COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s election commission said Wednesday it was investigating claims of troops being deployed in the Tamil-dominated north ahead of a tightly-fought election, as police reported the first campaign-related death.
Chief election commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said there had been complaints that security forces were deploying in the northern Wanni region, in contravention of election laws.
Wanni was part of the war zone where Tamil separatists fought the army in a decades-long conflict that ended only five years ago.
"I have already taken this up with the army commander, who says he has not ordered troops to deploy," Deshapriya told reporters on the eve of the bitterly contested election.
"I hope there will be no attempt to use troops to block people voting."
The investigation came as police said a 57-year-old opposition activist who was hit in a drive-by shooting two days ago had died of his injuries.
Police are looking for a deputy minister and two supporters of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s party in connection with the shooting outside Colombo on Monday, the final day of campaigning, police spokesman Ajith Rohana said.
The independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) on Tuesday accused the ruling party of tolerating "flagrant violation of election laws" and said opposition party offices had been targeted.
The CMEV, which is deploying more than 4,000 monitors across the country, said it had documented 420 incidences of violence since the election was announced on November 20.
It said the Tamil-dominated northern district of Jaffna was worst hit.
President Rajapakse, who is standing for an unprecedented third term, is widely loathed by the country’s minority Tamils after overseeing a violent military suppression of a separatist struggle.
Both local and international poll monitors have expressed fears that authorities could try to prevent Tamils from voting after the main Tamil political party backed opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena.
The Tamils make up the largest minority on the island, and may be the deciders in Thursday’s election if, as appears likely, the majority Sinhalese vote is split between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
– Heavily militarised –
South Asia’s longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict.
But his second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
Sirisena’s surprise decision to stand against him has turned what might have been a walkover into a bitterly-fought contest.
Northern Sri Lanka remains heavily militarised after the war.
An international poll monitor who asked not to be named told AFP he had to intervene to secure the withdrawal of troops from a roadblock in Wanni on Wednesday.
Deshapriya said he had received assurances that troops had only been placed on stand-by, although he said they could be deployed in the event of post-election unrest to help protect vital installations.
Deshapriya said the security forces had no role in the elections and police were capable of protecting 49 counting centres and 12,314 polling booths, at which 15 million people are eligible to vote.
He said police had been ordered to "shoot in the head" if anyone tried to disrupt the election.
Police have said that 65,000 officers armed with an automatic assault rifles are being deployed around the country.
The election commissioner also said he had issued warnings to both state and private media organisations for violating the rules on broadcasting campaign materials.
State television networks on Wednesday tried to overturn a court injunction banning them from broadcasting an interview with the president because it breached election laws.