Some Sri Lankans worry provincial election will rekindle separatism effort
Most voters in the north are ethnic Tamils and many are bitter about what they see as virtual occupation of the region by the army. Photo: AFP
Sri Lanka was home to one of the world's most vicious civil wars for more than three decades.
Before the government finally defeated the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, the United Nations estimated as many as 100,000 people were killed during the war. Others say the number of casualties is even higher.
Both sides earned international condemnation.
The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of child soldiers and women as suicide bombers.
In the final weeks of the war, more than 100,000 civilians were stuck between the rebels and government soldiers, and the United Nations later found evidence that the government shelled unarmed people, hospitals and aid workers.
The United Nations also said the Tamil Tigers had used civilians as human shields.
Now, four years after the end of fighting, Sri Lanka's government says an upcoming provincial election offers a way for separatists to rekindle their efforts for an independent Tamil homeland and could stoke animosities between the government and ethnic minority Tamils.
In an election for 38 provincial councillors on Saturday, voters in Northern Sri Lanka are expected to vote overwhelmingly for the Tamil National Alliance, a collection of political parties that long served as the political wing of the Tamil Tigers. This is the first time since 1988 that provincial council elections are being held in Northern Sri Lanka.
According to a report in the Indian newspaper Mint, the Sri Lankan government has accused the TNA of renewing calls for a separate state through its push for the devolution of power. The TNA says it wants devolution in a united Sri Lanka, not a separate state. Sri Lankan Tamils have claimed for several years that they are being left behind as the country develops.
“The army is the real problem,” TNA candidate C.V. Wigneswaran, 74, a former Supreme Court judge, told Mint outside his party’s election office. “If you take away the army ... our people will be freed of the intrusions and interference in their day-to-day life. We will not be subject to unnecessary harassment.”
Wigneswaran is using a familiar and definitely controversial symbol to rally support.
According to local news reports, Wigneswaran has publicly praised the former LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran as a "great hero."
Prabhakaran was killed in fighting during the final days of the civil war.
The chief candidate for Rajapaksa’s ruling party said the TNA is misleading voters.
“Already, they have reduced the military occupancy to 24 square km this year from 64 square km in 2010. A provincial council has no right to decide on military movement,” Sinnathurai Thavarajah said.
Rajapaksa has a more than two-thirds majority in parliament and controls all other eight provinces in the country. He appears determined to win in the north where campaign posters for the ruling coalition are plastered over walls.
Over the past three weeks, Rajapaksa has commissioned half a dozen new development projects in the province, including the 63km extension of the railway track to the key city of Kilinochchi, Time magazine reports.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead