Sri Lankan vote tests a peacemaking strategy

Saturday's elections in an old Tamil Tiger stronghold offer the prospect of more autonomy and an end to civil war.

Anuruddha lokuhapuarachchi/Reuters
ELECTION PREP: Ballot boxes are distributed in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, as a policeman watches.

For the first time in 20 years, elections will be held Saturday in Sri Lanka's battle-scarred eastern province.

Designed to establish a civilian administration – the Eastern Provincial Council – in an area formerly held by rebels, and to bring greater devolution to Tamil-minority areas, the vote suggests that the government is seeking a political as well as a military solution to Sri Lanka's chronic conflict.

The island nation has been at war since 1983, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began their struggle for a crescent-shaped homeland in the north and east for the island's Tamil minority, long discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority.

In 1987, as part of a peace accord signed between India and Sri Lanka, the north and the east were merged as one administrative unit. But provincial council elections, supposedly held every five years, have been successively canceled in the region since 1988. In 2006, the provinces were separated.

Last summer, the government succeeded in largely ousting the Tigers from the east. It is now attacking the Tigers in the north, where the rebels hold a much tighter grip. Thousands have been killed in recent months as Air Force jets have bombed rebel positions and troops have mounted ground assaults.

The Army, like the Tigers, has suffered heavy losses. But the government hopes that the eastern elections will boost its campaign by undermining support for the rebels. In March, the government's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) triumphed in a smaller local vote held in the region – a blow to the Tigers, say analysts.

The polls are being held in the districts of Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee, all home to a mix of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.

But many observers question the credibility of the eastern election process.

In particular there are concerns about the conduct of a breakaway rebel group, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), upon which the government is relying to bring in votes.

The TMVP, made up of defectors from the Tigers, was until recently run by the charismatic Col. Karuna Amman who is now under arrest in London. The faction is infamous for widespread human rights abuses and the recruitment of child soldiers. Throughout the election process, the TMVP has remained armed. The government says that without weapons, the TMVP members would be killed by the Tigers.

But many observers say the TMVP is intimidating voters into backing the government's UPFA. "There may not have been much open violence but there's been a lot of hidden intimidation," says Jehan Perera, an analyst with the National Peace Council, an advocacy group in Colombo. "Though the TMVP goes canvassing without guns, everyone knows there are men in guns waiting in vans nearby."

But analysts say that if the government wins in the east, it should not be attributed to intimidation alone. Voting along ethnic lines may also play a part.

Eastern Sri Lanka has a recent history of conflict between Muslims and Tamils, though the two communities once got along well. Tamil voters, says Mr. Perera, know that if the opposition United National Party wins, the chief minister may well be a Muslim. But if the UPFA wins, the chief minister will likely be a Tamil, because Sinhalese constitute the smallest of the three ethnic communities in the east.

The government may also benefit from the fact that the east has remained largely peaceful in recent months. The government has begun redevelopment work, building a new road network. It is seeking $1.8 billion in international aid to rebuild the area and bring investment and tourism to an area that boasts a 265-mile coastline.

But analysts say that though there are improvements in the east, the sufferings endured by people here in recent years – from displacement to child recruitment and disappearances – could backfire against the government. "It's really up in the air," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.

Speaking from his church in Trincomalee, Father George Dissanayake, a former member of the monitoring team that oversaw a now defunct cease-fire agreement, said some Tamils hoped elections would be the first step in achieving greater autonomy for the region. "The east could also become a model of how all three communities can live together peacefully," he says.

However well elections go in the east, fighting continues in the north. "The fate of the north is still in contention," says Dr. Saravanamuttu.

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