Sri Lanka election: Observers report poll day violations

At least 139 violations, including two cases of assault and 41 of intimidation, reported by midday on Saturday.

Sri Lanka
A police officer looks on as people stand in a line to cast their vote during the presidential election in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – A Sri Lankan author assaulted by unidentified men in what appears to be a politically motivated attack says he is determined to vote in the country’s presidential poll, as election observers report sporadic cases of limited violence and electoral violations on polling day.

At least 139 electoral violations – including two cases of assault and 41 of intimidation – were reported as of midday on Saturday, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, a convoy of more than 100 buses carrying mainly Muslim voters to the northwestern region of Mannar was attacked at Thathrimale, about 190km (118 miles) north of the capital, Colombo, by unidentified armed men, a CMEV official told Al Jazeera.

“Unidentified groups shot at and pelted stones at the buses,” said Manjula Gajanayake, the national coordinator for CMEV.

Gajanayake said there had been no casualties reported, and the buses continued to their destination.

Divisive campaign

Polls opened at 7:00am local time (01:30 GMT) on Saturday, and will close at 5:00pm (11:30 GMT).

A field of 35 candidates are competing to lead Sri Lanka’s government, with the contest coming down to two top contenders: the opposition’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa and cabinet minister Sajith Premadasa.

Rajapaksa has campaigned on a platform promising strong, centralised leadership, while Premadasa, who is from the ruling United National Party (UNP), has promised more pro-poor policies.

A divisive six-week campaign has seen Rajapaksa supporters stoke ethnic tensions, with his candidacy backed by a number of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist religious leaders who have called for greater controls over the country’s roughly 10 percent Muslim minority. This comes following riots and violence targeting Muslims after a series of bombings on Easter Sunday in April which killed at least 269 people and were claimed by ISIL.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) said earlier this week that it feared a return to political violence if Rajapaksa – who is a former defence minister and brother to two-term former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – returns to power.

“As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression,” ICG said in a statement.

“During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes.”

‘If we win or lose, we will kill you’ 

In the southern district of Galle, Viraj Lasantha Wijerathna, an author who has been critical of the Rajapaksa’s previous terms in power, said he was attacked early on Thursday by four unidentified men who threatened to kill him for his work.

The 48-year-old remained in hospital, where he is being treated for two wounds to his arm and a head injury, on Saturday but said he was determined to cast his vote.

“I am planning to vote today,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone. “I have informed the hospital officials that I will need two hours to go cast my vote and come back. They have given me permission to go”

Narrating the attack, Wijerathna said he was awoken early on Wednesday by a noise and went to investigate.

“A man wearing a full-face helmet pointed a gun at my face and came into the house,” he said.

“The man who was pointing the gun at me asked if I did not see anything good in the Rajapaksa regime. He asked me about my book, Nasthikara Sanwardenaya Saha Dushana [Wasteful Development and Corruption].”

The book, released in 2015 but officially launched in May, documents alleged corruption or mismanagement of major projects undertaken by the Rajapaksas, including a major airport and a separate seaport.

One of the attackers used a wooden pole to destroy the author’s property and a number of family photographs, Wijerathna said.

“They said things like ‘if we win or lose, we will kill you’ and ‘you will not be able to write again’,” he added.

Then, one of the men took out a knife and lunged at Wijerathna’s neck.

“He took out a knife and stabbed me. He was aiming at my neck and face. But I blocked him with my left arm. It was cut in two places,” he said.

“I want to somehow vote today.”

Source: Al Jazeera