of 2005.

Col Karuna recently left the TMVP to join President Rajapaka’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The party is now led by Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesaturai Chandrakanthan, a former "Karuna junior" but now his bitter rival.

Significant step

Local lawyer Perinbam Premnath says that in previous elections militants – of one variety or the other – "heavily influenced" the outcome.

"Most elections over the past 30 years focussed on or around the Tamil Tigers," he said.

Mr Premnath says that the campaign of 2009 is the first where the militant influence has been mostly expunged.

"But neither of the main candidates seem likely to address our needs," he says.

"Neither has clearly explained how people affected by the war are going to be absorbed into society.

"At the same time, any plans put forward by the presidential candidates for devolution of power to Tamils is bound be opposed by the Sinhalese majority and that in turn will affect their vote bank among the majority people."

But despite the despondency of many voters, this election is different form earlier votes in some ways.

For the first time in 33 years two prominent Tamil and Muslim parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) will share a common platform. They both support Sarath Fonseka.

Experts say this is a significant step in forging unity among the minority communities, especially when the two parties have been bitter rivals for years.

Other Muslim parties, such as the National Congress, the National Unity Alliance and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress are contesting the polls in alliance with President Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition.

While many independent pundits have hailed these alliances as positive developments, the fact is that a high turnout is not expected on 26 January.

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