Sri Lanka’s northern cities will hold local polls for the first time in nearly three decades today and though the civil war is over, fear and intimidation remain rife, poll monitors and opposition politicians say.
Voters in the separatist Tamil Tigers’ self-declared capital of Kilinochchi and in Mullaittivu, where they were defeated by government forces in May 2009, will elect local councilors for the first time in 29 years.
The northern Jaffna district, under military control in the latter half of the 26-year civil war, will be holding its first local government election in 12 years.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, eager to gain support in the north, toured the area this week to launch development projects and promised more of them, in a war-ravaged region that remains firmly under military control.
“More money has been allocated to your province than the other provinces. There is no place for communal politics in Sri Lanka in the future and narrow-minded politics is unwanted in the future,” Rajapaksa, who is from the Sinhalese ethnic majority, told a crowd in mostly rote Tamil this week.
Rajapaksa’s government led the offensive to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), culminating in a final battle in May 2009 that ended the guerrilla group’s campaign for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.
Since then, Rajapaksa has promised to rebuild the north, shunning calls for political reconciliation in favor of economic development under what he calls “The Northern Spring.”
However, violence has persisted and militias who fought for the government have used force to retain their influence. Election monitors have cataloged many violations, including the use of state resources for campaigning and the use of violence.
“Everyone knows certain sections of the military and the political groups operating in Jaffna are behind these [violations],” said Keerthi Thennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections. “A well-calculated fear psychosis has been created among Jaffna and Killinochchi voters.”
Opposition politicians, including those elected from the north, have complained they have little access to the area and say they expect intimidation to keep turnout low.
“Unknown people have placed a killed dog in front of one candidate’s house, while other candidates have seen a funeral wreath on their front doors,” said parliamentarian M.A Sumathiran, from the former LTTE political proxy the Tamil National Alliance.
He said soldiers are going from house to house “insisting people must vote for the government party, and with all this intimidation of our candidates and the public, no action has been taken so far.”
The government has denied any wrongdoing.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Sinhalese Marxist party which in past decades led two violent insurgencies, said the military would not let them put up campaign posters and followed candidates during canvassing.
“The government badly needs to win this election at any cost to show the international community that their undemocratic and controlled governance in the north has resulted in development and thus people are supporting them,” JVP parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake said.
Rajapsksa is under heavy pressure from the West to engage in political reconciliation of a sort acceptable to the TNA and to investigate accusations of war crimes during the war’s final phases to which a UN-sponsored report has drawn attention.