14th May 2000
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Never again those ugly scenes 

In the face of impending parliamentary elections, politicians, academics, retired diplomats, artistes and journalists launch a campaign to stem polls violence.
By Feizal Samath
Basnayake Chandrawathie has been involved in politics as a rural activist of the UNP for many years and had rarely faced violence until the afternoon of January 10,1999.

"That was the day they almost snatched my dignity away," recalled the 52-year- old woman describing to a representative gathering how she was attacked and stripped in public by gun-toting activists of the People's Alliance during an election campaign.

Politicians, academics, retired diplomats, artistes and journalists -launching a campaign in Colombo to stem violence which has marred elections in recent years - listened with rapt attention to Chandrawathie's near- brush with death.

"I said you can do anything - even kill me but don't ask me to remove my clothes," the woman from Wariyapola said, adding she was still "embarrassed to talk about this sordid experience."

Chandrawathie, a veteran UNP village activist had been canvassing for her party at the North Western Provincial Council polls in January last year.

That election won by the PA has been described by polls monitors and civic groups as one of the worst elections in Sri Lanka due to widespread vote- rigging and intimidation of opposition supporters and election officials, allegedly by ruling party supporters. 

Several community groups including religious dignitaries condemned the violence and some called for a fresh poll, saying the election won by the PA was not fair and free.

The UNP activist, attending the weekend parley - organized by civic groups led by the Marga Institute - in the company of her farmer-husband, said she was the only woman in a group of 10 people on a village canvassing expedition when they were accosted by a local politician and men with guns and clubs.

"They ordered us to stop campaigning and to leave the area. We refused. After a few blows, they ordered the men to strip at gunpoint," Chandrawathie said. The men were forced to remove their shirts and also trousers.

"They beat me up and then tugged at my blouse and saree. The blouse was undone as the buttons had broken and they pulled off my saree. I sat on the ground and they tried but couldn't remove my undergarments. They beat me again," she said. 

Chandrawathie and others complained to the police but little or no action followed though the perpetrators were known and named. 

Organisers of the Marga-led national convention against political violence said they were focusing on this issue not because other forms of violence, particularly those related to the ethnic conflict, were of less importance but because of impending national elections.

Parliament ends its six-year term in August and polls must be held soon after that.

Political violence is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka but its scale and intensity have increased rapidly in recent years. Political analysts say political violence, especially during elections, has increased particularly after the birth of the bloody ethnic conflict in 1983 and two attempts by the JVP to oust the government.

Often opposition parties are at the mercy of ruling party politicians and their gangs.

"Too much arms in the hands of the people is the cause of this malady," argued Javid Yusuf, a lawyer and former member of the state-run Human Rights Commission.

He said professionals and intellectuals were staying away from politics due to gun culture. "There is a sense of intolerance that has encroached on society. We are no longer prepared to accept another's point of view."

Yusuf said politicians and former Tamil rebel groups were given arms by the government to defend themselves against Tamil rebels but these guns were also being used to hound political opponents.

While the North Western Provincial poll was considered the worst in history in terms of violence, last December's presidential election was also marred by irregularities.

Two top poll monitors, in a joint report released last week, said the presidential election was seriously flawed in many parts of the country. There were gross violations of election laws and widespread violence and intimidation, they said, underscoring the need for special institutional arrangements to investigate and take remedial action soon after a poll is held.

The two monitors, People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) and Movement for Free and Fair Elections (MFFE), used more than 5,000 volunteers for the polls monitoring exercise.

Godfrey Gunatillake, Chairman of PAFFREL and veteran civil rights activist, told the meeting that while the two main political parties must accept collective responsibility for the violence, what was now happening was a fierce dispute between the two as to who started the violence "and who did more of it when in power".

"This approach only means that both parties - the PA and UNP - would continue using various forms of force and violence when they come to power and justify it on the grounds that the other had done worse," he added.

The meeting also endorsed efforts by some opposing politicians to deplore violence and promise clean campaigns. The Provincial Council polls in the western region in April 1999 and presidential campaigning last December in the southern towns of Kamburupitiya and Moratuwa were cited as examples of politicians signing no-violence pacts and making sure violence was down to a minimum.

UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya, who is also the opposition leader in the PA-controlled Western Provincial Council, said the level of violence directed by the government against its opponents at election times has intensified since the mid -1990s.

"I am not absolving my party from its share of responsibility for the state of affairs in the past. There was an element of violence during our periods of governance but violence at recent polls has exceeded anything we have seen in earlier times," he said.

Mr. Jayasuriya suggested the use of transparent, plastic ballot boxes instead of the wooden ones used at present to reduce ballot-rigging, adding that western donors - who have expressed concern over election abuses - were prepared to meet the costs of these boxes.

He also said polls should not be held on weekdays - as normally done - because it was too costly to the country. "An election on a working day costs the country 3.1 billion rupees in terms of lost productivity. We can't afford to lose this money."

Mr. Jayasuriya suggested holding the poll on a Saturday, which would also enable the people to "get over the post-polls violence on Sunday" and come to work on Monday.

Western Province Chief Minister Susil Premjayanth said some candidates capitalised on election violence during the first stage of the election period, in a bid to prevent voting and somehow win and come to power. However, in the two previous decades election terror had risen to proportions of a state calamity. There is a reason for this - certain politicians use political power as a means of developing their private economic power. 

Those who use violence for election purposes are not in a majority in the political parties, but eventually genuine politicians are also dragged into the conflicts, he said

Last month the European Union sent letters to both the PA and the UNP expressing concern over election irregularities and calling for free and fair elections at the forthcoming parliamentary poll. 

The EU said it would closely monitor the poll and also offered to help the Elections Commission if foreign monitors were required.

Shirani Dilrukshi, another victim of election violence, spoke of how she was intimidated while working as a polls monitor during a southern poll in mid-1999. "While we were near a polling booth, a ruling party politician abused me and said I had no right to be there," she said adding, he snatched her official identity card.

She said a supporter of the politician pushed her and tried to hit her. Dilrukshi made a complaint to the police, naming the politician and is still waiting for a police investigation to begin. "It is just useless. We are powerless," Dilrukshi added.

A view from the hills

Alternative stream 
Trinity College, Kandy, has announced an Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) course as an alternative stream for post-O/L students. This scheme, conceived by the school's Advisory Committee and Principal Professor Breckenridge, offers an AAT course that will finally lead students to obtain higher accounting qualifactions as well as MBAs. A two-hour slot each day will cover other subjects such as computer literacy, international affairs, public speaking and Sri Lankan history. 
Ashley Halpe Scholarship
The Ashley Halpe Scholarship was announced and awarded at the recent AGM of the Alumni Association of the University of Peradeniya. Tanya Ekanayake, a student who got the best results in English at the GAQ and has opted to read English for a Special Degree was the first awardee. The scholarship was set up by alumnus C.W. Jayasekera. "It is amazing," Prof. Halpe said. "Jayasekera never did English at Peradeniya!" 
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