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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Democracy, Sri Lanka Style > Sri Lanka's Elections 2000: Fear and Intimidation Rule the Day - An Observer's Report
Democracy Continues, Sri Lanka Style...
Sri Lanka's Elections 2000:
Fear and Intimidation Rule the Day
-An Observer's Report
24 October 2000
|"...I visited 22 polling stations in or near Pathadumbara electorate with a group of seven Sri Lankan election observers from the Kandy branch of People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL). In my estimation, conditions for free and fair elections were non-existent in 18 of these polling stations, 3 were irregular, and only one appeared to be normal. Even at the "normal" polling station, which we visited at 10:30 a.m., the senior presiding officer told us that he expected problems in the afternoon... Voters approached us throughout the day to tell us their polling cards had either been forcibly taken from them, or they had never received their polling cards. In these cases, those who did attempt to go to the polls found that their votes had already been cast. Conversely, many voters who were in possession of their polling cards reached the polls only to learn that their vote had already been cast. We saw men in blue caps barring the doorway of one polling center, forcibly preventing people from entering and casting their votes. "|
The progressive destruction of the political process in Sri Lanka has led to both domestic and international tolerance of an enormous amount of violence by the government (regardless of party affiliation) against its citizens. Increasingly, it seems that the government of Sri Lanka is accountable to no one - not its citizens, and not its foreign counterparts who rubber-stamped the recent parliamentary elections. In Sri Lanka's current political climate, power seems to be determined by the number of thugs a given politician has at his/her disposal.
The blatant rigging of the elections in Pathadumbara Electorate in the Kandy District illustrates this clearly, and also points to the need for the international community to recognize gravity of the erosion of democracy in Sri Lanka, and to therefore reconsider its relationship with Sri Lanka as a political entity.
The conduct and outcome of the election in Pathadumbara electorate point to some of the larger issues facing the entire Sri Lankan polity. The clear and unambiguous involvement of the Deputy Defense Minister in the intimidation and violence not only against other candidates but also against voters is cause for great concern. At the highest levels of government in Sri Lanka, politicians use state resources to organize and sponsor violence and intimidation against their own citizens and constituents. What follows is a personal account of Election Day in Pathadumbara Electorate, Kandy District in the Central Province of Sri Lanka.
I visited 22 polling stations in or near Pathadumbara electorate with a group of seven Sri Lankan election observers from the Kandy branch of People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL). In my estimation, conditions for free and fair elections were non-existent in 18 of these polling stations, 3 were irregular, and only one appeared to be normal. Even at the "normal" polling station, which we visited at 10:30 a.m., the senior presiding officer told us that he expected problems in the afternoon.
While we drove through Pathadumbara we witnessed many vehicles with missing or obscured license plates carrying supporters of the deputy defense minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte. There were also reports that government buses were carrying these individuals. We found them in groups of 20 to 100 outside many polling stations. Many of these individuals were wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the deputy defense minister's photo, and blue (the party color of the ruling People's Alliance) caps with the words "Anuruddha One" written on them in Sinhala.
(The number one was allocated to Ratwatte under the preferential vote system). These gangs were traveling throughout the electorate forcibly taking polling cards and using them to cast false votes. We had many reports that this type of activity took place in the run up to the election, as well as on Election Day.
People from the area reported that some of the gang members were known to them, while it seemed that many were unknown and had clearly come to Pathadumbara from other areas.
Voters approached us throughout the day to tell us their polling cards had either been forcibly taken from them, or they had never received their polling cards. In these cases, those who did attempt to go to the polls found that their votes had already been cast. Conversely, many voters who were in possession of their polling cards reached the polls only to learn that their vote had already been cast. We saw men in blue caps barring the doorway of one polling center, forcibly preventing people from entering and casting their votes.
An opposition United National Party (UNP) polling agent approached us to make a complaint that he had been chased away from the same polling station earlier in the morning. While he was speaking to us, a man in a blue cap approached us and roughly told the man to leave the polling station. We observed an individual in a blue cap who cast a vote without a polling card and did not have his finger inked. We found only People's Alliance (PA) polling agents in many polling stations, and ample evidence to indicate that polling agents were impersonated in others. For example, many polling agents from the UNP and independent parties did not know the names of their candidates when asked. There was only one case where we were confident that all polling agents present were genuine representatives of their parties.
We observed unauthorized people in many polling stations, and found that many of the election officers we talked with seemed very tense. In some cases, the Senior Presiding Officers (SPO) appeared afraid to speak in front of individuals who had introduced themselves as polling agents. In the case of the polling station at Yatawera Pansala (Sri Nandaramaya Viharastane Prejashalawa, polling station # 18) one polling agent even left his seat and accompanied us to speak to the SPO and even spoke for him. The reason for the fear we saw on the faces of officials was made clear to us in some polling stations: the senior polling officer who tried to prevent false votes at Pitiyagedera junior school informed us that the thugs had told him that they would come to his house in the night and kill his wife and child. During a visit to the Hatale polling station (#40) we learned that 539 votes of a possible 553 were cast by 1:10 pm. However, there were no voters in or around the polling station.
Littering the ground outside of this polling station, we found many scraps of paper with numbers and Tamil names written in Sinhala script. We surmised that these numbers were the voter registration number, and that ballots had clearly been falsely cast. We found the same scraps of paper in many polling stations; some of these were imprinted with the blue PA chair, the name Anuruddha, and the number 1. We also found many torn polling cards littering the ground outside polling stations. After 11:00 a.m., most of the polling stations we found were empty, yet we were told nearly all votes for that area had been cast.
At one polling station, we were told that they managed to process 100 voters every 30 minutes! Given the queues we observed at the earlier polling station, and the general procedures for voting that are followed in Sri Lanka, this seemed a remote improbability at best. We arrived at Madulkelle polling station at 1:30 pm to see the polling station empty, and the ballot boxes sealed. We had reports from the villagers and the SPO that 100 armed thugs came to the area and forcibly removed voter's polling cards, then cast false ballots and sealed the boxes. Out of a total of 1185 votes for that polling station, 1150 had been cast.
The two most serious incidents we witnessed took place at the Paranagama Maha Vidyalaya (#21) and in Madawela town. At Paranagama Maha Vidyalaya we saw more than 10 vehicles and more than 100 gang members, many of whom were wearing blue caps and tee shirts with Anuruddha Ratwatte's photo. They were using mobile phones, so it was clear that they were communicating with other groups and coordinating their activities. They departed soon after we arrived. We entered the polling station to learn from the 2 SPOs (for the men?s and women?s sides) that the gang had taken 11 ballot books, with a total of 550 ballots, and stuffed the ballot boxes.
We arrived in Madawala at 3:00 p.m. to see two badly damaged vehicles with the license plates missing. We learned from the residents of the largely Muslim area (who supported the candidate for the National Unity Alliance) that PA supporters had come in a van and a pick-up truck and were shooting into the air, and some had T-56 guns. They were also throwing hand grenades. Eight people in the village were hospitalized as a result of the grenade blasts. The two PA vehicles had an accident, and then more vehicles came to collect the people involved and their weapons. We had reports that the town's people were throwing stones at the vehicles. One vehicle involved in the accident had a sticker with the deputy Defense Minister's photo on the windshield.
It was my impression that even the smaller polling stations were rigged, and that the competition within the PA party to have the greatest number of preferential votes combined with the fierce competition between the government and the opposition served to fuel the climate of fear, intimidation, and violence leading up to and on election day. My impression of the conduct of the polls in Pathadumbara electorate was that large numbers of polling cards were taken, votes were falsely cast, boxes were stuffed, people were prevented from voting, there was a tremendous amount of intimidation, polling officers seemed either frightened or ill at ease, there were gangs of Anurudda Ratwatte?s thugs going to the polling stations throughout the day, and that most citizens felt that their basic right to vote had been violated.
The complete lack of concern that these most egregious electoral violations and blatant rigging were being observed and reported by local and international monitors raises serious questions about accountability. Yet it begs the question, if the politicians are not beholden to the people, then to whom indeed are their thugs beholden? The consequences of arming and training groups of people who increasingly appear to be obligated to nothing and no one could well make these politicians obsolete. There is no absolute monopoly on power in Sri Lanka, and politicians may ultimately be arming their "supporters" at their own peril.
In spite of problems similar to those in Pathadumbara with the polls throughout the Central Province and in the North and East, and the declaration by the elections commissioner that the elections were not free and fair, the results have been allowed to stand. The same people who waged a campaign based on fear and intimidation retain power, and have been rewarded with handsome ministerial portfolios. This is the tragedy of Sri Lanka: as the government steadily wages war against the minority Tamil community, it has progressively eroded the ability of all its citizens to express their voice, and to live without fear of retaliation.