Sri Lankans lay lives on the line to vote. Threats from extremists and military cast pall over presidential election
Akurugoda, Sri Lanka — Not long after polls opened yesterday for Sri Lanka's presidential election, Abeykoon Jinadasa left his small farm near this southern village to vote. He never returned home.
Just after voting at a nearby school, the farmer was shot on the road, targeted - his family says - by Sinhalese extremists for supporting the ruling United National Party (UNP).
``From the first day he could ever vote, he was a UNP man,'' said his son, K.P.Goonaseri. ``He made that clear to everyone in the area.''
On Monday, Sri Lanka's first presidential election in over a decade was shrouded by the violence that has plagued this nation for months. (Official election results are expected within this week.) Security officials said at least nine people were killed in attacks at polling stations in an effort by Sinhalese nationalists, the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), to disrupt the elections.
The militants, members of the Sinhalese majority, have been at odds with the government since President Junius Jayewardene since signed a 1987 peace accord with India to end a five-year ethnic conflict.
In recent weeks, hundreds of government supporters, election officials, and security forces have died as the JVP escalated violence to block the polls. In retaliation, security forces have brutally eliminated JVP suspects and sympathizers, mainly in the south, a JVP stronghold.
Across the lush southern coast, the JVP threat to kill election participants combined with official intimidation to force people to vote hung heavily over voting day.
Many villages were closed up like ghost towns as voters huddled at home in fear of the JVP. In one electoral district almost 200,000 people were unable to vote because there were no officials to run the polling stations.
On the other hand, officials at some voting centers said they were forced by the military to work on the election. Observers said Army patrols circulated through towns urging, and at times ordering, people to vote.
The military also reportedly stepped in to run some polling booths when officials failed to appear.
Many Sri Lankans, weary of the strife gripping the country, put their lives on the line to vote. Much of their willingness stemmed from pent-up frustrations in a country that in the past has enthusiastically exercised this right.
Since the peace accord was signed with India - under which Indian troops were to disarm Tamil guerrillas in the north and east, and oversee local elections - more than 3,000 people have died and thousands of others have disappeared without a trace. In November, the JVP brought the country to a standstill with strikes, assassinations, and attacks on military installations. With the country under siege, security forces struck back with a vengeance, capturing and killing JVP suspects under sweeping new police powers.
On Monday, along the main highway ringing the southern coast, lines of 50 voters or more could be seen waiting at some polling spots. At Akurugoda, located about 65 miles south of Colombo, more than one third of the area's 1,600 voters had appeared by midday, despite the morning shooting of Jinadasa, the farmer.
Military officials in Matara, the heart of the Sinhalese extremist movement, predicted that a surprising 40 percent of district voters would turn out.
``People are defying the [JVP] ban because they have had enough, they have suffered enough at their hands,'' said Lt. Col. P. V. Pathirana who heads military operations there.
Western diplomats and elections observers estimate that the turnout among more than 9 million Sri Lankan voters will be 50 to 60 percent, far below the country's traditional pattern of 80 percent or more. Still, the lower results could be adequate to give the new government credibility, they said.
Much depends on what happens in the election aftermath. Already the parties of the two main candidates, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, have traded charges of engineering violence against each other's supporters.
In the past, announcement of election results has triggered rioting among competing factions. Anticipating this, security officials are prepared to impose a continuous curfew on the entire island until the votes can be counted. Initial reports showed that voting was heaviest in urban areas such as Colombo, while terrorist threats appear to have had a greater impact in the countryside.
That could swing the election to Mr. Premadasa, who enjoys the powerful government machinery of the ruling party and against Mrs. Banadaranaike, whose traditional support lies among rural voters in the strife-torn south.