12th December 1999

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The silent East

While a general sense of disillusionment about the polls pervades Tiger controlled areas, there appears to be more support for the UNP candidate than for the PA. But most people are reluctant to voice their opinion.

By Leon Berenger and Chris Kamalendran in Kokkadicholai currently under LTTE control

The LTTE is the key to the vote in Tamil- populated eastern cities, but civilians opt to remain mum about whom they would support saying, "ask the boys."

What has been openly said so far is that the LTTE dislikes the Kumaratunga government. The evidence of green flags and posters of UNP's Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe in some areas, however raises strong speculation that the LTTE does not mind the people backing the UNP.

But, some within the government believe that the STF personnel were responsible for putting up the green flags and posters, a claim strongly denied by STF personnel. They say they are not involved in parochial politics and denounce those in the government who made the claim.

The Sunday Times learns that the Deputy Minister, M.L.A.M Hisbullah had taken up the matter with the government and clarification had been sought from the STF through the Police headquarters.

"The politicians in the capital are now trying to blame the police and the security forces for their own follies, and refuse to accept reversals in the electorates. In addition such remarks only help to deliver body blows to the armed and police services whose morale has already been affected due to recent military defeats at the hands of the LTTE," one police official stationed on the frontlines said.

Information Department Director Ariya Rubesinghe told The Sunday Times, that he had reliable information that some soldiers were actively involved in pasting posters of Wickremesinghe.

It is clear however that the apparent backing that Mr. Wickremesinghe appears to have has nothing to do with any love for him, but that the people seem to have lost faith with the other main contender, President Kumaratunga.

"Chandrika is the biggest curse to the Tamil nation," is how LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran summed up the political scenario in his annual radio broadcast to mark his 46th b'day on November 27. This message to his rank and file as well as those who still support him could be an indication about the possible voting trend.

A senior spokesman for the LTTE who did not want to be named for security reasons speaking from the Tiger-controlled area of Kokkadicholai, some 15 kilometres west of the Batticoloa mainland vehemently denied allegations that the group was extending a supporting hand to the UNP leader.

"Sinhala politics is not our business, because whatever the outcome of the polls are, there will always be the same hostile attitude towards the Tamil people with nobody interested in solving the present ethnic crisis in the north and east," he said.

The LTTE's distrust is not confined to the Sinhala lawmakers alone, but their own Tamil leaders who they say have become 'yes men' to their southern masters.

"They only work towards personal gains and don't care about the downtrodden masses. So these elections just do not interest us whatsoever," the spokesman added.

However the LTTE does not appear to be making any attempts to scuttle the upcoming elections even in areas firmly under its control, but instead it appears to be indirectly encouraging the people towards the polling booth.

"The people are entitled to exercise their democratic right, so it would be unfair for us to stand in their way," he said, adding that the LTTE would in no way try to influence the voter.

"If there is a change of government I believe it would be better for the relationship between the Government and the LTTE. But right now it is a wait and see game since anything could happen after December 21," he said.

In the villages, stamped with Tiger authority the election mood is upbeat, but the people are frightened to name their choice of candidate. While many we spoke to aired different opinions there were also those who said they would vote according to LTTE instructions.

There were also those who were indifferent about the elections and were more concerned about finding food for their daily existence. " I would rather spend the day in the field and earn a little extra money than queue up at a stupid polling booth to vote for some alien name," a disillusioned father of two said.

He further lamented at the hypocrisy of politicians from both sides of the ethnic divide. For example the Samurdhi Movement office in Amblanthurai was opened only a month ago after a lapse of four years.

"The excuse given by the authorities then was that the movement could not be launched since it was out of the control of the security forces and could be misused by the LTTE. The ground situation has not changed even now, then how was it that they could open the office last month,?This is a dirty election tactic and no one is going to fall for it," he charged.

"The people in the region may be poor, but they are not so foolish as to be trapped by such 'gundus', " a youth, hardly out of his teens who was waiting all morning to meet the LTTE's area political chief said.

He added that he would only vote for the LTTE. "I have no faith in any other politician, Sinhalese or Tamil."

Back on the mainland of Batticoloa the election mood is in full swing with green and blue decorations fighting for space.The UNP has already held a series of meetings in Kattankudi, Valachchenai, Welikanda and the Batticoloa town with Mr. Wickremesinghe and the party's General Secretary Gamini Athukorale being present to address the crowds.

The PA on the other hand have held only a few meetings and that too on a low key, although the town is flooded by blue buntings and flags.

The people here on the mainland have less fear and are preparing to adopt a positive approach to the upcoming poll. In other words they are going to vote, a resident said.

T. Ravi is a goldsmith in Batticoloa and he wants to vote for a change. The reason for this he says is that everyone is fed up with all these road blocks and security checks, not to mention the high tension that never seems to ease.

"At the last Presidential elections held in 1994 the PA candidate received more than 100,000 votes mainly from the ethnic Tamils and Muslims because the people believed a change would bring peace to the area. Five years have since passed, promises have been made and broken while the cost of living is spiralling," lamented local farmer K. Kannagaratnam.

And there are also those for whom the election is the last thing on their mind. N.S. Gnanaratnam, a Catholic who is more busy with preparations for the Christmas season said,

"Elections will come and go but we do not allow such things to spoil the festive spirit. Christmas first and elections last," was what he had to say when asked if he would cast his vote. Another interesting development is, that despite the volatile ground situation in this eastern city, pre-election violence and other irregularities are almost non-existent, unlike in several other parts of the country where thuggery and intimidation seem to be the order of the day.


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