Sri Lankan Election Begins to Solidify Government Control

Women wade through pools of water to reach the polling station in Ichchanthivu. (Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN)

The overwhelming success of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (T.M.V.P.), a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.), in the March 10 local government elections in the eastern Batticaloa district has prompted the group, backed by the Sri Lankan government, to seek additional victories at provincial level.

The T.M.V.P. won majorities in all nine areas up for election and secured 76 of the 101 seats on offer with its coalition partner, the United People's Freedom Alliance, which holds power in parliament.

"These are very small councils, the power is very small," Azad Moulana, the party spokesperson said. "This is the first step; we can do more in the provincial councils."

Two days after the election, the government announced that elections for the Eastern Provincial Council, which includes the districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Amapara in eastern Sri Lanka, would be held on May 10.

"It [the March 10 election] demonstrated the shape of events to come … the success of the election has paved the way for provincial council elections in May," Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said.

The poll was held 10 months after the Sri Lankan government gained control of all areas formerly held by the L.T.T.E. in Batticaloa district, including Ichchanthivu, an interior village west of the town.

The legitimacy of the election, however, has been disputed, with two of the largest opposition parties, the United National Party (U.N.P.) and the Tamil National Alliance (T.N.A.) boycotting it.

Their absence paved the way for the T.M.V.P. landslide. The T.M.V.P. has been accused by the United Nations and other agencies of child recruitment, abductions, and other violations.

Election monitors, the People's Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL), stated that despite no violence or incidents of rigging being reported on polling day, there was a lot of pressure on candidates opposed to the T.M.V.P. to not stand.

"The entire course of the election, from the time of its announcement, was free of overt violence," it said in its interim report on the poll. "However, during this period PAFFREL received several reports of intimidation of candidates, which is not acceptable in a democratic process."

Safety Fears

The T.M.V.P., a formerly outright militant group, remains heavily armed, although it has ostensibly entered mainstream politics. On the eve of the election, IRIN witnessed at least a dozen young men bearing T-56 machine guns inside the T.M.V.P. compound on Lake Drive in Batticaloa town.

"We will disarm once we enter democratic politics," Sivasuntharai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the head of the T.M.V.P., said soon after casting his vote.

The presence of armed T.M.V.P. cadres proved unnerving to most civilians, despite the peaceful ballot. "We want reassurances that we will not be harmed, that we can live in peace," said Vellappaddi Sellamma, 56, from Ichchanthivu village in Batticaloa district, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Colombo, the capital. "We want our children to live without fear."

Sellamma could not remember the last time she cast a vote to elect a public official and like many others was excited to exercise her newly gained franchise. It was the first time in 14 years that she or neighbors had the opportunity to cast their votes.

Sivasuntharai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the T.M.V.P. leader, goes to vote. (Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN)

But even given their enthusiasm for the voting process, few held high hopes that the elected officials would bring much change. "They will not do much … all this will be quickly forgotten," said Irasamani Thangaraja, who is from the same village. "We don't want to hope and be disappointed."

But the government thinks otherwise. Soon after the election, it hailed the vote as an endorsement of its policies in the east.

"They [Batticaloa voters] have shown the world that they want to defeat separatism," government media minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told the media in Colombo on March 11. "The government has commenced a giant development drive in the east. Under the Eastern Resurgence Program, schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, and all other facilities will be provided."

After more than two decades of fighting between government forces and the Tigers, the district has suffered immensely, especially areas such as Ichchanthivu that were under L.T.T.E. rule for about 12 years until the Tamil Tigers were swept out by government security forces.

Between 2007 and 2008, some 100,000 people who were displaced have been resettled in the district, according to the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, Rishad Badiudeen, while another 18,000 will be resettled shortly. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.