Leading a column of soldiers, the Indian Army captain cautiously combed Trincomalee market. Many shops were shuttered, under threat from Tamil militants who oppose Indian enforcement of a 1987 peace accord between India and Sri Lanka.
In recent weeks, the bazaar has been rocked by a spate of bomb blasts that have killed Indian troops and local residents. And yesterday, in a town about 50 miles from here, 27 people were killed when their bus was allegedly attacked by Tamil guerrillas. The violence is widely viewed as an attempt to derail Nov. 19 provincial elections in this Eastern Province and in the Tamil-dominated north.
``This is a dicey area,'' said the young Indian officer. ``Thank God it's quiet now. If we can just get through this election ...''
Trincomalee, a strategic seaport and a flashpoint in the country's five-year ethnic conflict, is braced for Saturday's controversial poll. The voting, for a 36-seat council, will formalize the merger of the Eastern and Northern Provinces under an interim government. The union is a crucial provision of the July 1987 peace plan, which aimed to end strife between Sinhalese - 80 percent of the 16 million population - and the Tamil minority. Under the accord, Tamils are to receive a measure of autonomy in the north and east.
Both Tamils and Sinhalese, however, are split over whether the election should be held. The Northern Province, a militant stronghold, is overwhelmingly populated by Tamils, who are Hindu by religion. But the make up of the Eastern Province prevents easy solutions. Less than 50 percent of the population there is Tamil; more than half are ethnic Sinhalese (Buddhist by religion) and Muslims. Sri Lankan officials have cited this factor in opposing a merger of the provinces.
Furthermore, politically moderate Tamils in the east have refused to take part in the election because the militants have threatened reprisals. The extremists refused to disarm under the peace accord and have locked more than 50,000 Indian troops, which originally came as a peacekeeping force, in a guerrilla struggle. (The Sri Lankan military has been confined to its barracks.)
Sri Lanka's President Junius Jayewardene, who signed the peace pact with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is under pressure to call off the election. Sinhalese officials say they fear widespread violence. Their reticence also stems from growing anti-Indian sentiment and the fear that a merged north and east is the first step toward permanent partition.
``The situation is very, very tense here,'' says a Sri Lankan Army officer. ``We think this election is too premature.''
However, with the peace accord bogged down and its reputation as regional powerbroker on the line, India seems determined to go ahead. New Delhi officials hope the election will clear the way for a pullout of Indian troops.
Mr. Gandhi desperately needs to show that the political process is moving ahead. At home, he faces national elections within the next year. But he has been hurt by corruption charges, sagging popularity, and growing criticism for miring India in a conflict that has killed about 650 soldiers and wounded over 1,800.
In addition, Indian officers in Sri Lanka are questioning their country's role and privately drawing parallels between their quagmire and that of the United States in Vietnam.
``Tell the Americans we know how they felt,'' a senior Indian officer says. Military officials are unhappy that thousands of troops are tied down on this tiny island nation, diverting attention away from India's traditional foes - Pakistan and China. In a recent report, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said New Delhi would have to slow its massive defense buildup and reduce military readiness because of the Sri Lankan operation.
Indian troops have smashed the main base of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the most hard-line and powerful guerrilla group, in Jaffna, in the north. But the ``Tigers'' still launch brutal attacks from deep in the jungles.
India also faces growing Sinhalese pressure. With President Jayewardene due to step down after December presidential elections, India's presence has become the major campaign issue. Both candidates, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premdasa and former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike want an Indian pullout.
Indian officials respond that Saturday's regional elections will keep the peace accord on track.
``The longer the political process is delayed, the more counterproductive it will be,'' say Lt. Gen. Amarjeet Singh Kalkat, India's commander. ``Once this election takes place, two groups will have to do some hard-thinking: one is the LTTE [the ``Tigers''] which will have to look at the justification for their existence. The other is the anti-accord Sinhalese elements in Sri Lanka who will see that they can't retard the peace process.''
In Trincomalee, the poll, has little credibility. The Indian Army has blanketed the town and surrounding areas. With Indian backing, several Tamil militant groups, rivals of the Tigers, are contesting the election. In exchange, they are helping track down the Tigers.
But both Sinhalese and Tamil civilians say they will not vote because of threats. They also say the election is meaningless without the involvement of the Tigers, because the Indians will have to stay on to prop up and protect the new leaders.
And the election is unlikely to heal the scars of ethnic conflict here. The civil administration has broken down, and the economy has been weakened by curfews and work shutdowns. Trains don't run and phones don't work. Many of the town's Tamils have not worked for a month. Thousands of Sinhalese have fled the area since July 1987.
The head of a citizens' watchdog committee, monitoring human rights violations, disappeared several months ago. Local observers say he may have been abducted by the Tigers for speaking out against terrorism. Hundreds of Sinhalese live in makeshift refugee camps. Trincomalee's prominent clock tower has become a dividing line as Tamils and Sinhalese refuse to venture beyond it onto each other's territory.
``This election is a charade,'' says a Tamil community leader. ``It will do little to rebuild our shattered lives.''