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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 / May 27, 2009

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.



Colombo, Sri Lanka

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.

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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.

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.