(File photo by AP)
The upcoming Presidential Election seems far from the troubled mind of Pari Amma. Living in a partially built home on her land returned by government forces three years ago, her thoughts these days are consumed by raising funds to dig a much needed well in her garden. Having struggled during the country’s long drawn conflict which mostly affected the country’s North, Pari Amma and her aging husband, residents of Keppapilavu, Mullaitivu, grapple with poverty as they also continue the search for their missing daughter who was abducted by the LTTE in 2007.
The war had dealt blow after blow to her impoverished family. The story of Pari Amma is one still commonly heard in the once war torn region and will likely have a bearing at the upcoming polls. Since the end of the war in 2009, consecutive governments have developed the infrastructure of the Northern province even adding an international airport to its portfolio in recent times. New and improved roads in the Northern province are perhaps some of the best in the country.
At least on the face of it, the North seems revitalised. However the problems at the grassroots remain despite the efforts of the state to introduce solutions to burning issues in the region. Debt and unemployment remain among the main concerns for the Northern citizenry. Struggle for land continues in some areas. Missing persons, either due to war or enforced disappearances also appear to weigh heavily on the minds of its people.
Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts belonging to the province have the lowest household income (Mullaitivu – Rs 31,868 and Kilinochchi – Rs 31,576) in the country according to the Department of Census and Statistics. The Northern province as a whole has a rating of 7.7 percent in the country’s poverty index while the National average is 4.1 percent.
Home to 846,833 registered voters out of a population of 1,143,000 the 2015 Presidential election saw Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena and the swan symbol backed by the United National Front (UNF) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) securing a landslide victory from the Northern province with 74.42% majority votes from Jaffna district and 78.47% majority from Vanni electoral districts which in turn rejected the rule of Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Pix Dushmantha Mayadunne
With the Presidential Election less than four weeks away, election fever seems to have not yet taken over the Mullaitivu district. Life seemed to go on as usual. Farmers appeared to be busy tilling the soil ahead of cultivation.
Questioned if this signals a disinterest in the upcoming election, according to one resident, making a gung ho about elections is not the style of the North. “We vote but we do it quietly,” he said.
Despite the many problems faced, Pari Amma says come November 16 she will head to the polling station as well. Having voted for the Common Candidate in 2015, she claims the promises made during the election campaign were not delivered. Out of the Rs. 500,000 promised to rebuild her home, only Rs. 450,000 has been released by the government. “Even then the funds are not enough,” she says showing around her half built home. “Our missing children are also still an issue,” she said pointing out that the families are yet to receive any answers from the authorities.
But though promises have not been kept, Pari Amma says her vote will once again go to the Swan symbol and its candidate Sajith Premadasa. “I don’t trust the Rajapaksas” she said, adding that during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency her village located close to Mullaivakkal was shelled mercilessly during the latter stages of the war. Having barely made out alive, Pari Amma says having experienced that she cannot vote for the younger Rajapaksa. “Out of the two main candidates it is likely the majority of my village will vote for Premadasa,” she added.
Perhaps understanding these sentiments the SLPP seemed determined to win the hearts and votes of the Tamils as nephew of the SLPP Presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa toured the North during the week.
In fact out of the main candidates, Gotbaya Rajapaksa’s election campaign appeared to have been put into action in full force in the North as SLPP party offices in major towns, banners and posters seemed to be a common sight.
The National People’s Power (NPP) and its candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake appeared to have some presence in the region as well.
Remarkably absent was any sign of his main opponent Sajith Premadasa or an organized campaign. The Premadasa camp appeared to be banking on the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to win Northern votes.
As a result on Wednesday (16) Kilinochchi seemed bustling with activity as a series of SLPP pocket meetings were to be held in the district. The SLPP organizers had clearly come out in force.
According to Kalai Selvam, the SLPP Coordinator in Kilinochchi, it has 98 grassroot representatives with 10 members working around the clock under each of them, on the campaign trail. “We will win for sure as the government has delivered nothing to Kilinochchi,” he said adding that the Tamil people have not rejected the Rajapaksas, as being claimed.
But as the SLPP pocket meeting organized at the Palai bus stand was cancelled due to the lack of crowds, Namal Rajapaksa on the day headed to attend a pocket a meeting in Paranthan, organized by UPFA MP and Northern politician Angajan Ramanathan.
Under a Banyan tree in the Paranthan Pillayar Kovil grounds, Rajapaksa addressed a crowd of around 100 people. He reminded the people that the roads in the area were developed by his father, Mahinda Rajapaksa including other infrastructure. “We brought factories which generated nearly 6,000 direct jobs and indirect jobs” he said.
As he listed more promises fulfilled under the Rajapaksa regime he said that after 2015 all development in the area had halted resulting in the economic hardships currently faced by the people of Kilinochchi. “We will provide reasonable solutions for issues related to prisoners, missing persons and lands within two years,” he promised. Claiming his party has a plan to rescue the people from these issues, falling short of mentioning Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa requested the people to vote for the candidate put forward by Mahinda Rajapaksa instead.
Sajisma Sarojini a young mother among the crowds had been listening to Namal Rajapaksa diligently. Unemployed, she had been left with five children to fend for after her husband left her recently. “I was told we will be given jobs, that is why I came here to extend my support,” she said.
As Namal Rajapaksa left the meeting with his entourage, a ruckus broke out as unidentified individuals began distributing application forms for employment in the Civil Security Department (CSD) among the attendees.
Starved for employment many scrambled to get their hands on a much coveted application. “If the SLPP candidate becomes President they will rehire and we have been asked to choose applicants, that is why forms are being given out,” an organizer of the meeting, Wasanthan revealed.
As employment seems to be a key factor in the upcoming election, former LTTE combatant Ganeshan Mayuran (40) is disillusioned by both the main candidates. According to him, the people in the North are clueless about the upcoming election.
Struggling to make a living after rehabilitation as a three wheeler driver today, he is a father of three young daughters. Mayuran says Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa should both be rejected. “No matter who comes to power, the Tamil community will have to suffer and struggle,” he said.
“Instead we must elect a genuine person who can deliver. Anura Kumara Dissnayaka has that trait. If given a chance, he will be exceptional” he opined.
Though his own heart leans towards an alternative candidate Mayuran admits the people’s opinion will be swayed by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
“If the TNA tells the people which candidate is better, they will be influenced by that,” he noted.
With the election being dominated by the two main candidates and their parties, the National People’s Power (NPP) has faced some unique challenges while campaigning in the North.
NPP, a front comprising 28 organizations led by the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), announced JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissnaayake as its Presidential Candidate on August 18. For years the JVP has been the only party from the South to hold a May Day rally in the North.
According to the NPP organizer in Jaffna, Ramalingam Chandrasegar, the NPP despite difficulties has been campaigning for its candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the district, even with limited resources.
“The other main parties have bought out their media organizations to the North to spread their propaganda,” he said. According to Chandrasegar despite calls to deliver federal rule by Northern politicians, the real problems of the people are far different. “They are looking for alternatives,” he noted adding that the NPP is hopeful of its future in the North.
As the rain lashed Jaffna town on Friday, the students of Jaffna University were seen taking shelter in one of the many study areas dotting the campus. Engaging in conversation with the Sunday Observer, President of Jaffna University Students’ Union Thivakaran Navarathinam said unlike the Sinhalese students the Tamil students in the university remain undecided on the upcoming elections. The Union had only recently put forward 13 proposals to five Tamil parties, focused mainly on the National issue, impartial inquiries on the human rights violations and sinhalization of the North.
“Any candidate who accepts these proposals will win our support,” he said. “It could be either of the front runners,” he added. According to Jaffna-based Political Economist Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar the general feeling in the North is that neither Premadasa nor Rajapaksa will address the issues of the Tamil people.
“But due to the way the war was taken forward, and militarisation and repression in the North during the postwar period there is a strong anti-Gotabaya sentiment,” he said, noting this may convert into anti-Rajapaksa votes. “The question is whether there will be a large enough voter turnout. Many of them may stay at home. I think that is one of the main concerns,” he said.
According to Kadirgamar in terms of democratic space there is a certain disappointment with the people, because, they voted overwhelmingly for a regime change in 2015, as a protest vote. “Again, five-years later, they are being asked to make a choice on the basis of who is worse than somebody who stands for their aspirations,” he noted.
As for what sways the people of the North to vote for a particular candidate, Senior Lecturer of the Department of Linguistics at the University Saminathan Wimal had an interesting observation. “I do not believe that people cast their votes based on what the TNA says. Instead I believe that what the TNA says is based on people’s ideas,” he said.
According to Wimal, people in the North still cast their vote based on ideologies. “A small fraction might look in for some physical benefits. But the majority vote is based on ideologies and activities of political parties. I think it is a unique status in the North,” he said.
Visibly absent in the rest of the North, the Sajith Premadasa campaign however seemed to have kickstarted in Mannar on Thursday, October 17 as members of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen gathered for a meeting in the Cultural Centre of the town adjoining the town hall.
About three hundred people were seen eagerly waiting the arrival of their leader, Minister Bathiudeen. But repeated attempts by the Sunday Observer to speak to organizers of the meeting failed, as many claimed to be government employees. Concerned that possible election violations were taking place, the venue was also visited by Election Commission officials prior to the Minister’s arrival. The violation concerned had been the presence of a government employee on stage along with other invitees.
Speaking to the Sunday Observer, one attendee, purportedly a Samurdhi Officer from the area said he would support any candidate Minister Bathiudeen extends his support to. “We would happily vote for even a dog if he asks us to,” he said.
According to the youth organizer of the ACMC Amanullah Mohamed Raees the majority of votes from the minorities in the North will go to Sajith Premadasa. “People in the Vanni district will cast their vote to the person the Minister and Leader of the ACMC Rishard Bathiudeedn recommends. It was Minister Bathiudeen who solved most of our problems including economic issues, youth problems, employment, road development, resettlement and many more,” he said. “Only a small portion will support SLPP” he added.
“There are people behind Mahinda Rajapaksa who unleashed terror on Muslims and Tamils. People think the same would happen if Gotabaya comes to power,” Amanullah said.
Arriving at the meeting, Minister Bathiudeen directed his supporters to prepare for Premadasa’s visit to the district on November 8. “We should make sure to give him a resounding welcome. Despite the attempts of the SLPP, majority votes in the Vanni district will be in favour of Sajith Premadasa,” he told the crowd.
While fishing is the main livelihood in Mannar, the fisherfolk appear to have also made up their mind to support Sajith Premadasa’s candidacy.
According to Benedict Crooz, a fishing community leader they had supported the common candidate in 2015. “He was only a man of words than deeds,” he said. However Mannar will once again vote for the Swan in November. “People of the North do not accept the Rajapaksas,” he said adding that the people of Mannar are quite firm not to vote the destructive Rajapaksas to power again.
As the SLPP also made its presence felt in the Vavuniya district, W. Nandini from Mahakachchakudiya, Vavuniya seems to have already made up her mind to support its candidate. One of the oldest Sinhala villages in the district, it was once considered to be a border village during the War. Nandini like many others in her village is suffering from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). According to her the villagers believe CKD has been caused by the groundwater of the region. As villager after villager fell victim to the incurable disease, consecutive governments have failed to provide solutions to the drinking water problem faced by them. “Recently they installed two water filters but those too remain closed on certain days. When open, the queues are long,” she said. As for treatment, villagers have to constantly travel to either the Vavuniya or Cheddikulam hospitals.
The villagers also claim the Sinhalese are often marginalized in the area. “It is difficult to obtain services even in government institutions,” she noted. She also said they are often overlooked when it comes to employment opportunities. “There is no one to speak for us,” she said.
According to Nandini, the hardships faced today are pale in comparison with the war torn years.
“Many young men in our villages died in the war after joining the forces,” she said. Seeing fellow villagers being killed by the LTTE and becoming trapped in their village, Nandini says the majority will vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in honour of Mahinda Rajapaksa who they credit with ending their suffering.
The sentiments seem similar in the newer Sinhala villages such as Namalgama in Vavuniya. Created during the Rajapaksa regime, residents in these villages had arrived from the South.
Almost every house displayed a poster of Presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa making their choice clear to those visiting the area. But Ravindra Silva, a resident and a team member of the AFRIEL youth network appeared to have a different stance.
Not aligned to any particular political party, Silva says he doesn’t expect any drastic changes following the Presidential Election.
As problems in the North have persisted, Silva believes that politicians have used these issues to create their voter
base. Neither did he feel optimistic about the alternatives that have come forward. “Today the civil society has decided to back an Ex-Army Commander as an alternative,” he noted adding that the country should step away from possible militarization. “As a youth I will vote for someone who I feel has a vision for this country and not one that makes petty promises” he added.
BY MANESHKA BORHAM RAJITHA JAGODA ARACHCHI AND PRANAVESH SIVAKUMAR / Sunday Observer