News / Asia

Sri Lanka Tense on Eve of Presidential Election

Army soldiers appear to have set up a makeshift camp in race course grandstands near office of ex-Gen. Fonseka
Army soldiers appear to have set up a makeshift camp in race course grandstands near office of ex-Gen. Fonseka



Sri Lanka's government and the political opposition are trading accusations their respective rivals are preparing to use force to overturn the results of Tuesday's presidential election.  Independent monitors, meanwhile, contend, the electoral process has broken down. 

Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama is warning that up to 800 army deserters, most allied with former general and opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, are poised to disrupt the presidential election.

"Unscrupulous elements can exploit this situation, cause violence in a manner that is alien to our traditions of tolerance and unknown in Sri Lanka before the conflict situation erupted," he said.

Bogollagama said 25 army battalions and 68,000 police officers have been deployed to ensure a violence-free election.

Former General Sarath Fonseka at election eve news conference, 25 Jan. 2010
Former General Sarath Fonseka at election eve news conference, 25 Jan. 2010

Former General Fonseka, hoping to unseat President Mahinda Rajapaksa, says five battalions posted in the capital - including two composed of special forces soldiers,  some just 100 meters from his campaign office - are an ominous sign that he and other opposition leaders could be targeted him as part of a "military coup" should he prevail at the ballot box.

"They want to bring the war to Colombo?  Of course, we will face it," he said.

VOA observed hundreds of soldiers who have appeared to set up a makeshift camp in the grandstands of a race course just down the street from the Fonseka headquarters. 

Poster in Colombo appealing for a peaceful election day
Poster in Colombo appealing for a peaceful election day

Western diplomats say they are concerned about the potential for violence by supporters of the two rivals after election results are announced Wednesday.

Mr. Fonseka alleges the government is continuing to sling mud against him on the state-controlled airwaves even after official campaigning was supposed to have ended.

"The democratic process and the Constitution and the law of the country is totally being ignored by the government and the head of the government," he said.

Independent domestic monitors are lending credence to charges of manipulation of postal ballots, the military intervening in the political campaign and misuse of state resources, including the media, in favor of the president.

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu speaking at news conference of Center for Monitoring Election Violence
Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu speaking at news conference of Center for Monitoring Election Violence

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives said the election's integrity has already been seriously challenged. 

"With deep regret we have to say that when you look at it in terms of what public officials have said, what they have done, the violence and malpractice recorded we have a picture of dysfunction and breakdown," he said.   

Although there are only 20 international observers in the country for the election, more than 3,700 Sri Lankan monitors are to be at the polling centers.  The country has about 14 million eligible voters.

All indications are the two Sinhalese men, regarded by their respective camps as the true heroes of last year's defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, are locked in a tight battle.  Both sides have told VOA News their polling shows their candidate in the lead. 

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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