JAFFNA, Sri Lanka – The ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka tried to gain autonomy in their northern heartland first through three decades of protests and strikes, then through three decades of civil war. Northern cities were reduced to rubble and at least 80,000 people were killed by the time the government crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.
Now, Tamils are hoping that provincial elections Saturday are the first step toward what all those years of struggle and war never brought.
The elections will create the Tamils' first functioning provincial government and is expected to give them a limited say in their own affairs — a taste of democracy after years under rebel or military control.
"Let us have the right to look after ourselves," said C.V. Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court justice and chief candidate for Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil party and once a political proxy for the Tigers.
"There is absolutely no necessity for us to separate," from the rest of Sri Lanka, he said. He called their political goals "no violence, one country."
The elections are seen by the United Nations and the world community as a crucial test of reconciliation between the Tamils and majority ethnic Sinhalese who control the government and the military. Campaigning has been marked by sporadic attacks and threats, mainly against Tamil Alliance supporters.
More than 700,000 voters are registered to elect 36 members to the provincial council, which will not have much power. A governor appointed by the central government will wield the most control.
"Powers are given by the right hand and taken away by the left," Wigneswaran said. His party wants a federal system, with more power shifted to the regional government, though the central government rejects any sort of power-sharing.
Part of the goal of Saturday's election, Wigneswaran said, is simply to help Tamil voters understand they have a role to play in politics. The Tamil Tigers, a brutal, cult-like movement, allowed no dissent from their policies, and Sri Lankan military rule has left little room for public discussion.
"We are trying to get them more and more involved in the democratic way of life," Wigneswaran said.
Tamils have been demanding regional autonomy to the country's north and east, where they are the majority, since Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948. The campaign took the form of nonviolent protests for many years, but in 1983, civil war broke out between government forces and armed Tamil groups calling for full independence.
The provincial council was created in 1987 as an alternative to separation. But the Tigers — the strongest of the rebel groups, and eventually the de facto government across most of the north and east — rejected it as inadequate. The fighting that followed prevented the council from functioning.
The military defeat of the Tigers meant Tamils were back to where they had started 60 years earlier. They had no tangible achievements and had suffered not only tens of thousands of deaths, but the loss of nearly a million Tamils who left the country as refugees.
Though the Tamil Alliance hopes Saturday's elections are a step on the road to greater autonomy, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa intends to retain its grip on power. It has criticized the alliance's demand for federalism, insisting it really wants secession.
Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party hopes to win over Tamils by rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure destroyed in the war. But residents also say the army is taking over large swaths of private land to build camps and even businesses such as hotels, and bringing in Sinhalese people to change the province's ethnic breakdown.
Angajan Ramanathan, a Freedom Party candidate, said that while power-sharing is important, development must come first.
"We have tried everything in the past 60 years," Ramanathan said. He said it's now time to work with the government, and to convince it that Tamils no longer want a separate state.
"We Tamils need power devolution, and we need rights," he said. "What I feel is that we can only get this through the government."
Voters interviewed in recent days ranged from businessmen anxious for self-rule to people who simply want more jobs.
"Today's reality is that the people will back anyone who will solve the unemployment problem," said M. Sweetson, a bank employee from the fishing village of Pashaiyoor.
The provincial government still faces immense challenges from the war, from widespread unemployment to a desperate housing shortage. Rebel suspects are held in jail without trials, and thousands of war widows and orphans are in need of help.
The U.N. welcomed the election in a statement, calling it an "important opportunity to foster political reconciliation."
The U.N. has called on Sri Lanka repeatedly to more thoroughly investigate war crimes committed by both sides. A U.N. report has indicated Sri Lankan troops may have killed as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the conflict. The Tigers are also accused of killing civilians, holding them as human shields and recruiting child soldiers.
The U.N. estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 people died in the conflict, but the number is feared to be much higher. Few outsiders had any access to combat zones in the bloody final phase of the war.
The Tamil Alliance has said if it wins control of the provincial government, it also will push for an international war crimes investigation.