(The writer is a member of the Elections Commission. The opinion expressed is his own and not necessarily reflective of the Commission)
The Election Dispute Resolution Unit under the Election Commission (EC) is key to conducting clean elections. I believe it is to gain control of the unit that the Government moved in 10 Government Agents, removing experienced and honest hands like Jaffna’s N. Vethanayagan – who was near retirement, and prompted by the insulting transfer, sent in his retirement papers.
A good example of how GAs and Additional GAs are used to cheat is that, in Jaffna for example, when a complaint of an illegal meeting arrives at the EDR Unit, a call goes to the organiser from the EDR and when the police go there, there is no one to implicate or, catch.
Another example is that when donors sent in supplies to the Kachcheri for those in COVID-19 shelters, the supplies were sent from the EDR Unit to an SLFP MP, whose Youth Front distributed them as from the MP.
As a result, considering the avalanche of complaints, the EC decided to remove the EDR Chief in Jaffna, but he pleaded that he would not be able to function as an SLAS officer after that. So out of sympathy he was allowed, in the Chairman’s words, to “be the non-playing captain.”
He had to give up the telephone which complaints were received from and keep out while the next level of officers would run the show. In a decentralised arrangement taking powers out of the Kachcheri, we brought in 8 Tamil-speaking officers from Ratnapura to staff 3 new EDR offices away from town, while two were sent to revamp the Kachcheri staff.
However, on the night of 28 July when I visited the EDR Unit in Jaffna, “the non-playing captain” was there in office. On 31 July, I received a complaint from the election observer, CaFFE’s Hariharan, that messages are still going to the SLFP folk when they violate laws and on 30 July evening at Thikkam Angajan Ramanathan was holding a meeting, blocking roads and flying flags, claiming that he had built the road.
Flags cannot block traffic and need to be removed after a meeting, but Angajan had not, according to CaFFE. That same afternoon, the TNA was asked promptly to remove their flags and banners just 300 m away. CaFFE states that the Jaffna EDB could not have missed seeing Ramanathan’s flags.
On 30 July, Angajan Ramanathan had a political meeting in Mallakam attended by over 1500 persons, packed into a hall, which the new health guidelines do not permit. Several buses were used to bring in the attendees. That too is illegal. He has been having several opening ceremonies as if he is the politician responsible for the gift of the roads built with public money.
When a complaint received in Jaffna is unique, complains an EDR official, in asking for proof when other EDRs investigate. The EDR Unit has repeatedly warned Ramanathan. Karunanithi, our EDR officer now in charge, has written to the Commission. He hasn’t received a reply and has asked me what to do.
Even when boys are caught putting up notices, the police do not arrest them, says Karunanithi. When a van had to be impounded, the Police refused his instructions and he had to go to the DIG to get that impounding done.
While all these shenanigans go on, the neglected story is that of Election Commission staff who diligently work the units under corrupt Government appointees, despite the threat of political transfer from politician-cheats. This is the story of some of them.
The new Assistant Election Commissioners (ECEs) are often driven by ideals. Mannar’s Jesuthasan Jeniton and Mullaitivu’s Kantheepan are cases in point. They had their feet in fire during the Local Government Elections and are all the better for it.
While most violations now involve pasting notices and occasionally hate speech, two of the more egregious cases were caught by Jeniton. The first of these involves candidate Douglas Devananda. At Mullikulam, the parish wanted political intervention because the Navy checkpoint, SLNS Bharana, was obstructing persons coming to church as well as to their preschool.
They asked Devananda for help over the phone. He had said he could not solve the issue over the phone and would come there and offer a solution. The priest, Fr. Leo, decided to use the visit to get Devananda’s sympathies. Photos show Devandanda in a garland. Plastic chairs had been laid out for a group of 15, which makes a political meeting.
The EPDP National list candidate Dr. Kathirkamanathan and a candidate Chanthuru also came. Why was a meeting involving a priest, treasurer, secretary and two wardens held outside? “For ventilation” was the response. The church and the vicarage were in one unwalled compound.
In the statement recorded by IP Kumara, the Police officer attached to the EDR unit, Fr. Leo stated the meeting took place on church premises. Devananda promised a solution in 3 months.
Political forces moved forcefully. Chilavathurai OIC Pushpakumara visited the church and carried out an “investigation” to declare “The Minister went for blessings and left in ten minutes” – which the vicar never claimed.
Pushpakumara was so brazen that Jeniton complained to Bishop Emmanuel Fernando and Mannar SSP Bandula Weerasinghe. The latter has promised a fresh inquiry. It will be done by HQI Mannar Krishanthan who has good relations with the public. Will politics trump the law as it is doing in all political cases being dropped or in dropped cases being revived?
Second Mannar case
This involves Rishad Bathiudeen. The incident is from 18 July, at around 6 a.m. Assistant Director of Primary Education Ameen had invited pre-school teachers paid Rs. 6000 a month by the Government to a meeting.
Upon receiving a complaint, our AROs Croos and Kekulandara went there with IP Kumara to find the meeting underway at the private premises of Riftkaan Bathiudeen, brother of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.
The complaint was from teachers from Naanataan and Madhu Maanthai West, against the Assistant Director, stating that they were asked to come again on Sunday and were to be paid their Rs. 6000 allowance there.
The teachers, in a sworn testimonial, stated that they were each given a sari and in the folds of their sari there was Rs. 2000. They claim it was a union meeting and had been advised, “Do not fix me. I did nothing wrong.” It is now left to the Police to decide who should be implicated and hopefully the Attorney General will be impartial.
Mullaitivu is arguably the most backward area where a lot of electoral cheating is going on. The energetic team trying to interdict these electoral crimes consists of ACE Kantheepan, assisted by AROs Karunadha Hewamanage, who looks after massive cheating in the now Sinhalese Weli Oya (formerly the Tamil Manal Aru) and the doughty M. Kirubasuthan.
Some Premadasa supporters threatened this team for prohibiting them from pasting notices, saying “When we come to power we will take care of you.” Said Kirubasuthan with rare bravado, “Many of us are fearful of a punishment transfer when politicians we stop come to power. But we in Mullaitivu are not scared. There is no greater hardship posting we can get.”
The Mullaitivu team is explicit that most of the cheating involves SLPP politicians. There has been open fighting between Kader Masthan’s and Rishad Bathiudeen’s followers. The worst violations are by the Sinhalese politicians from Manal Aru, Janaka Nandakumara and Col. Ratnapriya Bandu. Buddhist monks do Buddhist poojas for Nandakumara so he himself is not implicated.
For an area liberated from the conscription of children for war, the Mullaitivu EDR unit has identified children being used by Colonel Bandu as labour in elections.
Similarly in Vavuniya, Deputy Commissioner (North) Lalith Anantha with his ARO Sivakumari is doing a good job particularly as supervisor of the Northern Assistant Commissioners. One difficulty is that while the big roads in Vavuniya are clean, the numerous by-lanes are difficult to supervise.
He will soon go to Jaffna as the Tamil Deputy Commissioner, having saved himself from facing false charges by untraceable complainants, and C.V. Wigneswaran objected to Retired Commissioner General of Elections Mohammed because he is a Muslim. We are now giving them a Sinhalese.
The last frontier
Our Commission has been increasingly implementing the law and this has led to reduced complaints. One last section of the law remains. Most offences embody the definition of the saying “Every person who contravenes [these provisions] shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction after summary trial before a magistrate, be liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred Rupees or to imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding one month or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
The 100 rupees is nothing. The pinch is that, upon conviction, the convict loses all civic rights for seven years, creating space for good people to enter the fray. However, the fact remains that there is rarely a charge.
Even when a politician transports illegal notices, it is by a private van-operator who is let off on sympathy saying impounding the van is robbing him of his livelihood. Usually we tell the rare politician who is caught in his own van “Be a good boy. Don’t do it again.” So they do it again. It is like the Police telling a murderer, “Be good. Do not do another murder.”
Until we issue real punishments, there will be no improvement in electoral cheating.
Further to the article, I wish to report how difficult it is to work without internal trust. That 1500 persons attended the political meeting in Mallakam as in my article is something I discovered from my own sources. Mr. Gengan, who heads a Minibus Operators’ Union, told me that his information is that 69-Tellippalai Union hired out 20 Rosa minibuses for the event, each capable of carrying 26 passengers. Other Unions also let out minibuses.
As is the correct thing to do, I reported it to Karunanithi of Jaffna EDR. He informed me that it is a false report; our ARO attended the meeting; there were only 150 persons in attendance, and the Police had given a permit.
However, photos do not lie. See above a photo from the press and a snapshot of Capital TV news, owned by Angajan Ramanathan’s family. Regardless of the law, even as I write, his Facebook boasts of the crowd he attracted. The bad politicians are so sure of impunity that they boast of their own crimes.
It is impossible to deal with EDR/Jaffna. Karunanithi is a gentleman, but even he is fooled by his staff put in place by the “non-playing captain.” As Karunanithi has asked the EC without reply, this man must be arrested and charged. Or else, the Commission might as well shut down and let Angajan Ramanathan run the Commission.