COLOMBO, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Many of Sri Lanka's war refugees may be unable to vote in January polls, the first national election after the government's crushing defeat of separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May, election monitors said on Monday.
That could provide a fresh grievance for the country's mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil minority, many of whom believe the Buddhist Sinhalese majority has a habit of discriminating against them.
Administrative obstacles and a lack of proper procedures for those in camps to register could mean nearly all of the more than 300,000 war refugees, who are overwhelmingly Tamil, will be unable to vote in the Jan. 26 presidential poll, independent election monitors said.
"Up to 95 percent of IDP's might be deprived of their voting rights at the presidential elections as a proper mechanism has not been in place," one of the monitors, Keerthi Thennakoon of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), told Reuters.
But he added that "if the elections commissioner acts swiftly he can rectify the mistakes" before the election.
Over 280,000 ethnic minority Tamils fled their homes due to intense fighting between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the military during the last phase of the 25-year civil war, which effectively ended on May 18 with the killing of top separatist leaders. They joined tens of thousands who fled earlier.
Officials say 70 percent of the war refugees have relocated from the main military guarded camps and thousands of others are being allowed to come and go from the camps where they have been held since the end of the war.
The government has faced pressure from foreign countries and aid and rights groups to speed up resettlement of the thousands of Tamils displaced by war. However, many of those who have left the camps have not returned to the original residences where they would normally vote.
Election officials says voter registries are up to date and refugees will be allowed to cast their vote, if they apply in advance.
"We are setting up special polling booths for people in camps to vote but people who are displaced from their original place of registration have to apply for voting in their present location," Assistant Elections Commissioner for the northern district of Vavuniya A.S. Karunanidhi told Reuters.
However, independent election monitors said there was no proper voter education process to tell refugees where they can vote, how to register and how they can apply for a temporary identity card, nor is it yet clear how the refugee ballot boxes will be identified and located.
Tamils make up almost 12 percent of the Indian Ocean island nation's population of 21 million. In past elections the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who led the losing battle for an independent Tamil state, discouraged Tamils from going to the polls. This time they could emerge as a key swing vote.
The refugees' situation has been a political issue since the war's end, and increasingly so in the weeks since former army commander General Sarath Fonseka said he would challenge incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January ballot where some 14 million Sri Lankans are expected to choose from among 22 candidates.
Rajapaksa and Fonseka are considered far out in front of the rest of the field.
Whoever wins will need to reach out to the Tamil minority to avoid new unrest among the group, political analysts say, but going too far could antagonise Sinhalese nationalists whose support is needed in parliament for an effective government.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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