|The world’s most violent armed group faces decisive challenge|
|Friday, 09 May 2008|
By NIRA WICKRAMASINGHE
The world's most violent armed group is facing a decisive challenge. For over 30 years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- better known as the Tamil Tigers -- have justified their secessionist demands on the basis that they represent all Tamil-speaking people in their "Tamil homelands" of the North and East. This Saturday, that claim will be tested at the ballot box at an election where they will be only onlookers.
For the first time in modern Sri Lanka's postcolonial history, the country's Eastern province will hold provincial council elections where 18 political party candidates and 52 independents will vie for 35 seats. The area, formerly known as Kottiar province, consists of three districts: Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara.The fate of the Eastern province matters because it has long been an area of severe civil strife. Its multicultural population of 1.3 million is divided between Sinhalese (22%), and two Tamil-speaking communities, the Tamils (45%) and Muslims (32%). The recent past of armed conflict and violence in the province has soured relations between these communities that otherwise have much in common. Tamils in Batticaloa and Ampara districts share with Muslims many cultural traits and are distinct from Tamils in Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka.
The Tamils in the East speak a regional dialect and practice non-Brahminical ritual traditions.The Eastern province was effectively ruled by the Tamil Tiger rebels until last year, when the Sri Lankan armed forces successfully "liberated" the province. This victory would not have been possible were it not for the 2004 defection of a top Tiger commander, known as Colonel Karuna, to the government's side. His deputy leader, Pillayan, is supporting the government and participating in Saturday's elections.The Tamil Tigers still in the jungles thus have everything to lose from these elections. A functioning provincial council in the East headed by a former Tiger commander would blow a hole in the Tiger's cry for a separate state. Furthermore, if a Muslim chief minister is chosen, this would strengthen the Muslim community that has until now felt marginalized. There is a chance this might happen, as both the United People's Freedom Alliance and the opposition United National Party are supporting rival members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. The government has however promised this position to the Pillayan group as well.The government has campaigned relentlessly for these elections, using the state machinery to its best advantage.
President Mahinda Rajapakse has launched an ambitious development program, building roads, bridges and -- in the run-up to the elections -- inaugurating new projects such as the Oluvil port. Lamp posts are hastily being fixed in anticipation of future electricity connections. Mr. Rajapakse hosted President Ahmadinejad of Iran in late April to help curry favor with Muslim voters. The government May day rally was held in the Eastern city of Dehiaththakandiya.The President has good reason to care about Saturday's polls. His administration has come under pressure recently, thanks to soaring prices of commodities, heavy army casualties in the North, and increasing allegations of nepotism and corruption. He sorely needs a political victory in the East. Only that, he claims, can usher in an "Eastern resurgence."But if the polls are free and fair, his UPFA faces stiff competition, not least of which from the United National Party and its ally, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
The Muslim Congress, headed by its charismatic leader Rauf Hakeem, is determined to become the voice of the Muslims regionally and nationally. Members of the SLMC gave up their parliamentary seats to contest as candidates at the provincial level. The Janata Vimukti Peramuna (People's Liberation Front), formerly allied with the government, is fielding its own candidates. Many Tamils fear Mr. Pillayan's armed marauding gangs and they might vote against the climate of insecurity that prevails.With only a day to go, the East seems relatively calm. The incidence of election violence has been low, although there are fears of election rigging. The President prorogued parliament for a month to defuse opposition claims of electoral intimidation -- and perhaps to preempt future protest.Voters in the East can only hope that all will go well. The local council polls in the Batticaloa district were held relatively peacefully on March 10 -- but largely because the United National Party and their ally the Tamil National Alliance, often seen as a proxy for the Tigers, boycotted the polls. Still, the government read its "one-horse race" victory at the Batticaloa polls as a sign that Eastern provincial council elections could be held and won.
Whoever wins, there is a lot of work ahead. Today, nearly 30,000 displaced persons in refugee camps in the East are waiting to return home to their lands. A free and fair election heralds many promises for these battered peoples. The presence of poll observers will hopefully allow them to choose freely between the promise of a government-backed developmental reawakening, and the distant prospect of a regime complete with rights and freedoms for all.
Nira Wickramasinghe is a professor in the department of history and international relations, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She grew up in Paris and studied at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne and at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate.
Among her books are Civil Society in Sri Lanka: New Circles of Power (New Delhi, Thousand Oaks/ Sage, 2001); Dressing the Colonised Body: Politics, Clothing and Identity in Colonial Sri Lanka (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2003); and Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (C Hurst and University of Hawaii Press, 2006).
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|Last Updated ( Tuesday, 24 June 2008 )|
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