In the backdrop of a country at war and democracy that’s hostage to the whim and fancy of a President and his coterie of murderous brutes, it’s hard to be even cautiously optimistic about the upcoming elections in the East. For the average voters in the South however, the fact that they are being held at all is a marker of the success of this government in eradicating the scourge of the LTTE from the East.
The East is a region of significant ethno-political and cultural complexity and violence where each community harbours grievances against the other. Even during the ceasefire, violent hartals and communal clashes coloured the social and political dynamics in the East (the extremely violent communal clashes in June 2002 in Muttur and Vallachenai is a case in point). There is evidence that youth in the region are alienated and easy pickings for radical, armed extremist groups. The documented emergence of a radicalised, armed Muslim youth in particular poses a serious challenge to the stability of the region, especially in light of the perceived and real threats they will pose to other armed actors in the region as well as State security forces. The Muslims are deeply critical of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, now touted shamelessly once more as the basis of a political settlement to the ethnic conflict by the APRC, since neither the Indian nor the Sri Lankan government consulted the Muslims when signing the Indo Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. Forced evictions, attacks against mosques and a litany of other cultural, social, religious and political issues that affect the Muslims in the East in particular are often perilously ignored by the State and the dominant armed forces in the region (formerly the LTTE and now the TMVP). Problems of land ownership and resettlement are significant. Exacerbated by the war and the imposition of High Security Zones, communal grievances over agricultural and residential land and livelihoods also often spill over into violence.
As Editor of Groundviews, some reports from those who have frequented the region recently I have published indicate that citizens are now more concerned about basic service delivery of local government and largely free from the anxiety they once lived with under the LTTE.
“Friends I met in Batticaloa said that life in the town has become less tense and that there was a feeling of normalcy. They also claimed a drop in abductions and missing people in the town. They stressed that the civilians were tired of the power struggles, and the infighting within factions and among groups.”
Other accounts I’ve published have been more critical about the “liberation” of the East. The essential problem seems to be the prevalence of and the continuing reliance by the Government on armed paramilitary groups to govern the region. It seems to be the case that though the LTTE’s overt presence and diktats in the region have diminished significantly, the human security of civilians remains in question on account of the presence of armed groups with scant regard for human rights and democracy. That this is a concern not shared by the Government is particularly telling. The disturbing allegations made by Alan Rock in 2006 over the State’s complicity in the recruitment of child soldiers by the Karuna group, the damning facts brought to light by the Human Rights Watch report Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group in January 2007 and repeatedly by the SLMM, UNICEF and by critical investigative reports by traditional media on the same lines strongly suggests that even though the LTTE is no longer, for the moment, a dominant force in the East, Pilliyan and the TMVP constitute real and significant threats to the threadbare democratic fabric in the region. As noted in a recent article on Groundviews,
“Normalcy and durable and sustainable resettlement cannot happen as long as the Government turns a blind eye to the climate of fear, insecurity and terror created by the different TMVP factions of what was the Karuna Group. They carry arms in public, have offices where they summon, inquire and detain civilians as they wish. They have forcibly taken over private property and set up offices across the district and have even begun setting up more fortified establishments by the main road as in Maavadivaembu. They engage in joint cordon and search operations with the security forces (though this is more prevalent in the Ampara district than in the Batticaloa district) all in broad daylight and in complete cooperation of the Government forces. Given the overwhelming physical evidence in the district, bland denials may not absolve the Government of complicity. The Government must be held accountable for the violations of the TMVP/Karuna/Pillayan group who are roaming freely with arms and are engaged in serious violations including abductions, intimidation and extortion.”
What Liberation? by Bhumi
Not that the Rajapakse administration gives a toss. The pedestrian response by the Government to the fact that the TMVP will contest elections without giving up their arms is that they cannot be disarmed on account of the continuing threat posed by the LTTE to TMVP cadre, who without arms would be powerless to defend themselves. The resulting irony, that elections in a “liberated” East can only be held under the aegis of armed terrorists is lost on the incumbent government, but not on the peoples of the region. It is thus a given that the TMVP will be primus inter pares in the elections. The boycott of the elections by the UNP and TNA in effect guarantees their stranglehold of the region’s fate and no amount of opprobrium by human rights organisations and the international community is going to in any way stop them from doing just as they please in the East.
It is highly unlikely that elections in the East will resolve to any meaningful degree the deeply embedded political and social problems within and between communities in the East. The elections are touted simplistically as evidence of the government’s spoils in its victory against terrorism. They fail to take into account that the LTTE’s absence does not by extension mean that that the East is free from the tyranny of armed groups. Coupled with a Government so manifestly bereft of a political imagination to meaningfully address legitimate grievances of minority communities, it is quite clear that whatever the results of the elections are (and we can safely assume that it won’t be a huge surprise) the problems facing democratic governance in the region will remain largely unaddressed as long as weapons and violence rule. It begs the question as to why these elections are really being held.
The larger tragedy is that we can’t any more see the gross incompatibility of holding elections with terrorists who are armed. The Eastern elections are hailed as a victory against terrorism. In fact, they will be supported by and the results hostage to the violence of armed actors, countenanced by the State, with no real interest in democratic rule or in giving up absolute power in the regions they hold sway.
This article written for an upcoming issue of Montage published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com