Batticaloa, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Trincomalee

Eastern elections

In the backdrop of a country at war and democracy that’s hostage to the whim and fancy of a President and his coterie of murderous brutes, it’s hard to be even cautiously optimistic about the upcoming elections in the East. For the average voters in the South however, the fact that they are being held at all is a marker of the success of this government in eradicating the scourge of the LTTE from the East.

The East is a region of significant ethno-political and cultural complexity and violence where each community harbours grievances against the other. Even during the ceasefire, violent hartals and communal clashes coloured the social and political dynamics in the East (the extremely violent communal clashes in June 2002 in Muttur and Vallachenai is a case in point). There is evidence that youth in the region are alienated and easy pickings for radical, armed extremist groups. The documented emergence of a radicalised, armed Muslim youth in particular poses a serious challenge to the stability of the region, especially in light of the perceived and real threats they will pose to other armed actors in the region as well as State security forces. The Muslims are deeply critical of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, now touted shamelessly once more as the basis of a political settlement to the ethnic conflict by the APRC, since neither the Indian nor the Sri Lankan government consulted the Muslims when signing the Indo Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. Forced evictions, attacks against mosques and a litany of other cultural, social, religious and political issues that affect the Muslims in the East in particular are often perilously ignored by the State and the dominant armed forces in the region (formerly the LTTE and now the TMVP). Problems of land ownership and resettlement are significant. Exacerbated by the war and the imposition of High Security Zones, communal grievances over agricultural and residential land and livelihoods also often spill over into violence.

As Editor of Groundviews, some reports from those who have frequented the region recently I have published indicate that citizens are now more concerned about basic service delivery of local government and largely free from the anxiety they once lived with under the LTTE.

“Friends I met in Batticaloa said that life in the town has become less tense and that there was a feeling of normalcy. They also claimed a drop in abductions and missing people in the town. They stressed that the civilians were tired of the power struggles, and the infighting within factions and among groups.”

“Liberated”- A Personal Account Of Batticaloa And Ampara by mihiriw

Other accounts I’ve published have been more critical about the “liberation” of the East. The essential problem seems to be the prevalence of and the continuing reliance by the Government on armed paramilitary groups to govern the region. It seems to be the case that though the LTTE’s overt presence and diktats in the region have diminished significantly, the human security of civilians remains in question on account of the presence of armed groups with scant regard for human rights and democracy. That this is a concern not shared by the Government is particularly telling. The disturbing allegations made by Alan Rock in 2006 over the State’s complicity in the recruitment of child soldiers by the Karuna group, the damning facts brought to light by the Human Rights Watch report Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group in January 2007 and repeatedly by the SLMM, UNICEF and by critical investigative reports by traditional media on the same lines strongly suggests that even though the LTTE is no longer, for the moment, a dominant force in the East, Pilliyan and the TMVP constitute real and significant threats to the threadbare democratic fabric in the region. As noted in a recent article on Groundviews,

“Normalcy and durable and sustainable resettlement cannot happen as long as the Government turns a blind eye to the climate of fear, insecurity and terror created by the different TMVP factions of what was the Karuna Group. They carry arms in public, have offices where they summon, inquire and detain civilians as they wish. They have forcibly taken over private property and set up offices across the district and have even begun setting up more fortified establishments by the main road as in Maavadivaembu. They engage in joint cordon and search operations with the security forces (though this is more prevalent in the Ampara district than in the Batticaloa district) all in broad daylight and in complete cooperation of the Government forces. Given the overwhelming physical evidence in the district, bland denials may not absolve the Government of complicity. The Government must be held accountable for the violations of the TMVP/Karuna/Pillayan group who are roaming freely with arms and are engaged in serious violations including abductions, intimidation and extortion.”

What Liberation? by Bhumi

Not that the Rajapakse administration gives a toss. The pedestrian response by the Government to the fact that the TMVP will contest elections without giving up their arms is that they cannot be disarmed on account of the continuing threat posed by the LTTE to TMVP cadre, who without arms would be powerless to defend themselves. The resulting irony, that elections in a “liberated” East can only be held under the aegis of armed terrorists is lost on the incumbent government, but not on the peoples of the region. It is thus a given that the TMVP will be primus inter pares in the elections. The boycott of the elections by the UNP and TNA in effect guarantees their stranglehold of the region’s fate and no amount of opprobrium by human rights organisations and the international community is going to in any way stop them from doing just as they please in the East.

It is highly unlikely that elections in the East will resolve to any meaningful degree the deeply embedded political and social problems within and between communities in the East. The elections are touted simplistically as evidence of the government’s spoils in its victory against terrorism. They fail to take into account that the LTTE’s absence does not by extension mean that that the East is free from the tyranny of armed groups. Coupled with a Government so manifestly bereft of a political imagination to meaningfully address legitimate grievances of minority communities, it is quite clear that whatever the results of the elections are (and we can safely assume that it won’t be a huge surprise) the problems facing democratic governance in the region will remain largely unaddressed as long as weapons and violence rule. It begs the question as to why these elections are really being held.

The larger tragedy is that we can’t any more see the gross incompatibility of holding elections with terrorists who are armed. The Eastern elections are hailed as a victory against terrorism. In fact, they will be supported by and the results hostage to the violence of armed actors, countenanced by the State, with no real interest in democratic rule or in giving up absolute power in the regions they hold sway.

This article written for an upcoming issue of Montage published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at]

  • The South is not interested in democracy in the Eastern Province. All what they are interested is to show to the world that they have held elections in the East and that “democarcy prevails”.

    Karuna faction is contesting the elections disarmed, just because his armed group is a “para military of the state” ,regardless of their terror to people in the East. Perhaps, this is the first time in the world that some gun trotting individuals are contesting democratic elections!

    The problem with the South is always that when it comes to North and East they are more interested in propaganda to the world than the genuine interest of any political process, legitimate rights and freedoms of people.

  • dayan jayatilleka

    ” …coterie of murderous brutes…” ?

    eek! fetch me my smelling salts…

  • Come now Dayan, you are made of sterner stuff…

  • For whom are these elections being held? Can Local Government of Provincial Council Elections empower the people of the East to usher in the development that the region requires? The answer is a plain no. Both the Local Government and the Provincial Council systems do not have the legal competency (powers) or the finances to undertake development work leave alone taking care of basic or local needs. The public administration system (GA’s and AGA’s) managed by the Central Government run the show when it comes to the basic day to day needs of the people. The ‘Big’ Ministries and the ‘Big’ Ministers at the Centre and in this case the Ministry of Nation Building (one of those five which comes under the President) are responsible for the so far announced development projects for the East. These are being done (if at all if they are being implemented) with almost zero consultation with the elected representatives from the East. Mr. Basil Rajapaksha is in full control. DBS Jeyeraj in a post on his website dated Oct 20, 2007, candidly explains how these projects could be used and are being used to promote Sinhala colonisation in the East. So are the LG representatives going to be of use? Are we naive to think that democratic elections should not be questioned for their purpose and that they are good in itself? That’s the first question – would the Local Government representatives be used or would they be of use within the present framework of governance? The second is the one that a lot of people are raising – will it be of value balanced with the blood that is being and going to be shed in electing these representatives?

    The UPFA is teaming up with TMVP for the polls. Without Govt support the TMVP cannot exist. So the TMVP has no choice but to accept UPFA as an electoral partner to gain legitimacy. So even there given that TMVP will sweep the polls the govt is going to have full control. A self-serving election for the Government this will be.

  • Jeyam

    This election is final journey for TMVP . government is trying to show the world how they established the “Democracy ” In future TMVP is going to give more headache to government. This election indicate how government played the divide and rule among Tamils /Tamil Speaking people in East .

  • Michael Roberts

    For some insight into the Eastern Province situation at various points between the 1970s and 2000s see the following two books
    Margaret Trawick, Enemy lines. Warfare, childhood, and play in Batticaloa, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

    Mark Whitaker, Learning Politics from Sivaram, (London: Pluto Press, 2007)

    Trawick’s book is reviewed critically by another American anthropologist (non-specialist) in –a site that allows for blogs. Trawick was clearly unhappy because she has replied.

    Daya Somasundaram’s on the motivation of militants will also interest readers of groundviews. Indeed, some of you may be interested in his book Scarred Minds which is based on his work as a psychiatrist in the north from the 1980s onwards (NB: he is one of the authors associated with Broken Palmyrah).

    There are other dimensions to this site that should interest people as well.