The Northern elections may be over and results are out, but as far as the people in the North are concerned the election is just an administrative formality.
To put it in the words of Sarawanan Krishna, a trader at the Jaffna market, the Tamils want a solution to their everyday needs which so far does not seem likely to be addressed through an election.
Krishna is just one of many Northerners who cast their ballots yesterday and it was no surprise that he, like many other Tamils in the North, supported the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – some for the mere reason that they had no other choice.
The election for the Northern Provincial Council took place after 25 years and was hailed by the international community including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
However, the general public their cost of living, jobs, security and freedom of expression to be addressed.
The prices of most goods which come from Colombo are more expensive than the local items, mostly because of the transport cost.
A will to vote
Most people The Sunday Leader spoke to in the North, a day ahead of the election, were too scared to be identified, especially if it meant they were going to give their honest opinion.
The fear factor was evident when a group of journalists who were in Jaffna to cover the elections had to visit the house of TNA candidate Anandi Sasitharan after her house in Tholpuram came under attack last week. The driver of the three-wheel taxi which drove the journalists to her house refused to stay till the journalists returned, fearing for his own safety.
“People are so scared when such incidents take place. I am also scared and I don’t think I should be seen anywhere close,” he said before he drove away.
Then there is the much publicized resettlement program of the government which, according to the Mannar Hindu Society, has not benefitted all the Tamils.
A representative of the Mannar Hindu Society, who wished to remain anonymous, said that a lot of people who have been given houses under the Indian housing scheme in the North are still suffering, unable to maintain the house, or in some cases unable to even complete the construction owing to the rise in the cost of construction material.
“People don’t have jobs and often they get things on lease or credit but cannot pay back,” he said.
He said overall the Tamils feel discriminated, and while the construction of roads, railway lines and other infrastructure in the North is good following the war, it will in no way “win the hearts of the people”.
The Tamils, as a result, had decided to go out and vote yesterday hoping that some change may come their way for the good.
Kanaga Namanathan, a lawyer and coordinator at the Jaffna TNA election office, said that there was much enthusiasm ahead of the election.
“Two months ago the people were not too keen on this election, but later there was some visible enthusiasm especially after the TNA nominated C.V. Wigneswaran as the Chief Ministerial candidate,” he said.
Namanathan said the Tamils had placed their hope on Wigneswaran to address their suffering and bring about the change they want.
All about politics
Wigneswaran was the choice of TNA leader R. Sampanthan, who despite some opposition within his party, decided he was the man for the job.
“He is a moderate and I felt he is the man we needed at this time,” Sampanthan told The Sunday Leader.
However, some of Wigneswaran’s comments during the election campaign did not go well with Sinhalese groups, particularly Sinhalese political parties.
He had been quoted as saying, in one instance, that LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabakaran was a “hero” but Sampanthan said his comments had been taken out of context.
The TNA leader also clarified that his party was not for a solution where the country will be divided into two, and that the final political solution should be within a united Sri Lanka.
The Mannar Hindu Society said that Tamils felt the TNA is the “only solution” for them as there is no one else to turn to.
“We have no faith in the government,” said the Mannar Hindu Society.
The representative of the Mannar Hindu Society, who was accompanied by Hindu religious leaders and representatives, also accused the government of colonizing Tamil land with Sinhalese families.
“This is state sponsored colonization,” he said.
The society claims that in Thalaimannar, for example, an area has been earmarked where the families of military personnel will be settled.
The move is seen as one to have a more Sinhalese voter base in the North for future elections, and change the demographic of the area.
He said there are a lot of Sri Lankan Tamils still in India as refugees and most of them do not have land in the North to return to.
“The civil administration in the North is also still not fully civil as such. The army is playing a big role here,” the Mannar Hindu Society representative said.
He also said that, in the road development process, local contractors and resources have been overlooked and replaced by contractors from the South.
“The contract to build the roads is given to people in the South so Tamil contractors lose out. Then equipment is also hired from the South and not the North for the work. So what do we gain from this other than the new roads,” he said.
He also said that there is a lot of discrimination when allocating jobs in the public sector as priority is given to political appointments.
But former LTTE Chief arms procurer Kumar Pathmanathan, in his first full press briefing following his arrest in 2009, said he felt the TNA was not the solution for the Tamils.
Pathmanathan, who during his LTTE days was very critical of the government, last week hailed President Mahinda Rajapaksa calling him a good leader and the man who can resolve the Tamil issues.
The press briefing was held in Kilinochchi, a town which was once under LTTE control but is now under the government.
Violence stirs tensions
The presence of the army and “unidentified armed groups” in the North has always been the subject of heated debates involving Tamil political parties, the international community and the government.
The attack on the Tholpuram, Jaffna house of TNA candidate Anandi Sasitharan just a day ahead of the Northern election added to that controversy.
Sasitharan said that she had clearly identified EPDP members among those who attacked her house together with men in army uniform.
A visibly shaken Sasitharan, who is the wife of former LTTE Trincomalee political head S. Elilan, said that the incident showed once again how international attention had to remain on the North.
The attack on her house, in which at least eight people were injured, drew more attention as an election monitor was among those injured.
Suhash, a lawyer and monitor of the Peoples Action For Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) sustained minor injuries in the attack.
He had gone to Sasitharan’s house after she had contacted his office and other members of her party about the imminent attack.
A group of armed men had first gone to her house and verbally abused her from outside and then left. During that period she contacted 119, but after failing to receive a response she contacted the election monitors and her colleagues.
She managed to then leave the house by which time Suhash and some supporters of the TNA candidate had arrived.
Suhash told The Sunday Leader that when he was at the house a group of men had arrived in four jeeps and demanded that the door of the house be open.
All those inside had then feared for their lives and hid. Suhash, being an election monitor, decided to open the door after seeing the men dressed in army uniform.
He showed them his lawyer ID and election monitor ID and explained to them that he was there as a response to a complaint lodged by Sasitharan.
The men, carrying poles and guns, were in no mood to listen to his explanation. They assaulted him and the others inside using poles.
At one point Suhash and the others were forced to kneel down and place their hands behind their backs.
“I feared at that time that they were going to kill us. When they were assaulting us they asked if we were trying to create Eelam here. I said I have no politics and that I’m just a monitor doing my job but they wouldn’t listen. They then warned me saying I will be killed if I reported the incident to the police,” he said.
The tyre of Suhash’s motorbike and that of Sasitharan’s van parked outside were also slashed by the armed men.
Post Polls: Resolve Core Issues
The army, however, denied any involvement in the incident.
“This is a baseless allegation. The Security Forces have no involvement in this election related violent act. We do not condone such violent acts and regret that such preconceived allegations are made tarnishing the good image of the Security Forces that have contributed immensely to uplift the living standard of the war affected population while maintaining peace and stability in the region,” Army Spokesman Ruwan Wanigasuriya said.
Bishop vs the Minister
The tension in the North is not limited to the army or armed group issue. An even more serious issue is brewing in Mannar.
Muslim and Catholic religious leaders are accusing each other of creating a “religious war” in the area.
A prominent Catholic priest in Mannar, who wished to remain anonymous, said that while traditionally Muslims and Christians had a good relationship the situation changed after, according to him, Minister Rishard Badurdeen began allocating land and resources in Mannar to Muslims and not Catholics.
He said that, in one much publicized incident, there were allegations the Minister had given fishing boats and stalls for Muslims when it was earlier allocated for Tamils.
The priest, a Tamil, said that Tamils want self-determination under a united Sri Lanka so that issues like those faced between Muslims and Christians can be resolved.
“The government is making roads and developing the area. That’s all good. But the core issues have not been resolved. Development is not the only issue. Tamils feel mistreated,” he said.
The priest said that in his opinion the government missed a “golden opportunity” to resolve the Tamil issue after the war.
He also said that the Bishop of Mannar, Ryappu Joseph, is a voice for the Tamils and is doing all he can to address the issues faced with Muslims.
The Muslims in Mannar however see the Bishop as a thorn in the area, serving only the interest of the Tamil Catholics.
The Mannar District Jamiyyathul Ulama, the main Muslim body in Mannar, said that Muslims have been deprived of their rights in Mannar.
Leaders of the Jamiyyathul Ulama in a discussion with The Sunday Leader, said that in 1990 after the LTTE forcefully evicted Muslims from the North, only a few have since returned as they have no land to go back to.
“The Muslims have been overlooked in the resettlement process,” the Mannar District Jamiyyathul Ulama said.
The Jamiyyathul Ulama said that with no assistance coming from the government or politicians in the area, they had to turn towards Minister Rishard Badurdeen.
“The Muslims have been pushed towards seeking political assistance,” the Jamiyyathul Ulama said.
The Muslim body also said that Muslims have been reduced to a minority in some areas where they were earlier a majority.
The Jamiyyathul Ulama accused the Mannar Bishop of engaging in politics by supporting the TNA instead of sticking to promoting Catholicism.
“Catholics are trying to take-over our businesses. The biggest problem here is the Bishop. He must go. The Bishop must not try to hamper the development of the Muslims,” they said.
The Jamiyyathul Ulama also said that it has no faith in any Tamil politician in the North, be it Wigneswaran, Sampanthan or EDPD leader Douglas Devananda.
Bishop Ryappu Joseph denied the allegations and insisted he was keen on ensuring the Muslims and Catholics in Mannar co-exist.
“Yes, there are issues among Muslims and Catholics but it’s not a general issue. We want to clear this mess and I am willing to sit down with the Muslim leaders to discuss this issue,” he said.
The Bishop also insisted that he does not engage in politics although he does have his political views.
“I don’t engage in party politics,” he said.
The Bishop accused Minister Badurdeen of creating rifts between Muslims and Catholics by allocating land and resources which, according to the Bishop, should go to the Tamils.
“I have told the people that Rishard is a single person and not an Islamist. So his views should not be seen as the views of all the Muslims,” he added.
Meanwhile the National Peace Council says the establishment of a provincial council for the Northern Province is an advance over the existing situation of centralized rule in which the military continues to play an inordinate role. In principle, the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council will give to the people of the North the same devolved power that the people in the other eight provinces enjoy – a right to which they are entitled.
The National Peace Council says the history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is one in which both the government and opposition political parties have used majority Sinhalese nationalism as a counter to Tamil demands for recognition as a minority with the right to cultural and linguistic identity. The Tamil demands for autonomy were branded as a demand for a separate state, and federalism was treated as a demand for secession. Any concessions made by the ruling political party were opportunistically treated as concessions to Tamil separatism by the ruling political party to win votes for the opposition.
The National Peace Council believes that the increased polarisation in the polity due to the competing nationalisms of the electoral campaign should be overcome soon after the election is over.
“It would be best for all politicians to abstain from inciting hate against the other. The TNA is today led by enlightened politicians unlike those who led the LTTE. Living in a multi-ethnic and plural society requires compromise and give-and-take for the sake of peace. In a plural society, one community or one group cannot decide by itself what it wants to do, even if it is the majority in that region or in the country.
There is no doubt that the provincial council system should be strengthened, not only in the Northern Province, but in the other eight provinces also. There are modifications necessary to ensure that the provincial councils and the central government work harmoniously. There is a need to ensure that the provincial council system is provided with more powers and resources, including land and police powers that are already granted in the 13th Amendment and form a part of the Constitution. Such changes will need to be mutually agreed upon while the principles underlying the 13th Amendment are respected. The provincial councils cannot do this by themselves.
They need the cooperation of the central government if they are to achieve their goals of greater devolved power and more resources. We call upon the government and opposition to ensure the spirit of accommodation and trust for such cooperation to be achieved,” the National Peace Council said. (Sunday Leader)