Vavunathivu (Sri Lanka): Lawless, contested, notorious for a string of abductions and unsolved killings, this region has long been known as the “wild east” of Sri Lanka.
For years, the guerrilla army known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had the run of the place, only to be driven out last summer by the military, with help from a breakaway Tamil rebel faction.
The houses here are still battered from the fighting. Its people are still rattled from having to run.
On Monday, voters here and across the region went to the polls in the first local elections in a dozen years. Beyond deciding who will serve in local posts, the vote stands to demonstrate whether, after 25 years of civil war, the government can restore a semblance of normalcy for the area’s ethnic Tamil majority.
Questions remain as to whether the elections will be free and fair, or simply a means for the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to consolidate its hold on the region through its ally, the breakaway faction that helped push the Tamil Tigers out.
That faction has now reinvented itself as a political party, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal Party, or TMVP, and has been endorsed by the government.
Praying for peace: Jegan Devika (second from left) near her war-ruined house in Vavunathivu on the eve of the first local elections in the area.
Until recently, TMVP gunmen openly patrolled the east. The group is accused by human rights organizations, as well as UN officials, of recruiting child soldiers. Many people are fearful, and critics worry that the party will browbeat or ballot-stuff its way to an election victory.
Some opposition politicians have refused to run, fearing retribution. Amnesty International reported last week that a man had been abducted after having refused to run on a TMVP ticket.
Today, the TMVP's heavily barricaded political offices are festooned with their party symbol, a boat, along with garish murals dedicated to their slain fighters. “Vote for the Boat,” goes one slogan. “It will ferry the wounded Tamils to the shore.”
The TMVP itself is hardly safe from violence. On a Sunday morning in February, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a village not far from here, killing two TMVP workers who had tried to frisk him for weapons near the site of an election meeting.
The government swiftly blamed the Tamil Tigers.
Neither the TMVP nor other Tamil parties that oppose the Tigers have laid down their arms. The pro-Tiger party is not fielding candidates in these elections, saying they would not be safe.
Paffrel, an independent monitoring group, has called on all political parties to disarm. In February, it issued a report saying that while law and order had improved in the weeks leading up to the elections, several political parties and community leaders had told its observers that the presence of armed men was “an obstacle to free and fair elections”. Its observers found little enthusiasm for voting for particular candidates.
Likewise, a pre-election assessment by the Center for Policy Alternatives, a non-partisan research organization in the capital, Colombo, found a climate of fear and cynicism among civilians.
“Many felt that the elections will not drastically change the ground situation,” said its report, released in mid-February. “The only change envisaged is that the TMVP and other armed actors will be elected into office and claim legitimacy for their role and activities in the area.”
Several accusations of coercion and violence have been made in recent weeks. Last week, two men on a motorcycle told women leaving a political meeting of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, a rival of the TMVP, that their husbands would not live if they voted for the Liberation Front, according to the party’s leader, Erasaiyah Thurairatnam.
Elsewhere, Thurairatnam said, armed cadres entered a party office and verbally threatened its workers. A member of another party, he said, was roughed up near a TMVP office a few days earlier.
“People are not in a mood to vote,” Thurairatnam said. He said he feared the results would be rigged, and predicted that voters in some areas dominated by the TMVP would be too afraid to vote for anyone else. His party was hardly sitting idle. On a recent day, a large group of women bearing parasols in the midday sun marched through the narrow roads of nearby Batticaloa, stumping for their candidate. A woman with a bullhorn brought up the rear. “We think this election has been imposed on us,” she announced, and went on to urge people to vote.
The candidate, Sellapillai Asirvithan, in a crisp white shirt and traditional wraparound lungi, knocked on doors and handed out leaflets. “Exercise your democratic right,” a supporter bellowed through the bullhorn. “You have the right to vote for the candidate of your choice.”
Atanidas Arulanatham, poring over one of the leaflets, said that he and his wife planned to vote. Asked whether people would be able to choose freely, he laughed.
“Not sure,” was all he would say. “We hope those who win will bring peace.”
Here in Vavunathivu, a TMVP candidate named Jegannathan Jeyaraj sat under a wide-armed tree in the courtyard of a Hindu temple, making his case. Once a child soldier, he later studied computers in India and was now trying to make it as a politician.
He told his audience that his party had given up hopes for an independent ethnic Tamil homeland and had renounced armed struggle (though not yet their weapons, for fear of attacks by their rivals). He pledged economic development for the area. And he branded as terrorists his former masters, the Tamil Tigers, whom he had joined at age 7.
The audience kept quiet, except for a very old woman. “I cultivated three acres and got nothing because of the war,” she told him.
“The past is past,” he replied. “The TMVP will pave a new way.”
Undeterred, the woman wagged a finger. “You admit you broke away from the LTTE,” she said. “Why are you blaming them now?” Then, finally, she said the unspeakable: “Why don't you ask the government to give us a separate state?”
Sri Lankan soldiers stood at the edge of the meeting, machine guns at the ready. Clumps of young men wearing TMVP jerseys stood in the shade.
Asked if she planned to vote, a woman sitting in the crowd nodded. Asked if she felt free to vote her conscience, she shook her head and quietly said, “No”. She smiled and looked down at the ground, refusing to say more.
©2008/The New York Times