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SRI LANKA: Election begins to solidify government control

ICHCHANTHIVU, 20 March 2008 (IRIN) - The overwhelming success of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in the 10 March 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 TMVP 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 10 May.

“It [the 10 March 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 LTTE 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 (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) boycotting it.

Their absence paved the way for the TMVP landslide. The TMVP has been accused by the UN 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 nor incidents of rigging being reported on polling day, there was a lot of pressure on candidates opposed to the TMVP 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 TMVP, 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 T56 machine guns inside the TMVP compound on Lake Drive in Batticaloa town.

“We will disarm once we enter democratic politics,” Sivasuntharai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the head of the TMVP, said soon after casting his vote.

The presence of armed TMVP 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, 300km 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 neighbours had the opportunity to cast their votes.

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,” Irasamani Thangaraja from the same village said. “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 11 March. “The government has commenced a giant development drive in the east. Under the Eastern Resurgence Programme, 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 LTTE 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.

ap/bj/mw

Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance

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Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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