Centre for Policy Alternatives on 5 April, 2010

Elections and Minorities: Present Problems and Alternatives for the Future

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Elections and Minorities: Present Problems and Alternatives for the Future

May 2010 marks the first anniversary of the end of the war. Since the defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lanka had a Presidential Election in January 2010 and will have Parliamentary Elections on 8th April 2010. These two national elections held in a post war context are significant since all citizens will be able to vote without hindrance. Both these national elections, held less than three months apart from each other, set several precedents. As with the Presidential Election in January, in the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections in April there will be polling centres in former LTTE controlled areas such as Killinochchi. Candidates from different political parties, including the presidential candidates have been able to campaign in former LTTE-controlled areas. Furthermore, the Presidential Elections also witnessed a major effort by all candidates to canvass minority votes, with many politicians and supporters traveling to and campaigning in minority dominant areas particularly in the North and East.

Although the Presidential Elections were held in January 2010 and another national election is to be held in April, the quality of life for those in the North and East continues to be a key post war challenge. The significant improvement is that thousands have been able to return to their homes and communities and rebuild their lives, and the prospect of large-scale violence and displacement appears to be a thing of the past. However, although over 190,000 individuals have returned to their areas of original residence, many are unable to return to their own land due to restrictions in access, the presence of high security zones (HSZs), mines and secondary occupation.1 There still remain over 80,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in emergency sites in the North.2 Freedom of movement in many parts of the former LTTE controlled areas including areas in Mullaitivu and Killinochchi has been severely restricted as a result of the high military presence.

Despite the opportunity presented for people who were unable to vote in previous elections, the Presidential Elections in January also witnessed several problems -IDPs and those recently returned to the North and East were unable to freely use their franchise. These obstacles and barriers in voting were not limited to the IDP population but to minorities in the North and East. Furthermore, minority communities elsewhere in the country including the Muslim IDPs in Puttalam and the Up-Country Tamil Community faced various other issues. This brief maps issues faced by minorities during election. It focuses on the obstacles they face and presents recommendations in respect of the removal of these obstacles.

Conflicts and disasters have multiple impacts on a civilian population including their political and socio-economic life. In addition to fatalities, injuries, trauma and displacement faced by civilians, there is a major disruption of community life. Livelihoods are affected which result in many having to depend on external assistance. Social networks change with continuous migration, displacement and the change of environment. Furthermore, IDPs and others affected by conflict and disasters face difficulties in participating in the electoral process and are marginalised from political life. In most cases, displacement also results in the infringement of fundamental rights and guarantees including the right to freedom of expression, movement and franchise. As outlined in this brief, minorities across the country have been deprived of their franchise due to various reasons including administrative barriers, the inability of relevant actors to be effective in disaster response and the absence of a legal and policy framework that protect the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized.

The issues raised in this brief are not new and have been evident in past elections. However, what is notable is that the present elections are held in a different, post war context, where hostilities have ended and one in which polling was and will be held in former LTTE controlled areas. Furthermore, the LTTE is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Though the issues listed in this brief have been raised previously3, there has been limited progress in the improvement of available facilities and in developing a framework to address the problems faced by minorities in Sri Lanka. The right to vote and the existing problems related to this issue are an apt example of the obstacles faced by minorities who need to be treated as equal citizens and provided equal protection before the law. Although this report focuses on minorities, some of the issues highlighted in the report are not unique to minorities.

With the prospect of a Northern Provincial Council election later this year, there is a certain level of urgency in addressing these issues. The inaugural elections to the Northern Provincial Council could be a landmark event which positively impacts the lives of those living in the area, only if all its residents are allowed to exercise their fundamental right to the franchise. Depriving them of their fundamental rights more than a year after the war ended and at a time of development in the area, would be a travesty of justice.