Batti: No one’s waiting with baited breath
With fear and indifference reigning in this newly ‘liberated’ district, low voter turnout is expected at tomorrow’s polls
Placards, posters and decorations of respective parties and candidates may add colour to the war-ravaged district of Batticaloa; but the enthusiasm among the people for tomorrow's local government elections for nine Councils including the Batticaloa Municipal council is nothing but low.
For the first time in five years a local government election is being held in the area, after the government proclaimed the east as being liberated from the LTTE. However contrary to official claims that the people's right to exercise their franchise is being restored after years of violence; abductions, extortions and intimidation by an armed group haunt the so-called liberated people.
|A security check being carried out last afternoon in Batti town
A low voter turn-out is expected mainly because of the fear psychosis as well as a general disillusionment among the people who feel that casting their votes would do little to change the trend of abductions and intimidation. However, the residents do not rule out the possibility of armed groups using pressure on civilians to turn up for voting.
The TMVP also known as the Pillayan faction, formerly the LTTE breakaway Karuna faction, that is contesting under the government UPFA ticket and the EPDP, EPRLF and PLOTE coalition which is contesting under the "apple" symbol and is known as Independent Group 1 are the main contenders for the 19 seat Batticaloa Municipal Council. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC); and the Eelam Democratic Front (EDF) formerly EROS are also contesting.
The Independent Group 1 and the TMVP also are the close contenders for the remaining eight local bodies. The TMVP will be contesting under their own symbol, the boat, for the eight other local bodies.
The contest for the post of mayor for Batticaloa town is between R. Thurairatnam from Independent Group 1 and A. Pratheep alias Pratheep Master from TMVP.
In a district where many were victimized by the war, a sense of hopelessness still prevails with many living like prisoners in their own homes constantly fearing abductions and extortion by those wearing "black masks".
Many business establishments close up early and people do not travel at night unless it is an emergency. Some parents have stopped sending their children to private classes in the evening as students are known to have disappeared. By evening Batticaloa is literally a ghost town only haunted by prowling armed groups
When The Sunday Times visited the Batticaloa town, we met a shopkeeper who had put up a placard with the image of a betel leaf (the UPFA symbol) and TMVP written on the side of the placard . When we asked him whether he supported the TMVP he whispered he was forced to place it in the shop.
"I can't speak loud because my son-in-law is a close associate of Pillayan (TMVP leader). The TMVP is now running Batticaloa. If we don't support them and pay them an amount every week we cannot live here. They will soon win the elections," the shopkeeper said.
The shopkeeper is one of many in Batticaloa who have been forced to suppress their freedom of expression.
K. Nanadan a private banker said that there will be no difference, whoever gets elected to the Batticaloa Municipal Council, as the candidates are not interested in the people.
|Polls officials all set for tomorrow.
"There is no excitement amongst the people like in the past when elections were round the corner. People have lost interest because they know who will come to power, whether they like it or not. It is definitely not the party that has the most number of votes but the party that carries the most number of guns that will win," an owner of a small bar in Batticaloa said. He went on to say how the TMVP had been extorting one million rupees for their election campaign from bar owners and how he found it difficult to find the money. The authorities in Batticaloa turn a blind eye to these acts committed in the open by the TMVP.
"I have many friends and relatives who had to provide not only money but also bottles to the TMVP for their election rallies. I know many people who have migrated abroad closing their shops. Some have gone into hiding as they cannot pay the TMVP," he said.
Safran Ali who owns a small wayside shop said, "We don't talk about politics anymore it is too dangerous.”
"Nobody goes to the police to complain about these illegal happenings. Let them abduct or carry guns nobody cares as long as they can carry on with their own lives,” he said. V. Jayaratnam another businessman in town said that many people that he knows personally will not be casting their vote as they believe that most of the parties such as EPDP, PLOTE, EPRLF, TMVP and EROS are all armed groups.
Raja Sinnathurai an accountant had a different story to tell. He explained how the TMVP stopped carrying arms in broad daylight closer up to the scheduled day of the polls but roamed about freely after 9 p.m.
A priest from a church in Batticaloa said how the TMVP forced several candidates to contest for the local councils. He said how many who refused went missing mysteriously and the candidates who are contesting come from different walks of life.We have got butchers, fishermen, carpenters, farmers and woodcutters taking part in the elections. One morning I saw a TMVP candidate, a carpenter by profession riding behind another pushcyclist, his bodyguard, a policeman armed with a gun. In another instance I saw a candidate clad only in his sarong attending to his crop in the paddyfield, while two policemen gave protection. A senior public officer also said many of his colleagues had applied for transfers to other areas, while others had already left, because they are not interested in working for any of the candidates who will come into office.
We did not see armed groups roaming the streets in the morning hours but during night fall we observed about four TMVP cadres carrying what seemed to be Chinese built T-56 assault rifles standing outside their office in Govinda Road. We learnt they were the bodyguards of the UPFA chief candidate for the Batticaloa town Pratheep Master who has been assigned a heavy contingent of armed personnel by the government where as all other candidates are only entitled to two police officers.
On Thursday evening a street carnival which is said to be part of the "Nagenahira Udanaya" (Eastern Reawakening programme) had been organized by the Presidential Secretariat. Musicians and women dancers from the National Youth Service Council were seen entertaining a small crowd that had gathered at the town-square. To the astonishment of many, TMVP chief candidate A. Pratheep flanked by his security contingent took to the stage and made a speech.
He was later seen pushing some boys wearing T-shirts with his name and party on them, towards the front of the stage to join the other dancers. The young boys who were serving drinks were reluctant to do so. One of those who refused was grabbed by his T-shirt collar by one of Pratheep's supporters. After a few threatening gestures the boy joined the others on the stage.
After this little show, many were asking whether the Nagenahira Udanaya was part of a government propaganda to promote the TMVP in the east.
Although the government keeps proclaiming that this will be one of the most peaceful polls to be held in an area long battered by the war the residents do not seem to think so. “We hear many stories of how the TMVP has been terrorizing the people but most of the atrocities are not even talked about. People are too frightened to come out and challenge them. It’s best to pretend that everything is normal,” one resident said.
While we were in Batticaloa one of the most talked about reports was that of the abduction of three schoolgirls from Kalkudah. They had reportedly been dragged out of their homes at midnight on Wednesday by suspected TMVP cadres. The three girls were apparently related to people who were rival candidates of the TMVP.
On Thursday night a former PLOTE member identified as Venkat was shot dead in Kokkadichcholai.
Several other incidents of hand grenades being lobbed at candidates were reported by the police.
There were also reports of how the TMVP had forcibly taken polling cards from people living in surrounding villages. The Batticaloa Assistant Election Commissioners office had also received reports of TMVP candidates buying polling cards from people living in Chenkalady.
But TMVP candidates deny these allegations and say only their political leadership could help the district.“Since we work closely with the government only we can develop the area,” the Batticaloa Municipal Council’s mayoral candidate A. Pratheep alias Master who is contesting under the UPFA told The Sunday Times.
Meanwhile Batticaloa’s Senior Superintendent of Police H.A.K Nanayakara said 29 election related offences many of them minor, have been reported so far."We have tightened security to the maximum. Five police officers have been assigned to each polling station. There are about 285 polling booths,” he said.
Deputy Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya who is co-ordinating the elections said they are doing their utmost to ensure free and fair elections.
"We have polling agents, independent observers, police officers, election commission staff and zonal assistant returning officers who will see that polling takes place smoothly. They will all file their own reports on the elections and if there is any foul play the Election Commission will take appropriate action,” he said.
What the candidates say..........!
The Independent Group 1’s chief candidate R. Thurairatnam said he doubts that it would be a free and fair election.
"We want democracy, human rights and pluralism to prevail. The people of Batticaloa have been pushed around for far too long. They denounce the violent gun culture that has been going on for some time.
“People are tired of casting votes for leaders who do nothing. They want to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. We are co-operating with the government to hold a free and fair election tomorrow,” he said.
The UPFA chief candidate A. Pratheep said his party wants to work together with the government to develop the district. "We want to see the people of Batticaloa thrive.
They have lived under the oppression of the LTTE for too long and now we want to work with the government to provide the people with what they deserve. "We hope to see Batticaloa becoming one of the most developed districts in the country,” he said.