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Sri Lankan military prepares for end game

Tom Walker
7 April 2009

The Sri Lankan military is preparing to mount an attack on a 20 sq km no-fire zone in the north of the country where many senior Tamil Tigers leaders are believed to be hiding. Government security forces claim to have killed at least 525 Tiger rebels over the past few days as part of a large-scale offensive intended to conclude the long-running ethnic conflict in the region. 

The area, which the army had designated a safe zone for civilians, is claimed by the UN and other international organisations to contain up to 150,000 civilians. The Sri Lankan government disputes this figure, but is describing its planned offensive in the area as "the largest humanitarian intervention by a conventional military force in modern times." Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been in bullish mood, claiming that the mythical belief that the Tigers were "unconquerable" had been shattered. 

The offensive has displaced many in the previously Tamil-dominated regions. A record 2,127 civilians sought shelter in camps in Mullaitivu yesterday. The representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Walter Kaelin called for the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the zone and requested a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian organizations access to the area. 

The shrill tone of political discourse  

A Sikh journalist threw a shoe at the home minister P Chidambaram during a press conference. Jarnail Singh, a columnist with the daily Dainik Jagran, was protesting at the Central Bureau of Investigation's decision to clear the former Congress politician Jagdish Tytler of involvement in inciting the murder of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. The riots were sparked by the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. 

The Election Commission has continued to remain in the public eye as further accusations of making "hate speeches" are hurled at politicians of various political parties. After the controversy over Varun Gandhi's recent speech (see "Gandhi vs Gandhi" on openIndia), Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has been criticized for stating that he would have "crushed [Varun] under a roller" had he been the country's Home Minister.  

In an echo of the Gandhi case, D Srinivas, the President of the Congress Committee in Andhra Pradesh state, has caught the attention of the Election Commission for threatening to sever the hands of "those who point a finger at minorities." Despite Srinivas' claims that he was promoting peace, a recording of his speech is set to be examined today.  

The violent tenor of the debate in recent days has caused concern for political observers. Santosh Desai, writing in the Times of India, laments that "extreme positions seem to have become a surrogate for significance and clarity" in today's political discourse, arguing that debates are being framed by those who take the extreme points of view.  

Rural to urban shift? 

With little over a week before the polling process begins, parties and analysts are tracking long and short-term political trends in an attempt to prepare themselves for the outcome of the polls. The re-drawing of electoral boundaries according to population size, or delimitation, looks likely to be an influential factor in the elections. The boundaries of 499 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in the country have been shifted, raising widespread uncertainty over the outcome of polls in several constituencies. 

The Indian Express suggests that the process may shift power for the first time towards urban voters, who will now elect nearly a quarter of all candidates in India. In the southern state of Karnataka, parties which traditionally based campaigns on the slogan of "food, clothing and shelter" are now placing increased emphasis on infrastructure, airports, roads and water supply, it reports.  

Some analysts have suggested that this trend will favour the BJP, which has traditionally performed well in urban areas. However, an internal survey carried out by the party has indicated that it expects to drop votes in the capital city Delhi and the nearby state of Rajasthan. The survey argues that the party will need to achieve at least 40 to 50 seats more than the Congress Party in order to form a government at the centre.  

Meanwhile, the number of independent candidates standing for election has increased once again this year. Less than one per cent of the 37,000 candidates that have stood for election since independence have gained seats in parliament, a figure that has steadily diminished since 1952. In the 2004 election over 90 per cent of the independents forfeited their deposits. 

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