Army intimidated voters, poll monitors say
COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s military harassed and intimidated ethnic minority Tamil voters and candidates during the first ever local elections in the former warzone, foreign observers confirmed yesterday.
The opposition Tamil party won a landslide victory in weekend elections for a regional council in the battle-scarred north, a poll hailed internationally as a step towards ethnic reconciliation after decades of ethnic war.
The four-member monitoring team from the Commonwealth said turnout was high for the election at 68% despite the military’s efforts at intimidation during campaigning and on polling day.
‘‘The role of the military in the electoral campaign was consistently described to the mission as a significant obstacle to a credible electoral process,’’ the Commonwealth secretariat said in a statement.
‘‘We learned that opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as voters at large, faced instances of intimidation and harassment, and that the freedom to hold campaign meetings and openly interact with the electorate was restricted,’’ it said in a statement.
The election, the first in the north since semi-autonomous councils were formed in 1987, was held amid international pressure for President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to share power with Tamils four years after the end of the bloody separatist conflict.
The statement comes as dozens of world leaders are set to attend a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo in November, but with a boycott from Canada over human rights concerns.
A group of South Asian election monitors said it was ‘‘dismayed’’ at the army’s actions during the election, with residents complaining that plain clothed army intelligence officers were stationed outside polling booths. On the eve of Saturday’s poll, a Tamil candidate was forced to flee after dozens of armed men surrounded her home in Jaffna, the capital of the former northern warzone.
‘‘I am 101% sure the army was involved in that attack,’’ N Gopalaswami, a former chief election commissioner of India and head of the South Asian monitoring team, said in Colombo yesterday.
The South Asian monitors, who were invited by Sri Lanka’s election commission for the poll, also noted that the commission should be given wider powers to prevent such abuses.