JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — The thugs first appeared around 11:20 Thursday night, a dozen or so men lurking outside her house. Two wore army uniforms.
Ananthi Sasitharan — a Tamil candidate in the first provincial elections to be held in 25 years in the former insurgent stronghold here — said she had awakened her three daughters and prepared for the worst. She called a few friends, who soon appeared and persuaded her and her daughters to sneak out the back. It was a good thing they left.
Ten of her supporters stayed behind to watch the house. A few of them started playing a Sri Lankan card game called Monkeys and Donkeys, but before they could finish even a few hands, four trucks pulled up outside and disgorged more than 100 men. Most of them were wearing army uniforms and carrying guns and wooden clubs, according to the accounts of several witnesses.
“Where’s Ananthi?” the thugs started shouting. “Where’s Ananthi?”
And then they attacked.
Four years after Sri Lanka’s long civil war came to a bloody end, the first provincial council elections since 1988 are being held today in the country’s Tamil-dominated north amid sporadic reports of violence and intimidation. There are dozens of Tamil parties vying for seats under the flag of the United Tamil Alliance, competing with candidates from the governing coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, which controls about two-thirds of the national Parliament.
The council itself is fairly toothless, because President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has centralized much of the government’s powers in his and his family’s hands. But the election has become an important symbol to the Tamil people as well as to international monitors about whether the Rajapaksas are willing to countenance even cosmetic steps toward reconciliation with the Tamils.
“The military has been visiting houses all over the area and telling people not to vote for the Tamil National Alliance,” Mavai Senathirajah, deputy leader of the Tamil alliance, said in an interview. “We will not be intimidated.”
The war’s end has been beneficial to Sri Lanka, an island of about 20 million people split between the dominant Sinhalese and the minority Tamil. Roads have been rebuilt, tourists have returned to its crystalline beaches and tea estates, and the pervading sense of unease that gripped the country for decades has largely evaporated. New train tracks have nearly reached Jaffna, at the northern tip of the island.
Yet, signs of the violent past remain. Destroyed houses, burned-out churches and the broken carcass of a water tower still litter the landscape in once wartorn areas. There is growing evidence that in the course of war the Sri Lankan government may have killed as many as 40,000 people — many of them innocent civilians — particularly at the close of the war. The United Nations Human Rights Council has voted repeatedly to condemn the government’s failure to investigate potential war crimes even as a string of shocking videos that appear to show the murders of innocents leak out of the country.
The Rajapaksa government, meanwhile, has undermined the independence of both the judiciary and the news media. Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, accused the government last month of “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” On Friday, Pillay accused the Sri Lankan government of waging a disinformation campaign against her.
For the Rajapaksa government, the international criticism is worrisome. The Sri Lankan economy depends on tourism and foreign investment, and in November the country will host a summit meeting of Commonwealth leaders, a diplomatic coup. Many of the top hotels in the capital, Colombo, are undergoing renovations to ready themselves for the delegations.
An election in the northern province that is judged as free and fair could help improve the country’s international reputation. But it is far from clear that election monitors will bless the effort.
On Friday, Rohana Hettiarachchie, the executive director of the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections, a domestic independent monitoring group, confirmed in a telephone interview that those who had attacked Sasitharan’s house had been wearing uniforms “similar to those worn by the army.”
But Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya, a military spokesman, said by telephone that “there was no involvement on the part of the army.” He said the army was cooperating in an investigation of the matter.
Sasitharan is contesting the elections in part to pressure the government to release her husband, a political officer for the Tamil Tigers who she believes has been in government custody for four years, a charge the government has denied.
“Earlier this month, there were several others who were released, and they told me that they have seen my husband in custody and that I needed to keep pressing for his release,” she said in an interview.
But she keeps being attacked, Sasitharan said, by an intimidation campaign aimed at getting her to drop out. Two weeks ago, army officers stoned her car while she was still in it, and she barely escaped injury, she said. And then there was the attack Thursday.
The Tamil National Alliance is expected to win control of the northern provincial council, but the margin of victory could prove crucial to the alliance’s efforts to push for greater autonomy over police and land decisions.
Rajapaksa remains popular in much of the country, where he is still given credit for ending the war successfully. Two other provinces are also holding elections today, and in those, the governing coalition is expected to win.