The concept of free and fair elections had long ago become an illusion in Sri Lanka, particularly to Tamils. However, Tamils wanted to participate in the last general election only to express their legitimate political aspirations to the International Community (IC) through a democratic process once again, as they did in 1977.
But the reality is that the Sri Lankans nowadays vote in general elections under conditions that make a mockery of democracy.
In a milieu where elections are patently unfair and not free, reports from observers and monitors cannot be taken as serious anymore; especially if the reports are from Sinhalese dominated local “so-called” monitoring groups. However, Tamils had expected a different kind of reports from the European Union (EU), but they are very disappointed.
Reducing Tamils’ Representation in Parliament
For more than 50 years since the independence from the British, the entire political establishment in Colombo has been practicing systematic and persistent efforts to reduce Tamils’ representation in the Parliament, thus, marginalizing the Tamils politically.
Within a few months of 1948 independence, Sri Lanka enacted laws to disenfranchise over a million of Tamils; the first direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Sri Lanka, thus depriving of their hitherto enjoyed citizenship rights, including their right to vote. This first action followed by many similar was racially and politically motivated to reduce Tamil representation in the parliament.
That phenomenon of reducing Tamils representation has continued election after election even until the last election. As part of this strategy in 2001 election, tens of thousands of people living in the areas under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were not permitted to vote.
Moreover, many of the hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees who fled the fighting had effectively been disenfranchised by electoral procedures designed to make it difficult for them to register. This allowed unpopular, Sinhala government backed paramilitary Tamil parties like Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) and People Liberation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to enter the parliament in yet another fraudulent election.
Election: Mockery of Democracy in Sri Lanka
The two major Sinhala political parties, the Peoples Alliance (PA) and the United National Party (UNP), in the country do not respect this most basic right of the people, right to vote and choose. The parties use terror to coerce people to vote. The party in power also uses the State apparatus, particularly the police and security forces, for this purpose.
Both major political parties have private gangs of underworld thugs and former soldiers. Party leaders openly endorse the use of violence. Even, President Kumaratunga provocatively once told a public election rally: “It is okay to kill one of theirs who killed one of ours.”
Tamils have always been at the receiving end in Sri Lanka
Tamils have always been at the receiving end of such undemocratic practices in Sri Lanka. Sweeping emergency regulations always remain in force in Tamil areas, even if they do not exist in the rule of law. Tamil areas are blanketed with troops and police by occupying one third of the residential land in the Northeast. Fundamental rights of the people are compromised for maintaining the military balance of power.
The EU report talks about intimidation. Actual intimidation did not come from the LTTE, but the presence of heavily armed soldiers and paramilitary troops were the ones which reinforced the climate of intimidation.
The earlier Sri Lankan elections had shown how police units were mobilized to subvert a free election. The police were used to kidnap, illegally detain and torture, kill and secretly dispose of tens of thousands of political opponents of the regime.
Against All Odds
Against all odds, Tamil people decided to use this election to show their “legitimate aspiration” to the IC.
Lack of access and transport facilities to polling areas for voters from the areas under the LTTE control in Tricomalee, Jaffna, Batticaloa and Vanni had been major impediments to the whole process.
Even though, the officials from the Northeast districts explained to the Commissioner of elections, Mr. Dayananda Dissanayaka, that it was not at all possible for more than two hundred thousand people to cast their votes in far flung polling booths within the eight hours allowed for voting on the day of the elections, the Sri Lankan Election Commissioner refused to have polling booths inside the LTTE controlled areas.
The IC, NGOs, monitors, and observers alike knew that the difficulties people would have to face was a major infringement of their right to vote and had serious implications for the integrity of the process in the affected areas. However, these monitors and the IC decided to remain silent, thus allowing the Sri Lankan government implementing its anti-Tamils policy. What the IC could have done was to choose this opportunity to create a conducive environment where a genuine free and fair election could have been held. Nevertheless, the IC had miserably failed to stop this horrific violation of fundamental rights.
News agencies reported that thousands of voters, including women with babies, pregnant women and elderly, from the areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers swarmed to polling stations in Omanthai to cast their ballots.
Voters came from the remote villages of more than 40-50 kilo meters from Omanthai. The LTTE with their limited resources had also cooperated with Sri Lankan election officials for a smooth electoral process.
The EU election monitoring reports have clearly failed to appreciate or recognize these turn of events.
Political Parties having been intimidated?
In the EU reports, there are mainly two political parties mentioned as having been intimidated. One is led by the controversial figure of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), V. Ananthasangaree, whose Independent group in Jaffna district garnered less than 2% of the votes.
The other party is the EPDP. This party is a constituent party of the PA coalition and is armed and financed by the government. Its party members operate as auxiliary forces to the security forces in the Northeast. It managed to gain a single seat in the last election again through intimidation. They lack any significant base of support; these parties openly use threats and intimidation against their rivals and ordinary voters.
The ground reality has been that the Tamil people always consider the members of these parties as traitors. During the election campaign, they were always accompanied by the Sri Lankan forces and never approached the people. There were many incidents where the public was intimidated and threatened by these parties in the presence of the military. People were afraid of military repercussions by the military intelligence and paramilitaries working with the government forces.
The EPDP won a seat in the Jaffna district, obtaining votes less than the total number of rejected votes. The number of rejected votes could have affected the result, if the voters were well educated enough. Then, the EPDP would not have won even that single seat.
However, the EU reports and some local monitors tend to imply as if these parties were deprived of the opportunities of getting more seats. Therefore, one can only conclude that the EU monitors are either bias or they do not understand the ground reality in the Northeast.
Reports from Erlalai said that the booths at Erlalai Saiva Shanmarga Vidiyalayam were suddenly closed around 3.55PM by the state forces and the EPDP para militaries. The gates were locked preventing further voting. Similar incidents happened in Neduntheevu (Delft) island too. But, the EU reports have failed to mention any such incidents.
The 2004 Election was far better
According, to the various sources, the 2004 election has by far proven to be the least violent in recent history. The important point here is that compared to some other districts, the election-related violence and irregularities were negligible in the North and East.
The Trincomalee District Returning Officer Mr. Gamini Rodrigo, a Sinhalese, said the election was free and fair. Mr. S. Pathmanathan, the Government Agent for Jaffna and Returning Officer for the elections said, “Compared to some other districts, the election-related violence and irregularities were negligible in Jaffna, and the elections were clean and fair”.
According to Chief returning officer for Mullaithivu district, Ms. Imelda Sukumar “Thousands of enthusiastic voters from the Mullaithivu district and the northern parts of the Vavuniya district cast their ballots in a violence free environment”
Only factors that marred a free and fair election in the Tamil areas are the difficulties placed in the path of those living in LTTE-controlled areas.
Some Monitors are Blatantly Bias
Some, so called election monitors are blatantly biased. There have been years of animosities between Tamil and Sinhala communities, and how Sinhalese dominated groups which were sent to monitor the elections in Tamil areas could come up with unbiased reports.
The Center for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) sent a thirteen member-team to the North for monitoring election violence; but all monitors were from the Sinhala community and could not speak the Tamil language of the region.
In 2004 election, the Tamil people have delivered a clear message that the “concept of the Tamil Homeland, Tamil Nationalism and the right for Tamil self rule” should be accepted as the basic aspirations of the Tamil people and that the Tamil national problem should be politically resolved on that basis, failing which the Tamil people will fight to establish the Tamil sovereignty in their homeland on the principle of self determination.
If the IC is really interested about the verdict of the Tamil people, then according to observers, the last free and fair election, before this, was held in 1977 in which Tamil electorate gave popular endorsement to the Tamil United Liberation Front’s independent state policy.
If the IC fully respects democracy and its verdict, it should allow Tamil people to choose their own political destiny, be it separation or living together in a united country.