Northern Elections: A litmus test for democracy or Tamil national aspirations?

Just a few hours after the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon announced the forthcoming provincial elections in Sri Lanka to be an important opportunity for political reconciliation in the country, a terrifying attack took place against the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) candidate, Mrs Ananthi Sasitharan at Chuzhipuram in Jaffna at approximately 12:45 am.

Midnight Terror

According to Mrs Sasitharan, members of the Sri Lankan armed forces and the government backed paramilitary group, Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) were behind this murder attempt. The national organizer of independent election monitoring committee Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) confirmed the military’s involvement in this attack. Soldiers reportedly also blocked independent election monitors from reaching the site of the crime .

The incident was firstly reported via twitter by the Jaffna Press Club:

Jaffna Press Club further reported that nearly 20 military personnel, military intelligence operatives and EPDP members arrived with guns, swords, knives and poles to attack Mrs Sasistharan. Though, the rapid response of her supporters prevented her and her three daughters from any physical harm.

Twelve of Mrs Sasitharan’s  supporters and an election observer attached to People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) were injured by the military and members of their armed gang, with eight of them 12 injured requiring hospitalization. The incident has left the wounded traumatized and extremely frightened about the incident and their future safety, refusing to be photographed for fear of consequences. Mrs Sasitharan and her daughters are in a state of shock, though Mrs Sasitharan has courageously chosen to be interviewed about the incident despite being threatened by the attackers that death would ensue if anyone spoke out it.

I did not think that they (Sri Lankan army) would carry out an attack on a woman in the middle of the night, given the international community is closely observing the election process, but now, everything has been turned upside down, said Mrs Sasitharan. She further said, the police did not answer her calls when she contacted the authorities on the Emergency number 119 to complain about the attack against her, pointing out that the election commissioner in fact came and performed his duty well before the arrival of the police to the crime scene.

Mrs Sasitharan said the attackers along with unleashing physical violence, also shouted out, “You speak of Tamil nationalism? You want the Northern Provincial Council?” when they attacked the victims, later threating, “If you leak any news about the attack, we will kill you within four days.”

This was not the first murder attempt on Mrs Ananthi Sasitharan. There have already been two explicit attempts to assassinate Mrs Sasistharan during her current election campaign, both of which she narrowly escaped. She has also reported noticing her vehicle being followed on various occasions by ‘unidentified men’.

A Witness of the Mullivaaykkaal ‘Surrender’

Mrs Ananthi Sasitharan is a mother to three daughters and the wife of former head of Trincomalee political wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE), Sinnathurai Sasitharan alias Ezhizhan. Ezhizhan’s fate is yet unknown since he surrendered to the Sri Lanka army on 18 May 2009. Mrs Sasitharan, a direct eye witness to the surrender of the LTTE’s senior political officers, along with a Catholic priest, to the Sri Lankan army in Vadduvaakal in Mullivaaykkaal, is the only female candidate of the TNA.

She is an outspoken candidate who has never hesitated to speak out about the genocidal acts of the Sri Lankan regime or criticize the internal politics of the TNA.

A day before the attack, she said in an interview to the Tamil Guardian: 

Our homeland is completely occupied by the military…

In the final stages of the war, there was a large-scale surrender, which the government completely denies any knowledge of. But the UN knew about this surrender; American officials knew and even the Indian government knew how many people surrendered – I don’t know why they are all silent…

The issue of missing people, or people unaccounted for after the war, is a really pressing matter for us. On top of those that are missing, there are Tamil political prisoners that have been in captivity for many years and there have been no meaningful steps taken towards their release. If there is something called hell, it is in the Sri Lankan state prisons.
The TNA is seeking a 2/3 majority in the upcoming elections. Mrs Sasitharan, who has been publicly advocating for over four years for the whereabouts of her husband and has become a bold voice for families of the disappeared, has a strong chance of winning in these elections. She has repeatedly stated that regardless of whether she wins or loses, her struggle on behalf of disappeared and their families will continue.

De ja vu: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

Mr. Sugash Kanagaratnam, an election monitor attached to PAFFREL and Attorney-at-Law, who is currently hospitalized due the attack last night described the events of the attack: They broke open the doors and got about five of us to come out of the house and forced us to kneel down in a nearby field used for banana cultivation. The army personnel pointed guns from the behind and even loaded them. I instantly remembered the scenes from the Channel 4 ‘Killing Fields’ documentary and thought that we all were going to be murdered. They wanted to give us the worst possible fear of death.

Fear among the Tamil people continues to rise as the culture of impunity in the island of Sri Lanka continues to mount. Given such brutal violence already, there is a strong potential for planned post-election violence. The military intelligence operatives have reportedly already collected information about supporters of certain TNA candidates. They have also obtained recordings of speeches made by certain TNA candidates and certain TNA politicians at the rallies. BBC correspondent Charles Haviland has described the situation in Jaffna as an atmosphere of bitterness and violence in the area .

Democracy, Reconciliation and Self-Determination

The attack on democracy in Sri Lanka began long before the violent assault on Mrs Sasitharan and her supporters, and arguably the island has backslid a long way from democracy. Considering the ongoing records of the genocidal process by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil nation, suppression on press freedom, freedom of expression, intervention on independence of the judiciary, rule of law and good governance indicates the severe attack on democracy.

The latest attack on Mrs Sasitharan shows not only the lack of respect for democracy by Sri Lanka armed forces and the government, but also their hatred towards the Tamil nation. Rather than repeatedly finding faults or accusing the Tamils, concerned stake-holders should ask themselves why the right to self-determination and the ideology of nationhood is so powerful among the Tamil people even four and half years after the destruction of the LTTE.

In a statement condemning the attack on Mrs Sasitharan, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) said:

These incidents only reaffirm that in order to cease the continuation of such attacks, the Tamil nation needs to be freed from the domination of the Sinhala nation, with the recognition of Tamil sovereignty through the creation of a solution whereby a sovereign Tamil nation exists together alongside a Sinhala nation.

It should be noted that at a rally in Kilinochchi, the former administrative capital of the LTTE, TNA MP, Mr.M.A.Sumanthiran said:

The international community wants to know whether Tamils support nationhood and self-determination and the people’s verdict at the election can endorse this position.

‘Moderate’ TNA MPs cannot be found at fault for making election campaign speeches dominated by phrases such as Tamil nationalism, self-determination, self-rule and nationhood, as they are merely pressured to do so by the people who are suffering in a sickening and pathetic situation further detailed below.

The national question of the Tamil people remains yet unanswered. The root causes of the conflict have yet not been addressed. The current Sri Lankan regime, as previous regimes, is far away from any meaningful political solution to the Tamil national question. The survivors and victims of genocide continue to tirelessly seek justice. Structural genocide has reached its high peak through accelerated military occupation and Sinhala settlements in the Tamil nation, while oppression of the Tamil people and the culture of impunity continue. For decades Tamil rights have been denied and today the Tamil people are unable to experience normalcy. The current regime is still flaunting in a mood of triumphalism though the direct war came to an end almost four and half years ago.

The increasingly widening gulf between the repressive policies of an ethnocratic state and the ongoing abstract ‘reconciliation discourse’ is not a false projection of the ‘Tiger propagandists’ but an undeniable ground reality. The northern election will not be a litmus test for Sri Lanka’s dysfunctional democracy, as many would like to believe. But it will certainly be a testing ground that would prove Tamil people’s undying resilience and collective will to be free.

Image courtesy: 


Nirmanusan Balasundaram is an exiled journalist and a human rights defender. He holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the European University Center for Peace Studies in Austria.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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