New fight brews in Sri Lanka after the Tigers

Tamil politicians are jockeying to fill a power vacuum left by the rebels. Separately, the government says it will keep the state of emergency.

By , Correspondent

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    Tamil civilians stand in line to receive food and supplies in a refugee camp in northern Sri Lanka. About 200,000 civilians are in camps after fleeing battles against Tamil Tiger separatists.
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When newspaper editor Nadesapillai Vithyatharan was snatched by six burly men one morning in February from a funeral and bundled into a van, friends feared the worst. They immediately called on authorities to track down the perpetrators, three of whom wore police uniforms.

Sri Lankan police said they were investigating an abduction. Within an hour, though, their story took a 180-degree turn: Mr. Vithyatharan, a Tamil, had been arrested by police and was being held for suspected links to Tamil Tiger rebels.

Two months later, Vithyatharan was released without charge, a rare reprieve in a country ranked among the most dangerous for journalists.

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But Vithyatharan's story goes beyond media freedom during wartime. It also shines a light into the murky world of Tamil paramilitaries and the intensifying competition among Tamil politicians jockeying for influence after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Vithyatharan believes he's a victim of this competition and narrowly escaped joining the long list of Sri Lanka's disappeared. He blames his kidnapping on a feud with a powerful Tamil politician who is being groomed by the government to run the liberated areas.

Tamil activists say that the end of the 26-year war for a separate state for the island's ethnic Tamil minority should allow more moderate voices to emerge. But it could also spark instability as rivals duke it out in electoral battlegrounds in Tamil areas like Jaffna and among the population displaced by war. The presence of armed groups loyal to Tamil politicians and often in league with security forces adds to the combustible mix.

"The LTTE has always said it was the sole representative of the Tamil people. So who speaks for Tamils now?" asks a social activist in Colombo.

Even among ordinary Tamils who have soured on the LTTE's militancy and intransigence, its dogged resistance against an overwhelmingly Sinhalese majority evokes pride. Gauging the level of support, however, is difficult, as Tamils fear persecution.

On Wednesday, the Sri Lankan officials said the government will continue its state of emergency, which includes police powers such as searches of private homes and 18-month detention of suspects without a trial. It said the restrictions are necessary to prevent a resurgence of the rebel movement. Sri Lankan officials also say they are holding some 9,100 rebel prisoners and will release many for "rehabilitation."

Until now, Tamil intellectuals have tread a wary line between a wartime government that was intolerant of dissent and a militant group that was equally repressive. Almost all speak only on condition of anonymity. Tamil-language newspaper editors say the treatment of Vithyatharan has led to further self-censorship for fear of being branded pro-LTTE.

For his part, Vithyatharan is unbowed. He continues to edit two daily newspapers in Colombo and Jaffna that echo the LTTE's Tamil-nationalist creed. For safety reasons, he moved his family of five into the house of the newspaper's publisher, who is also his brother-in-law. It's a familiar burden for the company: An editor in Jaffna hasn't left the office compound since an armed attack in 2006 killed two of its staff.

Vithyatharan blames both incidents on an anti-LTTE paramilitary group run by Douglas Devananda, a former militant-turned-government minister. He suspects that the plainclothesmen who took part in his abduction came from this group, which has close links to security forces and is accused of human rights abuses in Jaffna, including forced disappearances of LTTE suspects. He believes his life was spared because of the immediate outcry, forcing his captors to turn him over to police or, as he puts it, smiling wryly, "from one set of abductors to another."

Police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera says Vithyatharan was detained on Feb. 26 after his captors dumped him by a roadside in another part of Colombo. He says the captors are still being sought, while the police investigation into Vithyatharan is also continuing, though no charges have been filed. "We released him, and if we want we can arrest him again," he says.

Mr. Devananda, a minister of social welfare, is widely touted as a future chief minister of the northern province where the LTTE has long held sway. Vithyatharan claims that Devananda is upset at his newspapers' critical coverage and is trying to silence them so he can dominate the north. "I don't think Douglas has that much popularity ... he's betrayed our community," he says.

Devananda was unavailable for comment. He has said that the Eelam People's Democratic Party, which he leads, disarmed its fighters in 2002, and has denied its involvement in human rights abuses.

Veerasingham Anandasangaree, an opposition Tamil lawmaker, says voters in the north are wary of a rigged poll that installs a pro-government candidate. He boasts that he can win a straight contest. "If the election is made free and fair, I will receive the most votes," he says.

Like other Tamil politicians in Colombo, Mr. Anandasangaree is under round-the-clock protection by Sri Lankan security forces. The LTTE had a long history of assassinating Tamil moderates and reserved its fiercest hatred for defectors like Devananda. That has complicated efforts to disarm paramilitaries in the eastern province, where the government declared victory over the LTTE in 2007 and held provincial elections last year.

Also under close guard is Vinyagamoorthi Muralitharan, a former LTTE military commander in the east known as Colonel Karuna who defected in 2004. In March, he was appointed as minister of national integration and reconciliation. He argues that Tamil leaders should join the political mainstream and forget about dreams of self-rule, the dream that sustained his fight in the jungle for 22 years.

"Now we need development. If we stay with the government we can do that. Otherwise we can't," he says.

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