Sri Lanka's Tamils vote after decades of war

Tamils aim for self-rule after bloodshed that claimed over 100,000 lives

A Sri Lankan police officer waits inside a bus as he prepares to go to the polling centers in Jaffna, 250 miles north of the capital Colombo on Sep. 20, 2013.

Sri Lanka's minority Tamils went to the polls Saturday in the first provincial elections in the country's northern region in over 25 years. The vote could provide the area with a degree of self-rule after decades of ethnic bloodshed, but it might also stir up old animosities between the government and the region's Tamil minority.

Battle-scarred Northern Sri Lanka was the heartland of a Tamil Tiger separatist movement that battled the central government from 1983 until the rebels' defeat in 2009.

Tamils in the country's north are voting to elect a semi-autonomous council, in an election called amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated government to share power with the main ethnic minority.

"Let us have the right to look after ourselves," said C.V. Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court justice and chief candidate for Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil party and once a political proxy for the Tigers. He called the party's political goals "no violence, one country."

At a polling booth in the Mankayarkarasi College in Jaffna, men and women lined up even before balloting opened at 7:00 a.m.

A 63-year-old engineer, Murugaiah Vijayeswaran, said he came early to vote hoping to make a change. "After a long time we have an opportunity like this to make a change," he said. "We want to be independent."

However, campaigning has been marked by sporadic attacks and threats, mainly against Tamil Alliance supporters.

An election monitor said soldiers armed with clubs attacked supporters of Ananthi Sasitharan, a Tamil Alliance candidate, at the candidate's home late Thursday, wounding eight people.

Sasitharan, the wife of a former Tamil Tiger leader, escaped unharmed, according to Keerthi Tennakoon of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections.

Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, a military spokesman, denied that soldiers took part in an attack.

The election was promoted by the U.N. Human Rights Council as a step toward ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka after nearly four decades of fighting that killed up to 100,000 people, but the ballot is proving to be divisive as ever.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who campaigned in Jaffna last week for his candidates, accused the TNA -- a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants -- of raising expectations of a separate state.

"The TNA is misleading the people by promising self-government and independence," he told a rally of his United People's Freedom Alliance.

Wigneswaran hit back Friday, saying Rajapakse was maintaining an "occupation army" to keep Tamils under "constant surveillance."

"This is an occupation army. They are here for a political purpose and not for security reasons," he said. "They must go."

Jaffna housewife and a mother of three daughters, Premdas Pradeepa, 41, said she was keen to vote, hoping to end the intrusive military presence in the region, home to over a million Tamils.

"I will vote, because I want to end this suffering we are facing now," she said, adding that she still does not know what has happened to her Tamil guerrilla husband since he surrendered at the end of the war four years ago.

Candidate Anandi Saseedaran, 42, is in a similar plight. Her husband, a senior Tiger cadre, disappeared after giving himself up to the military.

While thousands are still missing, the military says over 12,000 cadres who surrendered were "rehabilitated" and re-integrated in society.

A foreign election monitor said people appeared keen to vote, but were nervous about the security presence.

"The overhanging army is causing a fear factor," the monitor said, asking not to be named. He said they had found several instances of irregularities involving the ruling party.

Some 906 candidates are contesting the 36 seats up for grabs in the Northern Council. Two more seats are allocated to the party with the largest amount of votes, under a system of proportional representation.

Two other provincial councils in the largely Sinhalese North West and Central also go to the polls Saturday with Rajapakse's party expected to win both.

Rajapakse has won almost every election since he led the campaign that crushed Tamil Tigers in 2009.

The spectacular military success, however, has also triggered international calls to probe allegations that his troops killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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