Stage set for no holds barred battle in the east

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Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Suranimala Logo

For a government that has showcased the east both locally and internationally as its prime trophy in two and a half years of putting the country through a deadly war and economic ruin, the up coming eastern polls is crucial.

Having pegged the east as an indicator of his political success and the May 10 hustings as a barometer of his government's democratic intent, President Mahinda Rajapakse has placed all his eggs in the Pillayan basket.

The ruling regime if it wants to retain some credibility needs to not only win the election but sweep the polls at the election untainted by allegations of foul play.

Given the number of election related violent incidents including arson, damage to property, and killings already reported there is little chance the polls will be given a clean bill of health.

No confidence

Already the UNP has expressed its grave concern over the impartiality of PAFFREL as an election monitor. PAFFREL Chief Kingsley Rodrigo travels on a diplomatic passport issued to him by the UPFA government thus placing in serious doubt his suitability as an independent monitor.

Despite receiving scores of complaints Rodrigo's PAFFREL remains tight-lipped on the matter even as the UNP has charged it did not have confidence in PAFFREL's impartiality. Rodrigo however last week denied to The Morning Leader the UNP allegation that PAFFREL was biased towards the government and claimed balanced monitoring of over 25 elections over two decades by the umbrella institution as proof.

For the government then which has hung its whole war argument on the east it is imperative that the UPFA/Pillayan combine win big and big in all three districts - Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee - at an election crucially perceived to be free and fair.

If the election is tainted a government win will not carry weight and it is likely to denigrate the argument that the east was liberated and democracy prevails. A fair poll is the fulcrum of a democratic system.

Rajapakse's Everest

Rajapakse has many Everests to climb but having thrown in his lot with the armed Pillayan faction showcasing the east as a democratic bastion will be his biggest challenge. Either you are a terrorist group or you are a political party. If you are a political party you have to be circumscribed by the rule of law and that includes disarming during a democratic election.

Rajapakse knows well that a win in the east is crucial to his survival. It is this knowledge that gives him the impetus to exploit every power at his disposal to clinch victory.

Meanwhile the very fact that the government is in alliance with the armed Pillayan cadre detracts from any argument relating to democracy but an election riddled with violence and rigged to boot will only make matters worse.

Charges of wide scale rigging have been reported. A woman was caught transporting 10,000 polling cards illegally last week. On April 16, The Morning Leader reported that two police officers in Trincomalee had arrested a woman in possession of 10,000 fake polling cards without the official seal. However she was released according to the UNP on the orders of sub inspector Sivalingam of the Trincomalee Police.

Election violence

While six persons have already fallen victim to election violence, the UNP which has set up a unit to monitor election related complaints have recorded complaints of abuse of state property, assaults on opposition candidates and supporters, and the mobilisation of public servants for the UPFA's political purposes. All complaints of a serious nature are copied to both the Elections DIG H.M.D. Herath and to the Elections Commissioner.

Complaints have been received that the TMVP's 'White Van' squadrons were roaming the streets of Batticaloa District without vehicle registration plates, unchecked by the army and police, carrying out their campaign work and intimidating opponents.

While the government is fighting to wrest back LTTE controlled areas in the north and destroy LTTE judicial and policing institutions, the TMVP has already set up the beginnings of a separate TMVP controlled state in the east.

Acting as both the judiciary and the police, the TMVP was to abduct one Mohan Velu whose father in law Nagalingam is the UNP candidate for Padirippu on April 20 while he was campaigning. He was later released but ordered to report to the local TMVP office at 5 p.m the next day. This incident was reported to the DIG Elections - Police Head Quarters, to the Kalawanchikudi Police and to the Elections Commissioner to no avail.

The office of UNP Digamadulla District Organiser Daya Gamage was bombed on the night of April 22. Although a complaint was filed at the Boralesgamuwa Police Station and the local ASP was informed no action has been taken.

Ballot paper fraud?

Even as Mahinda Rajapakse was celebrating May Day in Ampara the UNP complaints unit has recorded complaints from eligible voters that election ballot papers distributed by postal peons have short delivered ballot papers to voter residences. The undelivered ballot papers could easily be used to cast illegal votes.

The official election monitors PAFFREL including all other state authorities have been kept abreast of all these complaints together with relevant details but no action has followed, while the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) has reported that armed TMVP cadres are present at "every police sentry" in Batticaloa and are allowed to move freely with arms.

East is a mess

And news from the east is not pretty. While the LTTE break away Pillayan faction have at their disposal thousands of assault rifles, pistols and other arms and ammunition used to liberate the east from their mothership the LTTE, already the government has mobilised Samurdhi officials promising an increase in Samurdhi benefits in exchange for votes.

An inside UPFA source in Trincomalee told this column the government has allegedly launched an elaborate plan to rig the eastern polls and intimidate voters. The government last Thursday allegedly launched a false Samurdhi survey in Muttur in a bid to convince the people to exercise their franchise at the May 10 election in favour of the government.

The plan includes false promises of a two fold increase in Samurdhi payments after the elections and the surrendering of polling cards as a surety for the said benefit.

Dirty tricks department

Minister of Power and Energy John Seneviratne and Minister of Nation Building in charge of Samurdhi Affairs Susantha Punchinilame are spearheading the campaign. Sources also allege that plans are also afoot to use goons from the Ratnapura District from which hail both Seneviratne and Punchinilame on election day and pre election day to prevent UNP polling agents from entering the booths. The UNP last week lodged a complaint with the Elections Commissioner's office in this regard. (See full story on Page 1)

The UNP accused the government of foul play stating that not 24 hours after Mahinda Rajapakse in his May Day speech stated that a vote for the UNP would be a vote for the LTTE, leaflets had been distributed in the east bearing the logo of the LTTE calling for people to vote for the UNP. The UNP charged this was obviously an attempt by the government to tarnish the image of the UNP. 

Ironically the UNP has also said that recent polls conducted by the National Intelligence Bureau and other agencies at the government's will - and taxpayer's expense - have shown that the UPFA/TMVP combine is lagging in the opinion polls. Perhaps a reason for the UPFA's frenzied attempt to allegedly rig the polls. 

The government has already given itself a head start. Under cover of development programmes it has got for itself massive media coverage even though campaigning is banned after 6 p.m.

The Rupavahini and ITN channels with the widest coverage especially in the rural east are almost exclusively being used for campaigning and Rajapakse last week decided to hold the UPFA May Day rally in Dehiattakandiya in the Ampara District to maximise its campaign. Rajapakse was to also successfully do his utmost to bring forward the scheduled Iranian Presidential visit in order to muster the Muslim vote but Mahmoud's usefulness to a cash strapped President whose policies and methods have been eschewed by Western donors did not stop there.

Performing monkey

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's whistle stop visit of a mere 24 hours to Sri Lanka was originally planned for May 15 and was to span over three days.  Rajapakse however was determined to get down Ahmadinejad to perform for him before the crucial date and the original May 15 would have been a little too late for the President.

However all did not go well. Rajapakse had spent lavishly for the opening of the Uma Oya project last Tuesday April (29) at 10 a.m. at the J.M. Kumaradasa Maha Vidyalaya in Wellawaya. But Ahmadinejad was unable to attend due to the weather and no doubt due to such a packed schedule arranged for him by President Rajapakse who intended by hook or by crook and with no thought for the comfort of the President to dangle Mahmoud before the Muslim community on the one hand and wiggle him in front of the international community on the other.

Public pays dearly

But already the public has paid dearly for the politically charged spectacle. Two large tablets costing millions of rupees were erected with the names of the two Presidents depicting the two cultures. And a luxurious lodging tent another Rs.7.5 million.

Be that as it may the government claims massive development work has commenced in the east and hails its military successes. If these proclamations have found resonance with the people then the government should not fear a free and fair election and should win with wide margins in all three districts. There would be no necessity for an undercover campaign or an impetus in the form of an Iranian President to boost the popularity of the government.

High stakes

Needless to say the stakes are high for all political parties come May 10. A defeat for the UPFA/Pillayan combine in any of the three districts would necessarily mean the people have not accepted the claims of liberation and development, especially considering the large number of ministers representing these three districts and the huge amount of state resources commandeered by the government not only for the election but also for its campaign trail.

The government has dumped a massive amount of manpower and public resources into this eastern election. Even though Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was denied a helicopter to travel to the east, and SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem's security was drastically slashed, a large number of UPFA ministers, officials and political organisers have descended upon the east in droves each with large numbers of vehicles, public resources at their disposal courtesy Mahinda Rajapakse and a carte blanche to exploit public property. Each ironically has also been provided armed security detail.

This is despite the government stating that helicopters cannot be given for electioneering and Defence Spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella going even further by stating at a press briefing that Wickremesinghe needs no security since he is in cahoots with the LTTE. And while there seem to be silly little men who spew out piffle of this nature a chopper was immediately provided to airlift the likes of Mervyn Silva for stubbing his toe on the steering wheel of a speeding vehicle.

Imaginary feather in cap

The outcome of the election is also vital for the LTTE and the Tamil National Alliance in so much as it is for the Pillayan Group. The Pillayan faction broke away from the LTTE on the basis that the Eastern Tamils were meted out stepmotherly treatment by the LTTE hierarchy and ill treated by their northern brethren. To get validation for that claim and to demonstrate a clear rejection of the LTTE and the TNA in the east, the Pillayan Group must be able to overwhelmingly secure the Tamil vote in the east. If not the so called liberation of the east will remain an imaginary feather in the government's cap.

It is this perception that will make the eastern poll important to stakeholders like the LTTE who are not even in the running for the May 10 hustings.

Merger politics

If the Pillayan Group/UPFA combine wins the polls with the help of the Tamil eastern vote and that is not only in Batticaloa but also in the other two districts Trincomalee and Ampara, it immediately renders nugatory the LTTE call for a merger of the north and east.

Even though the LTTE through a merger seeks to fluff out the Tamil population percentage on the one hand and the Tamil speaking population inclusive of Muslims on the other hand, if the Tamils in the NE as a people are to be politically and ideologically divided then there is no justification for or credibility for the call.

And more importantly in the international context it will justify Pillayan's claim that the eastern Tamils do not want to merge with the Northern Tamils as they are two distinct communities divided on political, ideological and cultural lines even though within one racial group.

Weaken LTTE's case

This will weaken the LTTE's case with the international community for a negotiated settlement based on a merger of the two provinces. Having Pillayan as the chief minister in the east, would also send a signal to the international community that the east does not form a part of the Tamil homeland as claimed by the TNA and the LTTE.


Pillayan after all is a man to whom the LTTE is now anathema, a man who has toed the government line and advocated the stand for a unitary state, a man who has supported the government's war. Pillayan as chief minister will do more to justify a de merger of the north and east than would any other factor.

Especially if half baked election monitors and emasculated Elections Department officials and the police turn a blind eye to the violence and rigging in the east. An endorsement of the election result by such dubious authorities would send a message to the international community that the UPFA/Pillayan Group pulled off yet another electoral victory in the east.

No win situation

For the LTTE it is a tails I win heads you lose situation. On the other side of the coin a win for the UNP/SLMC combine will also be detrimental to the LTTE in more ways than one. Already the LTTE has demonstrated its deep distrust and dislike of the UNP and its Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe whom they see as a cunning fox.

To the LTTE a thriving economy, a tight bond of friendship and trust between Sri Lanka and Western donors like the US and the EU, an international safety net, a negotiated settlement under circumstances that would force the LTTE to accept much less than a separate state - would prove fatal to its survival.

In this respect it is better for the LTTE to go with a Rajapakse victory that would ensure that Sri Lanka plummets economically, is in a state of permanent chaos and earns international pariah status which results in a freeze of vital funding. Such a situation will also ensure that democratic values, good governance and the rule of law are absent giving rise to human rights abuses, abductions, indiscriminate killings, illegal arrests and even torture.

Driven towards Iran

This would in turn distance the country from the international community and drive it in economic desperation towards such states as Iran, Pakistan and Burma for support and friendship. It would also give the LTTE a peg on which to hang its argument of a self governing state.

Last Wednesday the US State Department released its annual Terrorism Report 2007 where it said Iran, now Sri Lanka's main ally, remains the 'most active state sponsor of terrorism' supplying arms to Palestinian terrorists, to the Hisbollah and to Syria.

Israeli sources speaking to this column recalled that bombs used by Palestinian rebels to attackGaza were made in Iran.

Crocodile tears

The President while obtaining arms from Israel on the one hand has expressed solidarity with "hundreds of thousands of our fraternal Muslim people who live in refugee camps due to the Israel-Palestinian war and other conflicts in the world." He did so in a speech last Tuesday at Sapugaskanda following the Iranian President flagging off an expansion programme for the oil refinery. 

And President Rajapakse not only threw in his lot with the Muslim world but also referred to Sri Lanka stating, "the inhuman sufferings the Sri Lankan Muslims have undergone due to terrorism are not seen in many other countries. It includes the massacre of Muslims when they were praying to Almighty Allah at the Kattankudi Mosque; and the eviction of several thousand Muslims from the north in just 24 hours."

However his weeping and wailing for the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is unlikely to resonate with the survivors of the Kattankudi massacre or the mass eviction from the north. President Rajapakse now holds hands with the perpetrators of those heinous crimes as he also throws in his lot with the Pillayan Group. Whether his political posturing and cheap publicity will pay off is left to be seen.

So while for the LTTE internationally the Rajapakse-Pillayan combine is a better bet it is more complicated in local terms.

UNP factor

What of the UNP then? The UNP/SLMC will perhaps be more tolerable to the LTTE in local terms as the two parties have agreed to a merged north and east subject to a democratically held referendum and a merger that would provide for a separate Muslim unit in the east. That is a unit comprising Kalmunai, Akkaraipattu and Sammanthurai.

Muslim unit

The special Muslim unit is no stranger to the peace debate. It was a proposal put forward by the Founder of the SLMC, M.H.M. Ashraff and in fact the basis on which Rauf Hakeem was to later negotiate with the LTTE as part of the delegation during the UNP-LTTE talks of 2002-2003 while in government.

So in the final analysis a victory for the opposition would be the lesser of the two evils for the LTTE though in the overall international context at national level it would be more damaging to them to have Wickremesinghe running the country.

That the LTTE has already made clear by paving the way for Rajapakse's victory at the presidential election through an enforced boycott in the north and east.

The best option for the Wanni would perhaps be to sabotage the election altogether. This would debunk the idea that the east has been liberated and that the Tamils are supportive of the election. Obviously the LTTE would prefer to call the elections a farce.

However a call for a boycott will not be as successful as it was in November 2005 during the presidential election which cost Ranil Wickremesinghe a presidency as the pro Pillayan Tamils will proceed to the polling booth in any event. And they are either armed or will be protected by another armed para military group. 

Diplomatic concern

Meanwhile the diplomatic community is rightly concerned.

Last Friday the US Ambassador Robert Blake met Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and UNP front liner Ravi Karunanayake for talks on the eastern election. The meeting held at 12 noon at the Opposition Leader's office at Cambridge Terrace included a de-brief of the ground situation in the east where the UNP was to appraise the diplomat of the high level of violence, abuse of state property and the violation of electoral law. Ambassador Blake is due to visit the east prior to the election it is learnt.

Later in the day the duo met another section of the diplomatic community including the British and Australian high commissioners and the Norwegian, Swiss, Canadian and French ambassadors to appraise them of the situation. It is learnt there would be a diplomatic presence in the east on May 10 as the international community has expressed serious concern of election day violence and large scale rigging.

It is crunch time for the political parties in the fray but whatever the outcome of the May 10 polls, for the people of Sri Lanka crushed under a cost of living of such gigantic proportions - inflation reached an all time high of 29.9 percent, life can only get worse.