8 Jan 2015

Sri Lanka’s election: dog heads, threats and Charlie Hebdo

As voting closes in Sri Lanka’s elections, the biggest challenge to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in 15 years, there are accusations of violent intimidation and misuse of public property.

A police officer outside a Sri Lankan polling station (Reuters)

President Rajapaksa, a man accused of presiding over multiple war crimes carried out by Sri Lankan troops at the end of the final days of the country’s civil war, looks vulnerable in the battle against his former ally Maithripala Sirisena.

The incumbent president had called elections two years early, confident of his victory, but had not expected Mr Sirisena too defect and unite opposition parties against him.

Voting across the country closed at 4pm local time on Thursday with a high 68 per cent turnout reported. The results are expected on Friday.

Read more: Sri Lanka's election could change everything... and nothing

And whilst monitors say election day has passed largely without incident, the run up has been littered with alleged incidents of violence, harassment, threats and misuse of public funds and resources.

On Thursday state media ran pictures from the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo superimposed with images from Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“When we see these images we also remember the history of terrorism in Sri Lanka,” one announcer said.

The coverage fits into the rhetoric President Rajapaksa has been using since the end of the 26-year-civil war.

Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan army are accused of carrying out war crimes in that victory over the LTTE (known as the Tamil Tigers) – with accusations that the army deliberately shelled and bombed civilians as it sought to defeat the group. The Tamil Tigers killed thousands of Sri Lankans in a terror campaign throughout the wear – relying on child soldiers and pioneering the use of suicide bombers.

Make your funeral arrangements at your homes. Unknown phone caller to activists

The UN, which is investigating the war crimes claims, says as many as 40,000 civilians died in the final government assault on the LTTE. Thousands of people were missing at the end of the civil war – the World Bank estimated up to 100,000 – and the Sri Lankan government has been accused of involvement in enforced disappearances ever since.

Among the disappeared is cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda who disappeared in 2010. On Thursday his son sat outside President Rajapaksa’s office holding a placard saying “Give my father back”.

Three human rights activists who work with the families of the “disappeared” were reported to have received death threats on Thursday.

Brito Fernando, Phillip Dissanayake and Prasanga Fernando, who had all campaigned for the election’s opposition candidate Sirisena, received phonecalls on Thursday morning threatening them with death, Amnesty International said.

The unknown caller told Prasanga Fernando that the three should “make your funeral arrangements at your homes”.

It is not the first time Brito and Prasanga Fernando are reported to have received threats. On Monday the pair woke up to find severed dogs’ heads outside their homes.

Sri Lanka’s independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence has recorded 237 “major incidents” including attempted murder, arson and bribery in the campaign. On Thursday the group reported hand grenade explosions outside polling stations in Vavuniya and Jaffna, capital of the Tamil-dominated north.

Transparency International Sri Lanka has reported “large scale misuse of public property” in the run up to the election for the benefits of President Rajapaksa including the use of public buses to transport people to President Rajapaksa’s rallies, often under duress,

Transparency International also reported that the military was being used for campaigning purposes.

‘Resounding victory’

Both President Rajapaksa and opposition candidate Sirisena have projected confidence on polling day.

After casting his vote in the eastern town Polonnaruwa, Mr Sirisena said: “There is support for us everywhere. From tomorrow, we will usher in a new political culture.”

President Rajapaksa said: “We will have a resounding victory. That is very clear.”

In response to calls from the UN for “peaceful and inclusive” elections, Sri Lanka’s state-run Daily News said: “Sri Lanka has a vibrant tradition of democratic practice since 1931 and has been conducting elections at regular intervals, in a peaceful and orderly manner, while the electorate has continued to cast their vote freely, in large numbers.

“In keeping with this decades-old tradition, the presidential election of 2015 too is being held in a peaceful and orderly manner. The inclusiveness of the elections is guaranteed for all Sri Lankans and all minorities are equally facilitated to actively participate in the election process and exercise their franchise.”