In Sri Lankan polls, Tamils affirm desire for self-rule

In the first election in 11 years Saturday, a pro-rebel party won the most local-council seats in Vavuniya and came in second in Jaffna.

A Sri Lankan police officer stands guard as voters come out of a polling station after casting their vote in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, Saturday.

A pro-rebel political party won a key council in Sri Lanka's elections this weekend – an indication, should it be needed, that Tamils are still eager for self rule.

The polls, held Saturday, were the first in the island's north in 11 years. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for an independent homeland for the island's Tamil minority since 1983, ran most of northern Sri Lanka as a de facto state until May, when the government recaptured it and ended the war.

The polls elected representatives to two councils on the edge of the area formerly controlled by the Tigers. The pro-rebel Tamil National Alliance won Vavuniya, taking 5 of 11 seats. In Jaffna, the government's United People's Freedom Alliance won 13 of 23 seats, though the Tamil National Alliance came in a close second.

The government's party was expected to do well in the north largely because it had promised to bring big development projects to the battle-scarred area.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, an overt Sinhalese nationalist, has promised to empower the island's minority Tamils through democracy. Saturday's votes were the first test of that.

"The vote in the north was very clearly for Tamil rights and autonomy," says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "It's a good indication of the challenges that there are to be faced." 

Though the Tamil Tigers terrorized the mostly Tamil inhabitants of the north, their ostensible goal – a Tamil homeland – is supported by many Tamils who have suffered decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. Most observers agree that some measure of Tamil autonomy is now necessary for stability in Sri Lanka.

In south, Sinhalese endorse government

Elections were also held in Uva Province in the south of the island, where the government's party triumphed, indicating that Sinhalese majority cheer the war and its successes. The recent arrest of the Tiger's new leader will have further bolstered Mr. Rajapakse's popularity, say analysts.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan was arrested Wednesday in Southeast Asia and flown to Sri Lanka for questioning by the government. He had been working to rebuild the LTTE from overseas after its chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in fighting in May.


Too soon to vote?

In voting in the north, turnout was low, around 50 percent in Vavuniya and 20 percent in Jaffna, according to election officials. In Jaffna, however, only half of all polling cards could be delivered, because so many residents had left the area or died, meaning closer to 40 percent voted.

Some analysts say the elections were held too soon after the end of the war for people to vote and for democracy to be tested. Certainly, normalcy in the battle-scarred north is a long way off: Nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians are being forcibly held by the government in camps near Jaffna and Vavuniya. Both towns are still surrounded by government checkpoints, and are largely inaccessible to nonresidents. Even residents can't leave without permission.

Foreign – and many Sri Lankan – journalists were not allowed to cover the elections. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said that the decision to bar the media "dashes any hope of a transparent election."

But election observers, according to Perera and others, said there were no reports of election violence or vote rigging. This suggests, he says, that the government "behaved well" and that Tamil political parties understood that the northern Tamils had had enough of violence.

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