ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 11, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 50
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What next for the East?

The Eastern Province with its rare, if not, unique blend of communities, cultures and languages had the potential to be the very heart - not just the showpiece but the centrepiece - of all the beauty of unity in diversity. In the east, there are Tamil villages where the people speak Sinhala fluently and Sinhala villages where the people speak Tamil fluently.

The different races and religions, languages and cultures, traditions and ways of life had all the ingredients to form the poet's dream for a beautiful song of Sri Lanka Similar to the immortal words of the Poet W. S. Senior - "Socialising of the dear Sri Lanka, in the brave new days to come, when the races have all blended and the voice of strife is dumb."

But the scourge of terror by different parties, especially the LTTE, and the petty politics even of the main parties largely for personal or party gain and glory sent the Eastern Province plunging into a muddle of party within party, clique within clique, divisions within divisions, and agendas within agendas. Natural beauty of the sunrise province was distorted into the unnatural horror of darkness at noon.

It was in such a setting that a crucial, if not make-or-break, election took place yesterday to the Eastern Provincial Council -- the first provincial election there in 20 years. For the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration it was a prestige battle as vital as the sunrise. The government's claim that the entire Eastern Province had been liberated from the clutches of the ruthless LTTE and its promise to usher in a new dawn of unprecedented development for this largely neglected and dispossessed province needed to be underlined with a clear and clean mandate from the people of the Eastern Province.

The other major stakeholder, the LTTE, apparently had its own agenda within agenda as it did in the 2005 Presidential Election where Tiger strategists apparently thought a Rajapaksa victory would indirectly pave the way towards their goal of Eelam.

The other important stakeholder, the UNP-SLMC alliance, led by Muslims in the Eastern district but contesting under the elephant symbol, was confident of victory because the TNA also was indirectly backing it and more than 70 percent of the East comprises Tamils and Muslims.

But when voting ended yesterday - after two major calamities, the Ampara café bomb and the sinking of a navy ship loaded with military items - most independent reports indicated that the polling was far from being free and fair. For instance the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections reported that the Pillayan group, an ally of the Rajapaksa regime, had practically seized control of areas outside Batticaloa town and there appeared to be large-scale stuffing of ballot boxes with bogus votes. CAFFE monitors reported that Pillayan cadres had threatened voters and snatched their poll cards while law enforcement authorities were taking little or no counter action. . A spokesman of the UNP lawyers association said the main opposition party virtually had no representatives at the polling booths in Batticaloa as 14 of its polling agents had been arrested and detained by the Kattankudy police without any reason.

Another monitoring group, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, reported there were at least 20 major incidents of polls violations in the province yesterday.

In analyzing the campaign and the results of the Eastern Provincial Council elections we are reminded of a hallowed principle in sports. Most sports like cricket may no longer be a gentlemen's game and have been no-balled into halls of fortune and fame. But the Olympian motto is still valid even in this era of self-interests, match-fixing and performance enhancing drugs and poll fixing. What matters is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. As our political editor said in his column last week, if the Rajapaksa administration could win the polls in a clean contest, it would mean everything to the President and his Government. A victory under a cloud would mean a pyrrhic victory. A defeat in free and fair poll, would still mean a victory for the Government, but whether it would opt for such niceties which mean little in today's politics, remains to be seen.

Whatever the results our plea - and in voicing it we know we are voicing the will of millions of Sri Lankans - is that the promises of developing the east and providing better living facilities to the people would be kept and it would really be a new dawn for them. If power is really devolved to the east and development takes place there at a rapid pace, it would be a major step in defeating separatism and bringing about the unity in diversity that we all dream of.

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