In Sri Lanka, the Ballot Takes Over Where the Bullet Ruled

  • Share
  • Read Later
Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

Homes lie destroyed in an abandoned conflict zone where Tamil Tigers separatists made their last stand before their defeat by the Sri Lankan army in northeastern Sri Lanka, May 23, 2009.

It was an election of little if any practical importance, but huge symbolic value. Twenty local administrative bodies in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north went to polls over the weekend to elect members. Though power in the region is still in the hands of the central government, the elections in the northern districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mulaittivu were closely watched around the country as the first public referendum of post-war redevelopment and reconciliation efforts by the government of President Mahinda Rajapakasa.

When the results came out, the answer was clear: While Rajapaksa's immense popularity has not waned in the rest of the country, in the north, it is at a low. The opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a party closely linked with the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), won 15 of the 20 bodies; another Tamil party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), won two; and the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won three. On a national scale, the UPFA dominated the July 23 vote, winning 45 of the 65 bodies up for election. In the north, it barely registered. "It [was] the people's chance to speak," says Soosaipillai Keethaponcalan, the head of the department of political science at the University of Colombo.

The three districts saw the worst of the fighting during the island's bloody 25-year civil war that ended in May 2009. The war's final phase saw the complete destruction of the separatist LTTE, a group that had demanded a separate state for the minority Tamils who make up for the bulk of the population in the north. Over 300,000 civilians caught in the fighting were left homeless; countless others were left injured, or dead. By late 2009, the government began resettling the war displaced; all but 10,000, who remain in camps, have now returned to their home villagers or live with relatives.

The government has launched major redevelopment works in the former northern war zone, popularly known as the Vanni. The A9 highway, that runs almost dead center through the region, has been repaved, and plans are afoot to expand it to six lanes. Power lines have been drawn, and over 80% of the rice paddies in the region are back in cultivation. According to the central bank, the government has dispersed $42 million in the north under various credit programs since the war's end. The bank also reports that the north had recorded the highest growth rates on the island in recent months.

But despite such development efforts, life in the Vanni is still a struggle. United Nations' reports say that over 63% of the returning people displaced in the fighting do not have a spending capacity of even $1 per day, and unemployment is thought to be above 20%. The large military presence in the region has also been seen as slowing down efforts to return to normalcy.

Those grievances finally got some air over the weekend. "The government campaign was based on the development work, the [northern] voters have however shown what is important to them," said Mavi Senathiraja, a TNA parliamentarian from Jaffna. He told TIME that the northern voters had endorsed the TNA's push for more authority being assigned to regional bodies. The party says that the shift is vital to address grievances of the Tamil minority that flared the bloody conflict and to achieve effective national reconciliation.

International powers like U.S. and the E.U. have also been calling for wider power devolution to Tamil areas — and a thorough investigation into the conduct of the last phase of the war in the face of allegations of war crimes. A report by an advisory panel to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released in March recommended an international investigation into what it said were credible allegations of war crimes during the last phase of the war. The Sri Lanka government has rejected the allegations. Had the government won the election in the north, it would have used the victory to deflect growing international pressure, says Keethaponcalan. Now, with the unpopularity of the government in the north on such clear display, it may have to do something to address these concerns.

Surprisingly, India, which stood by the Sri Lankan government during the war, has become one of the strongest proponents for power devolution of late. During a visit to Colombo in June, the powerful Indian troika of National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar pushed for reforms and said continuing discussions between the government and the TNA were vital. During the final phase of the war between 2006 and 2009, India, China and Russia had created a bulwark against growing international pressure on Sri Lanka. The latter two have not indicated any changes to their unstinted support to Sri Lanka. Russia, in fact, was one of the first nations to come to Sri Lanka's defense following the release of the U.N. report, and China has invested heavily post-war Sri Lanka.

Nevertheless, observers feel that Rajapakasa would be foolish to ignore the subtle changes taking place in the international community. "Collectively, these countries have the political and financial clout to make a positive difference in Sri Lanka," says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director at the International Crisis Group, speaking of the U.S., E.U., and now India. "Were these countries to make Sri Lanka a priority and take a more principled and collective stand, it is by no means certain that China and Russia would continue to stand in the way."

Last weekend's polls, too, are a sign that change has already arrived, says Keerthi Tennakoon, head of the election monitoring body Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE). Despite some irregularities and incidents of intimidations, Tennakoon says the election has strengthened the nascent civil administrative structure in the former conflict-zone — and residents' belief that they, too, can be part of Sri Lanka's democratic process. "The ballot is taking over where the bullet ruled," Tennakkon says.

The war-weary voters who cast those ballots agree. "For so long, we did not believe in democracy," says Velayuthan Ramanan, who lives in Kilinochchi. "Maybe now we do."