SRI LANKA: Religious leaders call for fair polls in April

March 9, 2010

Sri Lankan religious leaders have called for free and fair polls scheduled for April in an election campaign that has already been marred by violence.

"If you cannot uphold law and reject violence during the elections, how can we trust that you will do this after the elections?" leaders of Sri Lanka's Congress of Religions challenged about 7,000 candidates set to contest 225 seats for the national parliament in the April 8 elections.

"This is the clear message our forum has sent out for the elections," the Rev. Jayasiri Peiris, former general secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, told Ecumenical News International on March 8. He was explaining a statement the religious leaders released on March 2 in the majority Sinhala language.

An Anglican priest, Peiris pointed out that the religious leaders in their statement appealed for people to cast their votes fearlessly, and to elect officials who will uphold the law and ensure the whole poll will be "free and fair."

The statement was released at a joint news conference held at a prominent Buddhist temple in Colombo after a meeting of the forum attended by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim leaders.

"Do not use religious places for political purposes," said a Buddhist leader, the Venerable Ittapane Dhammalankara, general secretary of the Congress of Religions, in a plea to political parties.

Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo reminded political leaders of their responsibility to ensure that their candidates do not engage "in violence or character assassination" of rival candidates.

Due to a focus on personal and frivolous issues, Chickera lamented that key issues such as the devolution of power following the country's ethnic conflict and the alleviation of poverty "are often forgotten during the elections."

Another prominent Buddhist monk, the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha, said it is essential for the elections commissioner to exercise all the powers vested in him under the Elections Act to curb election-related violence. "The polls' chief expressed his helplessness during the presidential elections and he should not be harassed," noted Sobitha.

The January 26 presidential election was marred by political violence with more than 20 people killed and scores injured in 500 violent clashes between the supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the election, and Sarat Fonseka, a former army chief who led the military campaign that annihilated the ethnic Tamil rebels.

Dayananda Dissanayake, Sri Lanka's elections commissioner, had expressed exasperation over election violence after accusations that police and the administration did little to curb it.

Roman Catholic Bishop Cletus Chandasiri of Ratnapura called for polls that will be free and fair "from the time of campaigning till the results are announced."

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