War-scarred Sri Lankan Tamils see hope in election

The elections were seen by the United Nations and the world community as a crucial test of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese.

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JAFFNA, Sri Lanka // Ethnic Tamil voters in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north voted on Saturday to form their first functioning provincial government, hoping it is the first step towards wider regional autonomy and a cornerstone to prevent another cycle of violence.

Tamils fought for self-rule for more than six decades after the country gained independence, first through a peaceful struggle and then a civil war, but failed.

However, Saturday’s elections were expected to give them a limited say in their own affairs — a taste of democracy after decades under rebel or military control.

Polls closed on Saturday and results are expected on Sunday. No major violence was reported.

The elections were seen by the United Nations and the world community as a crucial test of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control Sri Lanka’s government and military.

“Our political problems must be resolved, another generation must not be destroyed,” Rasathurai Balasubramanium, 56, a mason, said after voting in his village, Thavadi.

“We believe that there is a ... (slice) of democracy and law and order is still available in this country,” said Gunaratman Manoharan, a 52-year-old businessman who travelled from the capital, Colombo, to vote.

The country’s ethnic divisions widened with the quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009 when government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had fought to create an independent state.

At least 80,000 people were killed in the war, and northern cities, including many on the Jaffna Peninsula, were reduced to rubble.

The Tamil National Alliance, considered a political proxy for the Tamil rebels during the conflict, was favoured to win the election and fielded a former Supreme Court Justice, CV Wigneswaran, as its chief candidate.

More than 700,000 voters were registered to elect 36 members to the provincial council.

The provincial council, however, will not have much power. A governor appointed by the central government retains almost all of the control, and Mr Wigneswaran says that if elected, his party would lobby for wider self-rule based on federalism.

The central government is against devolving such wide powers and says even existing powers in provincial hands, such as those over land and policing, are a threat to the country. It hopes to win over Tamils by rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure destroyed in the war.

But residents say the army is taking over large swathes of private land to build camps and even businesses such as hotels, and bringing in Sinhalese people to change the province’s ethnic breakdown.

Angajan Ramanathan, 30, a businessman and leading candidate for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, says working close to the government will bring more benefits to the war-hit community.

* Associated Press