By Nimalka Fernando
Retruning back from Nedunkerni and Mulathivu after an election monitoring exercise today I was horrified to see two huge armed cars and vehicles carrying soldiers near the Kelaniya bridge. Eventhough I could have avoided the visit the message I received challenged me as a human rights defender to be present with the people as they exercised their right to vote. On the otherhand I am glad that the visit now compelled me to share with the Sri Lankan citizens who will be definitely celebrating another victory the massive political challenge before us.
Monitoring elections is tiring if we take a political vision into this process. As a member of Mothers and Daughters of Lanka I agreed to be involved in monitoring realising the challenge that this the process is intrisically linked to voter education and literacy on democracy. I am also glad that the process we initiated during the Northern Provincial Council Election has now paved the way to develop community based interactions for reconcilitation bnetween Sinhala and Tamil women. For us this vote was important since this very interaction was often disrupted in the environment of surveillance nurtured by the Gotabaya regime.
We experienced that the space to conduct a free and fair election has been totally eroded beyond democratic norms. There is credible evidence to indicate that the Mahinda regime used Executive power which instigated fear in our society.
From all the reported election related violence and violations, we saw the blatant manner in which executive powers were utilised in favour of one candidate. That is Mahinda Rajapaksa. From the use of state resources to the inaction of the local police to remove illegal banners and cutouts, the political violence unleashed against the joint opposition rallies, attack on opposition leaders and their election propaganda offices clearly demonstrated that our call to hold free and fair elections was totally rejected and ignored. During the past few weeks our members in several districts continued to share information related to the violations and violence which are now well know and published in the media. I believe that election monitoring is not a process which is limited to tabulating violence and violations. Monitoring should also play an important role in facilitating a level playing field essential to holding free and fair elections. Our first experience in election monitoring was gained in 1994 when we as members of MDL participated in monitoring the then Presidnetial Election which was also marred with violence and intimidation. It is unfortunate that we see the same violent trends and the use of executive powers sustained and continued over 20 years in our country. As citizen’s we have not been able to effectively address the use of state resources , election violence and breaking of election laws over the past three decades.
It is ironical that a country and a leadership which boasted of ending terrorism and terrorism related violence was not been able to create mechanisms and a culture which respect the freedom to exercise one of the basic democratic rights – the right to use our vote in a free and fair manner. We saw how the military was used during the Northern Provincial Council for election campaigns. The same fear continued today which made me rush to Vanni.
As I toured Vanni meeting women the election while remaining unreal to them posed challenges to me. Some women told me that the Sinhala leaders have not looked after them. They also told us that this vote is a reflection of the need to live freely in the North. I was informed with tears in their eyes that the samurdhi receipients were called to the office at Nedunkerni with the promise of some funds. Women have come leaving all their other tasks some even borrowing money to travel. As officials were not able to continue with the discussion as the crowd was dispersed by the District Secretary the women had to go back home with nothing in their hand. This brought pain to them.
Recipients of Samurdhi who are the poorest of the poor were herded to attend the rallies of Mahinda Rajapaksa the candidate. They had no option. Fearing that their only means of survival would be removed from them the women went. Even though on the day of the election we declare that `it has been peacefully concluded’ lot of effort goes into ensure such an environment. This situation is regretable since democratic norms and practices are not respected as a natural norm in our country. Both local and international civil society has to keep on reminding the Sri Lankan Executive that there are obligations and duties related to ensuring democratic norms. Under Mahinda regime the situation has worsened with the state and government combining develop a an autocracy to control the grass-roots .
The smaller units of political powers in the village which is called our voter constituency is fully controlled by the Executive. The leader of the Pradeshiya Sabaha, the local authority who is a UPFA supporter being a thug, a person connected to the underworld and closely involved with the member of Parliament is wielding his/her power in the electorate. All appointments and benefits are designed and defined to keep the poorest of the poor under the control of the political authroity and their political power, the right to vote is in the grips of the executive. Therefore directoves issued by the can be ignored and rejected. Even though he managed to stop few incidents related to distribution of `gifts’ during the election period the Commissioner could not control the entire process.
We as civil society continued to campaign for the establishment of an independent election commission following Indian example and the introduction of an electronic voting system. Unfortunately Sri Lanka has failed to take good lessons from it’s neigbour in South Asia. Our efforts will have to be strengthened for the future. The forces who pledged a change promised a transformation of the existing political culture. I have seen `this hope’ as people came to vote in the North.
The vote is an indication that the campaign for democracy, reconciliation and demilitarisation has emerged victorious. But we have a tremendous challenge. I am compelled to say that the North has voted for change. It is our duty to deliver the freedom for the people. The women in the North who are tillers of the land want their rights. Their faces and tears once again reminded me of the difference between my reality and their life experiences. The massive difference of votes between the swan and the beetle leaf in the Tamil homeland has to be understood properly. Sinhala political leader who are going to lead this country towards changhe has been trusted by them to take them towards this new future. I hope and pray we will not let them down.
I salute the citizen’s of Sri Lanka for igniting their conscience after several years.