Citizen Bodies Fear Large-Scale Violence During Sri Lankan Polls
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NEW DELHI: The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka has warned of imminent violence, as the island nation prepares itself for a snap election in January -- two years ahead of schedule. The warning follows a similar sentiment echoed by an influential party of Buddhist monks -- the Sri Lankan National Heritage Party (JHU) -- that said it feared that President Rajapaksa’s regime may resort to violence to maintain political authority.
"This election has the potential to be one of the most violent," said the JHU's Udaya Gammanpila, a former provincial minister.
The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka’s statement, similarly, read, “There is apprehension in civil society that the coming elections will become violent… Violations of election law are occurring on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that can increase sharply as the election approaches.”
The warnings are not unfounded. There have already been five non-fatal shootings. Allegations that government employees are posturing for Rajapaksa -- an act that is illegal under Sri Lankan law -- also abound.
The private election monitoring group -- the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) -- records at least eight serious poll-related incidents since Rajapaksa called the elections two weeks ago. "About half a dozen people have been admitted to hospital and many more had been hurt in clashes unleashed by government supporters," CAFFE director Keerthi Tennakoon told AFP, adding, "The unique feature is that police have failed to arrest a single person in connection with these attacks although CCTV and photographic evidence had been provided on the perpetrators.”
Rajapaksa, who came to power in 2005 when Sri Lanka was embroiled in a decades long civil war, enjoys widespread popularity because of his success in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. The feat ensured that he was re-elected with a wide margin in 2010.
Since then, however, allegations of corruption and nepotism have sprung up. Two weeks after Rajapaksa was re-elected, the losing candidate -- a leading general in the fight against the LTTE -- was jailed. The government took legal action against the opposition and critics, and reports on the curtailment of press freedom continue to pour in.
Rajapaksa also appointed his two brothers to head major government ministries and his cousins as ambassadors to key countries, including Russia and the United States. Another brother was appointed Speaker of Parliament.
Perhaps because of the perceived attempt at concentration of power, Rajapaksa’s share of votes plunged in the by-elections and provincial elections earlier this year. The decision to announce the elections two years ahead of schedule is linked to this, with Rajapaksa gambling on the belief that he stands a better chance of being re-elected now, as opposed to waiting for two years and risking a further decline in support.
The political environment, however, has gotten more complicated. A day after the announcement of elections, Health Minister Mithripala Sirisena quit the cabinet and announced his candidacy. Sirisena was widely perceived to be the ‘Number 2’ in the party, and his resignation prompted a spate of lesser defections.
Sirisena has made an effort to distance himself from perceptions of corruption and nepotism that have come to be associated with the governing party. Announcing a series of reforms, Sirisena has vowed to stop Sri Lanka from “moving towards a dictatorship.” He has spoken of abolishing the presidency and restoring the judiciary’s independence.
Earlier this week, the JHU signed a pact with Sirisena.
Rajapaksa’s fading popularity is not the President’s only worry. International censure on the rights abuses linked to the civil war -- when Sri Lankan troops killed over 40,000 LTTE fighters in the finale of the fighting -- has been mounting. The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations. Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, slammed the Sri Lankan government of trying to "sabotage" the war crimes inquiry and creating a "wall of fear" to prevent witnesses from giving evidence.