Sri Lanka's Tamils vote in shadow of guns
By Lakruwan Wanniarachchi, AFPJAFFNA, Sri Lanka -- Tamil voters in northern Sri Lanka are set to elect their first ever semi-autonomous council on Saturday, in a post-war power-sharing exercise already marred by allegations of army intimidation and harassment.
September 20, 2013, 12:21 am TWN
The poll is being held with Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse under international pressure to allow a fair vote for the Provincial Council in the once strife-torn region which was a former stronghold for the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.
The Tigers were crushed by a Sri Lankan military onslaught in 2009, which remains dogged by war crimes allegations, and the army maintains a heavy presence throughout the region of about a million people.
“It is clear that there cannot be a free and fair election if the military continues its interfering presence in the Northern Province,” the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party, R. Sampanthan, wrote in a letter to Rajapakse on Monday.
He asked for the army to be confined to their barracks for the election.
The Tamil Tigers, which held sway over a third of the country at their height, fought for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil population in Sri Lanka which is majority Sinhalese Buddhist.
Many Tamils complain they are treated as second-class citizens and face discrimination, and Saturday's vote is seen as crucial in reducing ethnic tensions.
The 36-member Provincial Council will have no powers to address major local grievances which include war crimes allegedly committed by Sri Lankan troops or the issue of thousands of missing people.
Any decisions it takes — for example, raising taxes, building new infrastructure or changes to local services — can also be vetoed by the regional governor who is an appointee of the president.
A candidate for the moderate TNA, the largest Tamil party which is expected to win on Saturday, told AFP that soldiers had deliberately blocked some of his campaign meetings.
“We are going to win the election, but the government is doing its best to stop us from getting a two-thirds majority,” Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP.