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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Jaffna: Where Nothing is Certain!

21st December 1997

No one filed nominations to the Local government elections in the Jaffna peninsula until Friday evening - full four days. It now appears only the EPRLF, the PLOTE, the EPDP, the TELO and the TULF may contest the elections. The EROS, the PA and the SLPF which had earlier expressed a desire to take part in the Jaffna polls have had second thoughts now. The SLFP’s Jaffna branch was keen to contest though - they were one of the first to announce their intention to participate.The SLPF has sent a team to test the waters in the peninsula as it were.

The TELO has said it will only contest in the Jaffna Municipality but are yet to find the 29 candidates for the purpose. The TULF, it is almost certain, would be able to file nominations only for the Jaffna municipal council, the Waligamam west, Waligamam east, Waligamam southwest and the Nallur Pradeshiya Sabhas and the Chavakachcheri urban council.

Mavai Senathirajah has returned to Colombo. He went before Sarojini Yogeswaran (the TULF’s Jaffna mayoral candidate) on a fact finding mission to Jaffna preparatory to the elections and is not very happy with the party’s decision to contest. This leaves us with the EPRLF, the PLOTE and the EPDP. The three groups were quite determined until yesterday to find candidates for all the local government bodies (17) in the peninsula. But they were not able to finalise nomination lists even for six local government bodies until last evening. They privately acknowledge it is very difficult to search and secure willing candidates. There was a move on Friday night on the part of the Tamil parties to boycott the polls. The EPRLF, EPDP and the TULF had indicated that they might support the move. The situation is fluid.

There are several practical problems in holding the local government elections in Jaffna now. First the Elections Commissioner has to find more than 2000 officers to handle the polls. In the last full scale election held in Jaffna in 1989, the elections commissioner had to find 2043 government officials to do the work. All government officials in Jaffna had declined to accept election duty. Jaffna’s Assistant Commissioner for Elections N. S Arunthavachelvan had pulled out of the whole exercise as soon as the government announced the polls. The GA also appears to have got himself out of the situation by explaining to the authorities his predicament. Mr. Arunthavachelvan, as a consequence, is no more the Assistant Commissioner for Elections in Jaffna. This is why the government had to fly in a special team under heavy security to receive nominations from Dec.16. The LTTE’s Jaffna district political wing leader Thooyavan sent a letter last week addressed to all the heads of government departments ordering them not to undertake election duty.

The letter was from the organisation’s Jaffna district command. The elections commission informed its office in Batticaloa Kachcheri on Friday that as many government servants as possible should be found immediately to work as Assistant Returning Officers(ARO) Senior Presiding Officers(SPO), Junior Presiding Officers (JPO)and election clerks for the Jaffna polls. More than a week of leave has been promised to those who may volunteer. Then of course there is the problem of logistics. More than 500 vehicles are required by the elections office for the elections. The Jaffna district Tiger command has written to the lorry owners association of Jaffna that no one should let their vehicles be taken by the Kachcheri for election work. The lorry owners association is in a tight spot as a result.

But above all the problem of clustering is what might eventually undermine the credibility of the whole exercise. Polling booths for several local government bodies have to be clustered because of the current security climate in Jaffna. The local government elections in 1994 March in the eastern province proved beyond any reasonable doubt that clustering of polling booths is a sure recipe for rigging and the cause of all nefarious operations related to it.

More than eighty percent of the polling booths have to be clustered in the Pradeshiya Sabha of Waligamam north. There are less than six hundred voters here. The once densely populated towns of KKS, Maviddapuram, Tellipalai, Palaly and the large villages of Myliddy, Mathagal etc., are completely depopulated. Almost ninety percent of this area comes under the sprawling army-airforce base. The same can be said of the Waligamam east P.S and the Pachchilaipalli P.S. The Elephant Pass base covers most of the latter and there is only a small population in the once teeming town of Palai.

Then there are the local bodies which are either situated in uncleared areas or contain significant pockets of LTTE activity. The Pt. Pedro Pradeshiya sabha has a large uncleared area beginning immediately south of the Vallipuram temple on the south western coast of the peninsula. Residents say that males below the age of 35 from these parts are not permitted to enter the cleared areas. The hot spot in Jaffna nowadays is the Vadamaradchi south west Pradeshiya Sabha region. The LTTE and the army clash daily in Vathiri, Alwai, Karanavai etc.,. The LTTE also operates and carries out hit and run attacks in many parts of the Chavakachcheri Pradeshiya Sabha electorate, such as Mirusuvil, Varani, Kachchai, Usan etc., The Nallur P. S, the Waligamam west P. S and the Waligamam north west P. S have significant pockets of ‘uncleared’ areas which can compel the army to consider clustering of polling booths.

Here, all the Tamil groups say privately that the army’s attitude will be important in deciding who has the upper hand in the clustered polling booths. It would be very easy during a one day poll to stuff ballot boxes if the security personnel look the other way. But the others are worried that the army might not take anyone’s side at all.

Everyone is covertly tempted to exploit the clustering but are keeping their fingers crossed.

Some of the smaller Tamil groups were keen to negotiate a no- contest pact for the thirteen Pradeshiya Sabhas and leave the three urban councils of Valvettithurai, Pt. Pedro and Chavakachcheri and the municipality of Jaffna for everyone to ‘prove’ their political strength. The EROS initiated the move. PLOTE and the EPRLF said they would consider the idea. But Douglas Devananda, leader of the EPDP informed the EROS general secretary Sudha Master on Thursday that he cannot be party to a no-contest pact proposal. The EROS has pulled out of the Jaffna elections as a consequence. Efforts to form a common Tamil front failed when the PLOTE insisted that the common mayoral candidate should be its military wing leader Manikkam Daasan.

Douglas is still busy talking to several organisations and workers’ groups in his office in Jaffna. Douglas has to prove to the world that he indeed has support in Jaffna to wash away the stigma on him that he elected himself fraudulently to parliament in the 1994 elections. Otherwise he is doomed politically. His two renegade MPs Rameswaran and Ramamoorthy are in Jaffna now. Sources say that another Tamil group is trying to make them file nominations for an independent group to split the EPDP vote in the Jaffna Municipality. The PLOTE is eyeing what the EPDP considers as its politically impregnable bastion - the islands. The PLOTE claims that it can undermine the EPDP’s hold in Kayts, Delft and the other islands.

The local government elections, in my view, is, above anything else revealing to the world the kind of psychological grip the LTTE still has on the peninsula. The six unidentified (for security reasons) election officials who were specially flown from Colombo to Jaffna had no work to do until Friday. Many people did not report to work at the Jaffna Kachcheri on the first day of nominations as security was exceptionally tight. Workers at the Jaffna Kachcheri canteen were prevented by the Police on guard duty there from drawing water for making tea, cooking and washing for security reasons. Although Jaffna and the security forces are tense, the LTTE is keeping mum on the elections officially -except the two letters sent by Thooyavan in Jaffna. The LTTE political headquarters has not issued anything on the matter. None of the Tamil candidates have been threatened thus far.( A leaflet distributed in Jaffna recently under the title ‘A letter with an open heart’ warns only those boys and girls of Jaffna who befriend soldiers.) The Voice of Tigers last week carried an unofficial after the news comment on the elections. That was all.

An LTTE activist in Europe suggested on Tuesday, while speaking about his organisations studied silence on the local elections, that the Tigers will not go on a killing spree during the elections because they think that the elections are trap by the government to incite them into an internecine warfare which can thoroughly discredit the organisation in the eyes of the international community and also divert the Tamils from the common cause. It was not clear to what degree this activist reflected the leadership’s thinking in the Wanni jungles but when one considers the fact that the LTTE has targeted only the SLFP in Jaffna in recent times, one might give some credence to his suggestion.

But in Jaffna today, nothing is certain.

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