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Sri Lanka: What the Heck am I Doing Here?


Prem D Palanivel was invited to Sri Lanka as an election observer for PAFFREL. He lives in Madurai, where he is the food processing business. His interests are literature, philosophy and religion.

I am cold, sore and tired. I am lying in bed, waiting for it to get warm. I have been roaming around in the ghat roads for almost one whole day. It is quite chilly with night temperatures in the range of 13 to 15 deg. C. From my bed I can see the orange slant of the lights coming in through the screen on the large French windows, overlooking the main junction of roads of Nuwara Eliya. It is a small tea-town, nestled about 6500 ft above sea level, among the beautiful tea growing hill-country of Sri Lanka.

It is election time here in Lanka. And the whole country is viscerally agitated in its run up to it's Parliamentary elections- a time for this country's regular tryst with blood and gore. Literally. I am here as an 'International Election Observer', to observe and report from ground zero, whether the election is a 'free and fair' one. I wonder, 'what the heck am I doing here!'

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Colombo I had arrived in Sri Lanka three days back. The flight from Chennai is about an hour and 15 minutes and costs much less than it would to fly to most places within India. The Lankan hostesses were pretty and pleasing. But the flight was sheer misery. The guy next to me smelled like an unkempt stable with breath like a very sick horse. I have never smelled a sick horse's breath but I am pretty sure it could only be milder. He breathed heavily through his open mouth while fiddling roughly with the monitor switches in front of him. He did not seem to understand a single word of English, or Sinhalese for that matter. He only spoke monosyllabically, 'beer'. I looked at him closely. Perhaps he WAS a sick horse in human disguise. Or perhaps an alien. 'More likely!' I thought. One can never be sure, these days. Anything is possible. The flight was full. I was stuck next to him on a full flight. Misery!

I checked into the beautiful TransAsia hotel, where PAFFREL, (People's Action for Free and Fair Elections) had put up all its 80 international invitees. PAFFREL, an NGO, is the premier organization that has been monitoring the elections of Sri Lanka for 15 years. It is an umbrella organization with several affiliated NGOs, mostly American and Canadian, participating in this 'Election Observation' mission. This mission is an independent one without legal and governmental sanction, unlike the one by the European Union Team, which is invited by the Srilankan government itself. Due to its fair reputation and long standing monitoring involvement, PAFFREL's Election Observation had come to earn the unofficial sanction of the authorities.

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ColomboThe final reports of PAFFREL on the last elections stated that there had been 70 election related deaths. Gross violations of electoral process were reported in more than 50% of the polling stations around Sri Lanka. 1483 incidents during the month long campaign with half of them happening during the final week of the campaign. 712 incidents (48%) were of 'major' or serious, as defined by Sri Lankan police: murder, attempted murder, assault, arson, grievous hurt, hurt, threat, intimidation and robbery. 227 incidents involved the use of firearms, i.e. about 15%.

The infamous gun of the Lankan Society was the Chinese T 56, which is the main weapon of the Sri Lankan army as well as the weapon provided 'officially and unofficially' for the candidates own protection. The T 56 is supposed to be a less powerful weapon than the infamous AK 47 of the Indian terrorist. Lethal of course, and not a rare sight as the AK 47 is in India. It is bandied by every minor rogue of Sri Lankan society. The dynamics of the situation made Sri Lankan elections a real tryst with bullets and blood.

This year's election was expected to be as, or more violent, than the last elections, as it had been announced in a hurry by President Kumaratunga Chandrika. She had arbitrarily dissolved the Parliament to avoid the Vote-of-Confidence that would have been an imminent loss for her government. It might as well be a 'make-or-break' election for Kumaratunga and her party. There was too much at stake for both the major political parties PA and UNP. In fact, Sri Lanka itself had a lot at stake in the outcome of this election. And I was a member of PAFFREL's observation team for this high-stake Parliamentary Elections of Sri Lanka.

ColomboColombo and Sri Lanka came as a surprise to me. Colombo had both history and depth. I realized how little I knew about my country's closest neighbour. Sri Lanka, was not in our media's radar. I guess that the situation at present here is not of any strategic relevance to India .The failure of the 'India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord' and the absolute disaster of IPKF was one reason for this. The Sri Lankan situation had become a stalemate.

Colombo's nervous ambience to war and violence came through in the silent and ominous presence of army check posts at major junctions and army choppers in regular surveillance. The chequered incidents of violence are now a part of tourist folk-lore and itinerary. The Town-hall, a typical and grand remnant of its Colonial past with grand white pillars, wide and well maintained lawns on all sides and broad roads around it, looked odd in it's museum-like desolation. 'This is where Chandrika lost her eye and luckily survived the bomb blast about couple of years back', our host said. In fact, the LTTE had ruthlessly eliminated almost all the leading politicians who could have led the country one day. Eight assassinations, I was told. All bomb blasts carried out by cyanide neck-laced suicide bombers. No wonder army and check posts have become a normal and accepted routine in this country. But life seemed to go on. The exclusive stores were bursting with young and 'hep' girls of Colombo, who seemed to be shopping with a vengeance. In one such exclusive store 'Odel', the rich, western, and consumerist ambience seemed at odds and even a little cruel in its uncaring and mocking apathy to the general situation of suffering, displacement, violence and war, elsewhere in the country.

The group of 'observers' who had all gathered in Sri Lanka couldn't be any more motley. Various hues, shapes, languages, countries, ages, etc. Some with their own agendas and some with no agenda. Some clueless, others better informed. I was agenda less and clueless, but sincere in my intention to fulfil the purpose for which I had been invited and sponsored.

NuwaraThe two-day briefing was a haphazard introduction to Sri Lankan electoral process, its politics and brief meetings with representatives from main political parties. At the end of which I was still not too sure as to what and how exactly was I to 'observe' and report about the polling stations in particular. I was deployed in Nuwara Eliya along with two Indonesian girls and an Aussie. The Aussie was already up there. It is a beautiful place, tea estates country, about 6500 ft above sea level in the Lankan hills. Besides, I was told, it is Tamil area, so supposedly safer for me in case of any violence. I was not sure whether I understood the dynamics of that. But Nuwara Eliya is generally a peaceful place, they added, so no cause for worry.

It had taken five hours from Colombo to reach this beautiful place. We were here by about 9.30 am and after about an hours' break we parted as three different mobile teams along with our Nuwara Eliya guide and a driver. We headed off on our 'pre-election observation' around the hills in a Toyota van, with a PAFFREL flag and banner on it. It was PAFFREL's way of reassuring the locals that their election is being observed and they could have faith in it. There was another important reason for these flags and banners, our own immunity from any mob violence. By announcing that we were 'international observers', we could expect to be spared from any violence being directed at us.

We met the local provincial secretary, who informed that there were 95 polling booths in Nuwara Eliya district. He expected all of them to have peaceful and fair polling, except one remote one, which saw 'stuffing' last year. There had not been any reports of poll violence so far. We then met the secretary of a PA candidate who informed that their office had been vandalized and burnt down by UNP supporters the day before. We visited their office, a small tin sheet affair, and it was burnt as he had said. A local PA supporter ran to us and showed his bruised back. He said that he had been hit by the UNP hooligans as they chased him off while they torched the tin-shack office.

Windsore HotelThe PA supporter further told me that the police had come to his house and harassed him. He said the local police were all with the UNP as they had been bought by it. But just diagonally opposite a group of people from opposite camp, UNP, called us. They showed us the place where their office had been. Now there was only holes and mounds of mud. It had been totally pulled down by the PA hooligans just hours before the UNP guys had burnt down the PA tin shack. So there had been an equal exchange of vandalism by both sides. I faithfully took photographs and observed the evidence of these minor election related 'incidents'. The campaign had been a peaceful one so far, as it had been said. I reached back to our base, Windsore Hotel, at Nuwara Eliya, at 8 pm. We all gathered at the dining hall and diligently discussed our days 'observations'. No major 'incidents' to report. Later we headed off to our rooms, tired but satisfied on the day's job well done. I had been in the van for almost 12 hours.

I must say something about the food at Windsor, and generally in Sri Lanka. They do not recognise a vegetarian menu. On one occasion, I had to make do with vegetables and desserts - thank God for the desserts! Windsor was the heights! The waiter walked to and fro between the kitchen and the dining hall trying to decide what supper he could serve me. At last he served me tomato soup and some boiled vegetables along with french fries, while the rest had grilled chicken and fish with vegetables and french fries. It is not usually like this, my local guide said. I dashed some salt and pepper on to the vegetables and walloped it anyway.

So here I am, lying in bed and wondering 'what the heck am I doing here?!

Nuwara EliyaI am from another country, be that next door and only about 30 km from shore to shore, still another country. I don't care for politics or elections in my own country, my participation being limited to feeling a sense of hopelessness of the situation that seems beyond any human redemption. I don't take part in 'honorary', 'civic' or 'social activities. I am not a 'do -gooder'. I am suspicious of such. I don't give and especially don't take any free meals. I keep to myself and I do my own stuff. Even in doing my own stuff I am super discreet in choosing ways and methods that are focused and sharp and short, immediately and identifiably relevant to my goals and objectives. I have a very short fuse, and very low tolerance when it comes to irrelevance and insignificance in acts or in words.

But here I was, on an errand that is not within my purview of immediate or identifiable relevance. On an errand that our principals agree could be 'also symbolic'. I am in a country that is at war with itself, where election campaigns are at gun point. Of more immediate and present concern, on a task that has been physically neck-breaking and head-aching.

The next day we start off, wondering whether we would observe any 'major incidents' that day -half hoping we would. I actually dread the driving around in the ghats more than any major incident.

It again turned out to be a peaceful day of observation. The highlights were the meetings with two candidates of PA and the secretary of a UNP candidate. All of them expected and warned us of post election violence. Each had some vandalism and violence to report about the other party. In fact it seemed that all the parties involved were playing this election as some kind of game of violence and vandalism. The people were caught up in this unnecessary violence.

Nuwara ElliyaIt was also obvious that we were also being played with - with each party and candidate trying to 'record' as many acts of violence and vandalism against the other, on to our observation report. But at the same time, their lack of any belief in this sort of 'election- observance' also was obvious. They did not make any serious effort to hide it either. They seemed to have adopted the attitude of regarding this whole 'Election Observance' as some kind of na´ve and childish project to be humoured.

One of the leaders who was in the ruling party served us tea and acted out his 'ideal dignified leader' routine and then even in the midst of this routine he went to the door and spoke to couple of his 'boys' to do their job of getting the votes properly the next day. I heard him say, "go, go now, do the job of getting the votes properly and then come back to me, I 'll see what I can do then."

I also realized that most election related violence, though it could have started with some random spontaneous action of a single hooligan from the mob, is a phenomenon that is well planned out and instigated from the minds and rooms of a few leaders who lay the ground work spreading hatred and suspicion. They make the public so tense that there is no room for any casual exchange or remark. A simple stare or a rubbing of shoulder becomes an incident. An incident that could have easily passed of as casual exchange during a normal situation becomes a spark that lights the fire. And then the dynamics of mob behaviour takes over. Many a riot, and many a massacre happens this way, leaving thousands killed. The leaders are the ones who are the criminals, they are the ones culpable. They play pawn with their supporters and the citizens, who get killed, beaten, locked up, while they themselves go scot-free, remaining in power and luxury.

I watched and heard out these leaders in their last minute election management manoeuvres of phone calls and directions to their 'boys'. It was a hub of nervous activity in contrast to the situation in the streets, where there was silent observation, albeit with contained anxiety. The general public just watch the motorcades of fancy Pajeros and Cruisers of the candidates, and the occasional vans of the various 'observation' groups. The candidates, for all their bravado, were nervous of the election verdict that spelt power, perks and immunity. As I watched all this I realized the importance of election in this society and country. I realized that what I had taken for granted as a laid-back citizen of an old and weary democracy, was a life or death issue in my neighbouring country which was going through a process re-establishing the most important pillar of democracy, which had in recent years been hijacked by violent and extremist elements.

Election is the hour of judgment when citizens play out their roles, exercise choice as to what policies their country should have and who represents them in the government. A free and fair election is the basic tenet of civil society and the founding principle of democracy. Rule of the people, by the people and for the people.

PAFFREL's 'Election Observation' is an exercise to strengthen this process in the Sri Lankan democracy. An election sans violence and violations is the goal of PAFFREL. The personally 'irrelevant' and 'symbolic' project of 'election-observation' assumed a personal significance of choice and freedom to choose. I realized my role in this invaluable exercise and hoped that it succeeds in strengthening the process of making Sri Lanka a peaceful and successful democracy.


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