By M. A. Sumanthiran –
During President Rajapakse‘s visit to Japan in March 2013, he expressed his strong commitment to hold an election for the Northern Provincial Council. The Japanese embassy in turn, indicated that it will support the conduct of free and fair elections and further recognized quite rightly, that this election would be a milestone for the Government of Sri Lanka in the process of national reconciliation. The important role the Northern Provincial Council elections will have in any process of national reconciliation has also been recognized in the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission as well.
The government claims to have rescued the people of the North from the clutches of terrorism. If this is so, one of the most basic freedoms that the people of the North ought to be able to now enjoy is the freedom of expression; including, specifically, the freedom to meaningfully exercise their right to franchise.
The holding of free and fair elections for the Northern Provincial Council polls is also important for the reason for the message it gives to the peoples of the North that the Sri Lankan government is truly willing to devolve to them power, limited though it may be. If this is the reality, the government will do all it can to ensure that the people of the North are given the space to vote for their choice of candidates.
It is in light of these reasons that the Tamil National Alliance indicated to the Commissioner for Elections the need for independent monitoring of these elections, in order to ensure that they are conducted in a free and fair manner.
Sri Lanka’s election history has however, been rife with incidents of intimidation and violence. Despite the crucial importance of this election, it seems to be no exception.
The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) has to date received 129 complaints of election related violence after the handing over of nominations. These include a large number of assaults, intimidation and attacks on party offices.
Last Saturday (August 17th) the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections verified that a candidate of the Tamil National Alliance and his supporters were assaulted in the Delft Island on 15th August while campaigning. The attack resulted in injuries for the supporters of the Tamil National Alliance, who had to be hospitalized as a result of them. The supporters of the Tamil National Alliance had also be told not to return to Delft. The identified attackers include the Chairman of the Delft Pradeshiya Sabha.
Subsequently, another candidate was also attacked by the government supporters and although the father of a UPFA candidate was identified as having bandished a pistol at this incident, so far no arrests have been.
An important concern relating to the latest spate of incidents of election violence and intimidation is the involvement of the military in many of them. The Tamil National Alliance has repeatedly called for the reduction of military presence in the North and further, that the military personnel posted there are confined to their barracks. The failure to do this has had a severe negative impact on the people of the North. This impact is now also evident in the infringement of their right to franchise.
Candidates of the Tamil National Alliance have been intimidated by the Army, soon after the filing of nominations to contest the Northern Provincial Council polls. Army personnel had gone to the residences of of these candidates and questioned them on their political activities. The intelligence operatives of the occupying Sri Lankan military in Mannaar have been visiting the houses of candidates of the Tamil coalition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) taking part in the Northern provincial elections and ‘registering’ their personal data and history, their affiliations and details of their family members. Some of the ‘visits’ have taken place during the nights.
The military has even been engaging in election campaigns for certain candidates! In Jaffna last week, they distributed building materials to people with large hoardings of the givernment candidates in the backround. The election officials who went to check on this incident were themselves threatenedsoldiers soldiers.
Needless to say, the military has no authority to engage in such acts. They are clearly acts of intimidation and in gross violation of the right to franchise of the people of the North.
It is high time the government realizes that freedom and reconciliation cannot merely be words. Unless there is some change in ground realities there is no purpose in parroting empty catch phrases to both the peoples of the Sri Lanka, and indeed, the world. If the government has failed to see this to date, let it at least now, at the time of this crucial election, recognize this. In terms of the Rule of Law, it is important that all elections are conducted in a free and fair manner. For Sri Lanka and its reconciliation, the Northern Provincial Council Elections are doubly important.
Commenting on the incident involving assault of a TNA candidate and his supporters at Delft, Keerthi Tennakoon, Executive Director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, stated, quite rightly, that “This incident adds to the fear psychosis created among opposition party candidates by being questioned by groups stating that they are from military intelligence.”
Peoples in a country that has been ‘freed from the clutches of terrorism’ should not be living in the grips of a fear psychosis. Neither should peoples in a country to which reconciliation has come. The time has come for us to recognize this, and to act accordingly.
*The author, M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate