Elections in the East: The dawning of democracy or fostering of violence?

By K. Ratnam

It is as if the city of Batticaloa has become a red hot furnace due to the scorching sun. Yet at high noon there is a pall of gloom that hangs over the city. People who have come to attend to their requirements are wandering about hither and thither in a mighty hurry to get back as if a storm were expected any time.

It is likely their only objective is to achieve their needs and leave the city as fast as possible.

What is happening in Batticaloa these days?
If the Government is asked this question, a probable response would be: “these days we are sowing the seeds of democracy.” In other words, they hope to widen the limits of democracy by arranging for an election in Batticaloa.

However the residents in and around Batticaloa are under a reign of terror, the only difference is the one who wield the weapons. They live in a state of anxiety with only fear and uncertainty as their constant companions.

Battocaloa residents said that shootings, murders, abductions or levying of taxes which occur frequently continue without any sign of ceasing.

The community in Batticaloa is assaulted by the vagaries of nature such as the Tsunami, floods, cyclones etc., while carrying the burden of war thrust on them. As if showing off to the world that the situation is much better than it actually is, the government has further burdened them with an election to demonstrate the legitimacy of democracy.

It is no secret that armed gangs that roam the streets have now been replaced by several groups or factions of the earlier pro-Karuna faction which broke away from the LTTE.

The farmers who toil in the fields and the threshing-floor for grains of rice, the fishermen who wrestle with the ferocious waves as well as people who are engaged in another livelihood who strive in order to survive have to face the terror devoid of nationality, religion and caste.

This election which descended upon them has not in any way helped foster happiness or please the Batticaloa community who wait with longing in their eyes for a day when they would be able to engage in their livelihood freely.

The reason being that the local government elections which will be held on March 10 – the first time in 14 years will be far from one that is representative of the people.

It has been a cause of worry for the general public that terrorist groups have come forward to contest the elections with the blessing of the Government under the guise of democrats.

The law abiding public questions the fact that the Government is preparing to establish democracy in Batticaloa by putting forward these murderous gangs.

The residents have a morbid fear of what awaits them in the future. They do not speak about it as it is a matter of surviving from dawn till dusk everyday. Seeing the sullen faces of these hapless people I was reminded of a Verse in the Bible:

“And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child and the children shall rise up against their parents and cause them to be put to death” (Matthew:21)

The Batticaloa district is itself a refugee camp for those who’ve become destitute. A large number of refugees from Batticaloa as well from the Trincomalee live in these refugee camps.

According to government statistics more than 7,000 families are resident here. The total number of persons is more than 25,000 inclusive of young children, widows and elders. It is almost two years since these people who have been left detitute by the war and were driven from their home to live in these camps. Most of the camp residents say that the food rations provided by the World Food Programme every 15 days is insufficient to survive.

“It is true we are poor, but we somehow had three meals a day and lived contentedly with our children. Now, we do not have meals. Each person gets 1kilo and 80 grams of rice for 15 days. The children complain that they are hungry. What can we do?” says P. Thangavadivel (58), a father of five at the Ooranie refugee camp situated close to the Batticaloa town.

The 148 families are resident at the Ooranie camp. They are a group of war refugees who arrived from Muttur and Sampoor.

These people who lived in their villages were herded into these camps because of the cruel war. A major problem of these people who live amidst a thousand and one difficulties and hardships, is the fact that they have no way of appeasing their pangs of hunger.

J.A. Sudha (28), a mother of two who arrived at the Ooranie camp from Eechalampattu in Trincomalee is a widow who lost her husband in the war. “We left our village with the children, with whatever we could carry with us. We do not know when we can go back to our villages but we have no choice. We have suffered a lot so far. The children cry in hunger. We feel sorry for them,” she laments.

“A kilo of rice costs Rs 90-95. A coconut costs Rs. 40-45. So, how can we survive? ” Ponnambalam Thavaraja (56), who was engaged in fishing in a suburban lagoon asked us. The death knell has been sounded for the fishing profession too. “We are unable to catch fish because they have laid drag nets and large nets in this lagoon as well. No one is able to end this illegal activity.”

Although polls to elect representatives to nine Provincial Councils in the Batticaloa district, from the general public has already been announced there hardly any interest shown by the general public.
IGP-Batticaloa Police, Dayasiri Nugera told us that all candidates contesting the elections would be provided with two police officers per candidate for their protection.

Several people we met in Batticaloa who were reluctant to reveal their identity were convince the Batticaloa elections would pushed power into the hands of armed gangs and groups.

Although the government rejoiced at the liberation of the Eastern province from the clutches of the LTTE the same cannot be said for those belonging to civil society while armed gangs in Batticaloa are strengthened daily.

It is doubtful if the people of Batticaloa will witness a dawn which they can savour free of fear and suspicion.

This submission is from Groundview, an independent publication by CHA on humanitarian issues and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka with narratives and content produced by citizens.

  • Sarath

    K. Ratnam, you seem to have been conspicuously silent when the LTTE was running affairs in the east. Do you regard their administration as “democratic”? I certainly do not. It never ceases to amaze me how people who were advocating that the east be handed over to the LTTE in the interests of “peace” and “democracy” (through negotiations) are now up in arms over an election. In my view the ousting of the LTTE was a boon to the region. Deaths due to violence have sharply fallen and refugees are being resettled. Tamils (and others) have been able to vote after more than a decade.

  • http://- Justin

    Sarath, what you are aware and state is coming from the government propaganda. You do not seem to know neither democracy nor reality.

    Democracy guarantees freedom of expression, justice and equality of citizenry. None of these exist in the East.

    Any electoral process that is democratic guarantees free campaigning , free decision by the voters- having heard the policies of all parties and candidates-, free vote without intimidation and one man one vote without rigging.

    Do you think a fair democratic process is possible now in the East? Not for another 20 years. Just because somebody else who was undemocratic held elections does not mean that the elections were democratic.

  • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

    At least now in 20 years it will be possible. Under the LTTE it never will be.

  • Perumal

    For the first 10 years we got to teach the Sinhala nation what democracy is, so that they become fit to utter the word “democracy” !!

    For another 9 years teach them that democracy is not simply unilateralism.

  • http://- Sam Thambipillai

    Hounds cannot handle holy things. A unilateral logic cannot bring out reason. This is what one would observe if he he or she were to analyase the statement of Keheliya Rambukwela, the foreign minister of the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL), on the proposed elections for the “Provincial Council in the Eaast”.

    This week, we were told two things by Rambukwela, about Indo Lanka Accord (ILA) and the merger of North and East provinces.

    Firstly, he said that the merger of North East (NE) was temporary.

    When the GOSL went ahead with the Unilateral Declaration of Republic (UDR) in 1972, the people of NE, by a self referendum as a single unit, decided to form the sovereign state of Tamil Eelam. Having democratically done at the appropriate time, NE will remain as one unit forever.

    When the contents of the ILA were discussed in India, the Tamil leaders knew full well that they had no mandate to go against the unit of NE, and they stood firmly for it. India agreed to this stand. J.R.Jeyawardene, the then president of SL, also knew that it was unavoidable. However, he openly expressed clearly to India that the criminality of Sinhala nation would assasinate him if he consented for NE as one unit.

    Therefore, there was a provision included in the ILA for “temporary merger” of Northern and Eastern provinces and a referendum was to be held in the East, unfairly without the North. It was definitely an inappropriate action against the mandate given by the people of NE in 1970’s.

    The GOSL was asked in the ILA to prove as to why the “temporary merger” should not be a permanent merger, by a referendum in the East, within one year of signing the accord.

    Referendum was a challenge to the GOSL to prove a point. And the GOSL failed to prove it within the stipulated time. The idea of referendum was thus not to split the NE.

    Rambukwela does not seem to understand the circumstances leading to the inclusion of referendum in the ILA. Probably, unilateral Sinhala logic has not made him to ask the simple question ” how could anything be temporary for so long as 20 years?”.

    Secondly, he said that the referendum was to be held after disarming the militants.

    Not only referendum but even the the first elections to the NE provincial council was to be held after disarming the miltants.

    The fact that NE was conducive for Provincial Council elections shows that it was also equally conducive for a referendum in the East, but was not held.

    The referendum was not held deliberately by GOSL because it knew that it would lose the referendum. Therefore, the GOSL lost in its challenge in the ILA to de-link NE.

    The present provincial council elections is therefore a unilateral violation of the ILA let alone democracy.