Strategic attempt to stop Muslim rural minority from voting - HR activist | Sunday Observer

Strategic attempt to stop Muslim rural minority from voting - HR activist

Human rights activist Shreen Saroor has flagged a ‘strategic’ attempt by a major political party to stop Northern evicted Muslims, especially from Mannar, from voting and intimidation exercised by the National Election Commission (NEC) to discourage Muslim women from going to polling booths.

Saroor said a recent statement made by an official of NEC that Muslim women cannot approach polling booths in some of their traditional attires was ‘racist’ and ‘gender insensitive’. She added it was a politically motivated attempt to ‘disrupt or intimidate or harass those wearing Abaya/Hijab from entering the polling booths’.

“After the Easter attacks Muslim women are already scared. Many of them have undergone violent incidents,” she said explaining that a ban of attire would frighten them from exercising their voting rights.

She said, after much lobbying and writing to NEC and election monitors the statement was revoked.

However, NEC’s Director General Saman Sri Ratnayake said the Commission did not mention that the communique regarding the attire was targeted at ‘Muslim women’. It is the common practice, he said, to advice voters to corporate with identification officials and representatives of candidates during the identification process.

“It is not a new thing. We have to see the face to identify the person. We cannot give a ballot paper without proper identification,” Ratnayake told the Sunday Observer. He added that any item hindering the identification of a person such as veil, helmet and dark glasses have to be removed at polling booths.

Echoing his statement, National Coordinator of The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), Manjula Gajanayake said they did not observe an attempt to stop anyone from voting but to give priority to identification of persons. The CMEV is currently working on engaging Muslim women to work as monitors.

Eight days after the Easter attacks the Government imposed a ban on the face veil in a bid to sustain national security. A regulation gazetted by President Maithripala Sirisena stated, “No person shall wear in any public place any garment or such other material concealing the full face which will in any manner cause hindrance to the identification of a person”. On August 22 the ban was lifted with the lapse of the State of Emergency that was declared following the attacks.

The move faced criticism especially, from human rights groups that condemned the state’s move. Many Muslim women complained of harassment and violations of basic rights such as when entering state buildings.

Meanwhile, Saroor also raised alarm about a move by NEC to stop Northern evicted Muslims from voting. Speaking about several newspaper reports to the effect that NEC has called for a stop of private transportation of voters from Puttalam to Mannar she said it was a discriminatory move.

“The LTTE once made us homeless and landless but NEC by this announcement is defranchising us because they are imposing restrictions on a particular community’s free access to polling stations,” Saroor said.

The alleged targeted community is the protracted Internally Displaced Persons or the Muslims who were wiped off from the Northern Province in 1990. The community is widely settled in Puttalam but they travel to Mannar, their original place, in order to vote.

Sometimes it takes about six hours to travel to interior parts of Mannar using public transport. As a solution, people use hired transportation modes. During previous elections transportation was provided by a Muslim politician. This year NEC is axing it.

NEC member Prof. S. Ratnajeevan Hoole explained that the Assistant Commissioner for Mannar issued an order that all voters must use public transport organized for them and not private transport.

“But some voters thought it convenient to hire a van for the journey. They wanted permission. The Commission agreed. But the Chairman also ruled that those who go to Mannar cannot start back till 2.30 pm to prevent their voting again in Puttalam,” Prof Hoole added.

The 2.30pm deadline was imposed assuming that the voters were registered in their place of origin and place of settlement following the 1990 eviction. Prof. Hoole said this concerns him because it means that NEC computer checks on double registration are not fool proof.

NEC’s Director General Ratnayake said people still can hire vehicles and pay on their own to go to their polling areas.

“But they have to be able to clearly prove that the vehicle was not provided by a businessman or a politician,” he said.

Saroor called it a ‘strategic attempt’ made by a major political party to ‘fear-monger’ and stop rural minority communities from voting, as it is clear what their political affiliations are.