Testing times ahead of local elections in east

The length of time shops stay open in the evenings in Batticaloa city in eastern Sri Lanka is a key indicator of the level of tension. These days they stay open late. The climate might just be right for the 10 March local elections.

Sri Lanka’s oldest election monitoring group, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), said in a report on 6 February that there was general agreement the security situation had improved.

“People felt secure enough to move about at night,” the report entitled Preliminary Report on the Forthcoming Local Government Elections in Batticaloa stated.

The local elections in Batticaloa District are the first polls in 13 years and come nine months after the Sri Lankan government gained control in June 2007 of all areas formerly held by the Tamil Tigers in Batticaloa. Representatives are to be elected to nine local administrative bodies, including Batticaloa Municipal Council.

PAFFREL and others have expressed fear that the polls could be marred by violence and it has called on the government to take urgent steps to prevent election-related incidents.

“It is possible that violence and election malpractices will surface as the election campaign gathers momentum,” the report stated, noting that armed groups had not been disarmed. At least one election-related murder and one abduction have been reported to date.

''It is possible that violence and election malpractices will surface as the election campaign gathers momentum.''

Relief work slows

UN agencies and others working in the district have warned that the security situation remains fragile and some relief work has slowed down. “The situation remains tense with continued activities of armed groups in the district,” the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) said in a situation report released on 1 February. “The looting of humanitarian assistance materials is leading to delays in programme implementation, with some agencies informing that they have suspended some work due to continued loss of material.”

Fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers forced over 150,000 out of their homes last year and the IASC report said 26,000 were still displaced in the district.

Armed political party

The prime concern for relief agencies and groups like PAFFREL has been the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a political party formed by former eastern military head of the Tamil Tigers Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna, after he split with the Tigers’ leadership in April 2004.

The TMVP has been accused by UN agencies, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the humanitarian community, of abductions, extortion and child recruitment. It is now led by Karuna’s second in command Pilliyan, as Karuna is in London.

“The TMVP is the moving force here and there are fears that its armed cadres in public can be a fissure point for violence and election mal-practice,” Manorajan Rajasingham, PAFFREL’s Batticaloa District coordinator told IRIN.

Faced with growing criticism, the TMVP leadership has now ordered its armed members to remain indoors. “We have made sure that none of the armed cadres are in public,” TMVP Batticaloa head Pradeep Master told IRIN.

“Coercion before nominations”

PAFFREL’s Rajasingham felt that the dip in violence in Batticaloa was mainly due to the absence of rivalry among Tamil parties in the election. “There was a lot of coercion before nominations,” he told IRIN. The Tamil National Alliance, the largest party representing Tamils in parliament, is boycotting the elections. “There was a lot of pressure on them from the TMVP,” Rajasingham said.


Photo: UN OCHA
A map of Batticaloa District in eastern Sri Lanka

Other opposition figures criticised the polls as an effort to legitimise the presence of the TMVP in the district and in the rest of the eastern province. “It is an exercise to sanction the TMVP’s presence through an election,” Rauf Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the largest opposition party contesting, told IRIN.

The TMVP acknowledges the importance of the elections for its evolution as a political force in Sri Lanka’s east. “It is a vital point in our growth as a political party,” Pradeep Master said.

The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has entered into an electoral alliance with the TMVP to contest the Batticaloa Municipal Council. Senior UPFA officials say the elections allow former armed groups to enter electoral politics. “We have to keep the doors open for them,” UPFA General-Secretary Susil Premajayantha said recently.

PAFFREL’s Rajasingham also felt that public office could work to make the armed group more responsible. “It can work. When they become accountable to local communities as their elected officials, there is more responsibility, then.”

But the results of similar exercises in the past consistently disappointed him. “What elections - local, provincial or national - have brought stability in this country?” he asked. “None, in my estimation; it will be the same after these elections.”

ap/bj