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Asia

Sri Lanka poll: 'First foothold for Tamil politicians'

Sri Lanka will hold its first provincial election in the former northern war zone. Analyst Alan Keenan says a win could give the Tamil minority a chance to challenge policies from the Sinhalese-led central government.

The elections for the provincial council in Sri Lanka's Northern Province are set to take place on September 21. The principal contest is between the country's main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is fielding candidates from the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) as well as the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP).

The vote is regarded by experts as an indicator of the state of the ethnic reconciliation and political progress in the South Asian island nation after the 25-year long civil war, which cost the lives of more than 80,000 people, according to the United Nations. In a DW interview, Sri Lanka expert Alan Keenan says that despite serious violations of election rules during the campaigning, the actual voting and counting will likely be largely free and fair.

DW: How important are the upcoming elections for Sri Lanka and the Tamil minority in particular?

Alan Keenan: The elections are significant, even though the powers of provincial councils are quite limited. The expected election of a provincial council controlled by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will give Tamil politicians their first foothold to challenge government policies.

Political analyst Alan Keenan, director of the Sri Lanka Project of the International Crisis Group.(Copyright: private)

Keenan says that most of the issues that led to the decade-long civil war still haven't been resolve

A TNA-controlled council will likely press to reduce the unprecedented political and economic power of the military in the north, by trying to claim the significant powers over land and law enforcement that is given to provinces, at least on paper, under the constitution. While the council will, even in the best scenario, struggle to establish any significant degree of autonomous power, it may be able to slow or block some government policies in the north.

What are the main demands of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka?

The principal demands of the northern Tamil population are: 1) an end to the de-facto military occupation of the north; 2) increased economic and livelihood opportunities as well as public funding for social services, including social support for the serious levels of post-war trauma; 3) an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes and mass disappearances in the final stages of the war; 4) an end to state-sponsored cultural and demographic changes that threaten the Tamil character of the north; and 5) political autonomy for majority Tamil-speaking areas of the north and east.

Do you expect the elections to be free and fair?

The actual voting and counting will likely be largely free and fair, but the past month of campaigning has been marred by serious violations of election rules. Most violations have involved the use of state resources by government officials and candidates of the ruling United Freedom People's Alliance (UPFA). The military is credibly accused of actively supporting UPFA candidates, while TNA candidates have been harassed, intimidated and physically attacked. One TNA activist has reportedly been killed.



What election outcome is expected?

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest of Sri Lanka's Tamil parties, is expected to win a clear majority of seats. The only question is the margin of their victory. This will depend in part on whether voters turn out in large numbers, which in turn depends in part on the level of harassment and intimidation they face from government supporters.

How successful has the rehabilitation process of the Tamil population been after the end of the civil war in 2009?

Physical reconstruction of the north has been impressive, with roads and railroads restored, new power plants built, and other public infrastructure projects under way. Economic activity has also picked up considerably, though it was starting from a very low base and much of the economic "peace dividend" has gone to the military and others coming in from outside of the north. Overall, there has been too little done to satisfy the basic needs of the recently resettled population, many of whom continue to live in very difficult circumstances.

How much progress has been made with the issue of the internally displaced?

The vast majority of the internally displaced have returned to their home towns and villages. However, tens of thousands remain unable to return to their lands due to their occupation by the military or their seizure by the government for other purposes. The exact numbers are unknown, as the government has refused to allow the United Nations Refugee Agency to conduct a proper survey and needs assessment.

Have the issues that led to the conflict in the first place been resolved?

Unfortunately, no. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in fact, refuses to accept that the civil war emerged out of the political marginalisation of Tamil-speaking people and the institutionalised discrimination they suffered. Nor does the government accept that the state must be significantly restructured in order to address these concerns. Instead, government leaders believe that the problem was only one of "Tamil terrorism."

With the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), all that post-war reconciliation requires from this viewpoint is the economic rebuilding of the north and east. This approach, together with the heavy militarisation of the northern province and the government's refusal to acknowledge or investigate war crimes allegedly committed by its troops and the Tamil Tigers, has angered and demoralised most Tamils. This, in turn, has fed the strongly nationalist feelings of many Tamils and has encouraged an acrimonious provincial election campaign.

A Sri Lankan man stands near election posters in Jaffna, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital Colombo on September 18, 2013. Sri Lanka is holding the first ever provincial council election, scheduled for September 21. AFP PHOTO/LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI (Photo credit should read LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Keenan believes there has been too little done to satisfy the basic needs of the recently resettled population

Do you see the potential for a resurgence of the conflict?

A return to organised militancy by Tamils is not likely in the foreseeable future. Memories of the suffering from war are still too strong, and there is no organisation capable of leading such a struggle. Nonetheless, the risks of an eventual return to some form of ethnic or religious violence - whether involving Tamils or Muslims - seems likely to increase the longer current government policies continue.

Analyst Alan Keenan is Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in London.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.