Forces involvement in campaigning raises red flags | Sunday Observer

Forces involvement in campaigning raises red flags

EC Chairman writes to candidates about ex-military commanders exerting pressure on police officials on election duty

The Ministry of Defence and Law and Order last week strictly warned military and police personnel that the only political activity they could engage in was the casting of votes on election day.

The directive comes amid concerns raised especially in the Eastern Province that Sri Lanka Navy personnel in civilian clothes were engaged in campaigning heavily for SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Forces personnel and public servants are expressly barred by law from engaging in political activity.

Provincial reporters on the ground told Sunday Observer that the naval personnel from the Navy’s Eastern Command have been engaged in subtly canvassing votes among different ethnic groups in the ethnic melting pot that is the Trincomalee District.

Depending on the demographic, the message to voters changed, correspondents said. The Sinhalese residents were told that the election of a particular candidate would prevent attacks on the majority community by minorities. But to Muslim residents, the message changes, the reports said. Muslim people are told to elect the same candidate in order to ensure there is unity between the communities.

The Navy officials were allegedly visiting Government departments to canvass votes, Sunday Observer learns.

The disturbing developments come amid reports that two main suspects in the Navy abduction for ransom investigation – high ranking officers in the Sri Lanka Navy – had been assigned to Trincomalee after the election was declared. Highly placed sources in the Sri Lanka Navy told Sunday Observer that the same two officers had been heavily involved in campaigning in the 2010 presidential election.

In August this year, the Supreme Court vindicated two police officers stationed in Kurunegala during the 2010 presidential poll, who had filed a fundamental rights petition challenging their transfer following the election.

The two officers had apprehended a Sri Lanka Navy truck carrying propaganda material against President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s challenger in that election, former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, two days before the poll.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Navy Spokesman Isuru Sooriyabandara flatly denied Navy personnel were involved in unlawful activity during the election season. “Prior to every election, we educate all our personnel that none of us can engage in political activities. We can’t support political activities or ideologies. This comes under the Navy Act, too. It is unlawful,” Lieutenant Commander Sooriyabandara said.

He told the Sunday Observer that it was the first time he was hearing of such a complaint, and that legal action would be taken against the officials if the allegations were proved.

The Ministry of Defence statement this week was also a strict warning to forces personnel and police that any officer engaging in political activity while being in service could face legal action.

Their duty as military personnel was simply to ensure a free and fair election, the Ministry emphasised.

Co-Convenor of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu said this was a recurring issue because there was rarely follow up action when complaints were made. CMEV had not received any reports of Navy personnel engaged in campaigning in the East so far, Dr. Saravanamuttu said.

“But if that is happening, it should be stopped. The Election Commission must act,” he explained.

Rohana Hettiarachchi, the Executive Director of People’s Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL), however, noted, there were no reports of election propaganda by the Navy.

Hettiarachchi said the reports PAFFREL received was that the Navy was engaged in conducting a survey in the East on October 26.

But reports persist of political activity by military and law enforcement personnel, resulting in the Election Commission finally stepping in last week.

Early last week, Chairman of the Commission Mahinda Deshapriya wrote to presidential candidates, party leaders and representatives saying that the Commission had received both official and anonymous complaints that police officers were being pressured.

Their election work was being hampered by ex-military officers and retired police officials working as advisors and coordinators to presidential candidates and their parties, the letter noted.

The communique issued by the Election Commission Chairman noted that these officials were using the influence of their previous ranks to obstruct the duties of serving officers while also attempting to influence junior officers in their service to vote for the candidate they were promoting.

Deshapriya noted that while ex-servicemen could engage in politics, even a single such officer pressuring police and military personnel in service could have an impact on whether the November 16 presidential election was free and fair.

“Even if a few officers act this way, officers on duty will be unable to carry out their duties in a free, independent and methodical manner. Serving officers may be led to feel that following the win of the candidates or parties supported by these ex-officers, the said ex-military officers will be given prominence,” Deshapriya’s letter noted.

Several war-time military commanders are backing the candidacy of SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Many of them are active on the campaign trail this election season. The Acting IGP through DIGs in charge of provinces issued specific instructions to police personnel in charge of divisions following the Election Commission letter, according to documents seen by the Sunday Observer.

The IGP wanted HQIs and OICs to inquire into whether any such pressure had been exerted on police officers on election duty by ex-military personnel.

Any retired police officials attempting to pressure serving police officers should also be reported to the DIGs, the circular added.