Sri Lanka Set for Historic Vote in Northern Areas

 

TamilVoters in Sri Lanka’s north are set to elect their first ever semi-autonomous council, four years after the army defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

The Tamil-majority Northern Province, which was first promised such a body decades ago, is the only region which has never had its own council.

But the run-up to the vote has seen allegations of army intimidation – all denied by the authorities.
On Friday a Tamil opposition candidate said her home had been attacked.
Ananthi Sasitharan, who managed to leave her house unhurt, said armed men surrounded her home and attacked campaigners.

“They said they were looking for me and they wanted to kill me,” she is quoted as telling the AFP news agency. Her husband was a senior member of the Tamil Tigers but disappeared after surrendering to the government in 2009.
A lawyer for a poll monitoring group was also assaulted at her home, He believes the gunmen were from the army but it dismissed that accusation as “baseless”.

Vast swathes of the region were once strongholds of Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought against the mainly Sinhalese army for a separate homeland as Sri Lanka was plunged into a bitter and bloody civil war for 26 years.

The rebels were defeated in May 2009 but the final phase of that war remains dogged by war crimes allegations and the government’s rights record since then has come in for trenchant criticism.

The army still maintains a heavy presence.

Election rhetoric
The BBC’s Charles Haviland in Jaffna says that there is an atmosphere of bitterness and violence in the north and election rhetoric is polarized.

Our correspondent says that this vote goes to the heart of how the country should accommodate its ethnic minority who complain of being second class citizens without a say in their own affairs.

As they vote for 38 provincial councillors, the people of the north are expected to back the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – a political group that was once in effect a proxy for the Tamil rebels but now seeks greater devolution within a united country.

Their main rivals, the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidates, have been arguing that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa deserves credit for ending the war and bringing development to the region.

The lead candidate for the UPFA, Sinnadurai Thavarajah, accused the TNA of being dismissive of the government’s development achievements, saying that “only by having a good relationship with government will we be able to deliver what people expect”.

Pro-government forces have also put up election posters in Jaffna picturing a gun with the slogan: “Are you voting for the TNA? Are you ready to go back to war?”

The TNA’s candidate for chief minister, former judge CV Wigneswaran, told the BBC that if his party were to triumph, he could foresee problems with the majority Sinhalese-dominated central government.

“But I am expecting to discuss these matters with the government. After all, we are Sri Lankans and we should be able to discuss our problems among ourselves and come to some decent conclusions,” he said.

Human rights warning
The government has vehemently denied accusations of war crimes at the end of the war and says it has launched its own inquiries into alleged rights abuses and disappearances.

The conduct of these elections will be closely observed as Colombo prepares to host a Commonwealth summit in November. The Canadian prime minister has already said he will not attend.

After UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay visited Sri Lanka earlier this month, she said the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian and feared that democracy had been undermined and the rule of law eroded. The government rejected her comments as “prejudiced”.

The entire conflict left at least 100,000 people dead, but there are still no confirmed figures for tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the last months of battle: estimates range between 9,000 and 75,000.

One UN investigation said it was possible up to 40,000 people had been killed in that time. The government puts the figure at 9,000.