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SRI LANKA: Concern grows over IDP voting rights

COLOMBO, 11 January 2010 (IRIN) - Tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) and new returnees in Sri Lanka may miss out on voting in this month's presidential election on 26 January.

More than 170,000 of the 280,000 who fled the last bout of fighting between government forces and the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have returned to their homes in the former conflict zone known as the Vanni.

And while the government maintains those still in the IDP camps and the returnees will be able to vote, questions remain.

Rohana Hettiarchchi, the chief executive officer at the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), the island's foremost election monitoring body, said: "The key factor is whether those who have returned recently can vote."

Most of the returnees had not registered with government authorities to be included in the voting lists, he told IRIN, and only about 35,000 of the displaced had registered to obtain polling cards.

Keerthi Thenakoon, chief executive officer at Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), another election monitoring body, cited surveys and research conducted by the group suggesting that even those who had registered may find it difficult.

"It is a logistical issue. They registered while they were living at the IDP centres, then they moved to their villages," Thenakoon explained. "The polling cards arrive at the IDP centre and the polling booth is also likely to be there."

CaFFE officials met villagers in the newly resettled areas in Mullaithivu District, part of the Vanni, and found most families were not registered.

"At Kanagarayankulam [village] we interviewed 56 families; only nine said they had registered. We came up with similar figures for other areas we went to in the Vanni," Thenakoon said.

"If these people are to vote, then transport to and from the polling stations needs to be provided for them."

Thenakoon, who visited Menik Farm, the largest IDP centre, on 11 January, said those remaining at the camp were unaware of how to vote.

"They said that they had filled in some forms, but there had been no official communication thereafter," he explained.

According to government figures, more than 108,000 IDPs were still at Menik Farm at end-December.

On 23 December, Dayananda Dissanayake, the Commissioner of Elections, said: "Internally displaced persons who are scared to go to his or her polling station in view of the prevailing security situation in the area can request to make arrangements to enable him or her to cast his or her vote at another polling station."

Possible rigging

PAFFREL's Hettiarchchi said registration of voters had not taken place properly in the Vanni in more than two decades during the civil conflict.

"After 1989 there was no proper registration in these areas," he said. "The dated lists could lead to disenfranchisement simply because people are not registered," he warned.

Meanwhile, both PAFFREL and CaFFE report only limited interest in the polls by both the IDPs and returnees, but that may be attributed to the absence of campaigning in the Vanni.

The Vanni is almost entirely inhabited by Tamils, who make about 14 percent of the nation's 21 million inhabitants and Hettiarchchi was worried that the lack of enthusiasm could lead to vote abuse.

"There is still a lot of tension in these areas which could lead to rigging," he warned.

PAFFREL plans to deploy a large number of foreign and national local monitors in the area.

Every vote counts

However, the two main candidates, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army commander Sarath Fonseka, are both wooing the northern Tamil vote, which is seen as crucial to the result.

The election will be the first since the war ended and the tussle will likely be a close one, making every vote count.

"It looks like it will be a close race, and the minority vote will be decisive if the majority is split between the two main candidates," Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, a national advocacy group, said.

Fonseka led the army that defeated the LTTE in May 2009. He later fell out with the president and emerged as the strongest opposition candidate against him.

Both have held large rallies in areas close to the Vanni to drum up support.

Fonseka has promised to dismantle high-security zones in the north, expedite resettlement and consider a political solution to the north. He has won over the support of much of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil group in parliament with 21 members.

Rajapaksa held a mass rally in Jaffna, the political and cultural nerve centre of the Tamils on 10 January, and promised to develop and revitalize the northern economy battered by decades of war.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs


Copyright © IRIN 2010
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.
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