Sri Lanka holds local elections on August 8 in the northern towns of Jaffna and Vavuniya for the first time since 1998.
The polls come after the government crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels’ three-decade struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam (homeland) in May.
The two towns, mostly inhabited by ethnic Tamils, lie on the outskirts of the territory previously controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government took control of Jaffna in 1995, but rebels openly operated in the region for almost three decades. The ethnic conflict killed between 80,000 -100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
The government in Colombo says it is holding these municipal polls to “restore democratic rights to the Tamil civilians oppressed under LTTE rule for almost 30 years.”
“The government has been under a lot of pressure to show interest in a political solution in the region after its victory against the rebels,” said Jehan Perera, director of non-governmental advocacy group National Peace Council, in a telephone interview from Colombo.
However, access to the two cities remains highly restricted and requires special permission from the defence ministry. The government tightened its control in the zone soon after crushing the rebels.
On Tuesday, authorities announced heightened security measures and banned all independent media from covering Saturday’s election citing "security reasons". The step has drawn strong criticism from human rights organisations and Paris-based organisation Reporters without Borders (RSF).
An RSF statement quoted Lakshman Hulugalle, head of the government’s security information centre, saying journalists would have to rely on the information provided by the government and journalists from state-run media.
The battle for votes is largely a showdown between the pro-government Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which supported the ousted rebels.
According to Perera, it is hard to predict the outcome of the vote: "On one hand, residents looking for normality and restoration of jobs may show support for the government, on the other hand, they could vote for the pro-rebel TNA in a sign of defiance."
Lack of interest
Despite feverish campaigning by both camps, the municipal elections have aroused little interest among residents of Jaffna and Vavuniya, where traces of the recent war linger on.
Forty percent of the over 100 thousand registered voters in Jaffna currently live outside the region or even the country, according to Sri Lankan election watchdog Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL). Out of these 40,000 voters, only 7,100 have sent in requests to cast their vote from another region or via the post.
“It’s a good thing that stabilisation of the democratic mechanism is taking place but for now the residents want normality,” Rohan Hettiarachchi, executive deputy director of PAFFREL, told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview from Colombo. “Most residents want their families and relatives to return from the welfare camps,” he said.
According to the United Nations, close to 300,000 residents were forced to flee their homes and are held in military-guarded transit camps, many of which are in the Vavuniya and Jaffna areas. Special polling stations have been set up for the displaced, but only a minority have expressed a desire to vote, according to PAFFREL.
The UN has repeatedly urged Colombo to complete screening as soon as possible and separate the ex-combatants, so that the civilian population can be allowed to move freely in and out of the camps.
On Wednesday, the government finally kicked off the first phase of its relocation plan allowing 1,100 displaced people to return home. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has promised to resettle most refugees by December.