Sri Lanka's Tamils vote after decades of war

Sri Lanka's minority Tamils go to the polls Saturday to elect what they hope is a shot at self-rule after decades of ethnic bloodshed that claimed over 100,000 lives.

Tamils in the country's battle-scarred northern province are voting for the first time to elect a semi-autonomous council, in an election called amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated government to share power with the main ethnic minority.

"Even though this is a local election, there is more interest in it locally and internationally," S. Arumainayaham, the top civil administrator in the provincial capital of Jaffna, told reporters at his office.

Retired Supreme Court judge K. Wigneswaran, who is expected to be elected the region's chief minister, said he wants to work with Colombo on pushing his party's manifesto, which calls for "self-government" for Tamils.

A senior Jaffna-based journalist said the council could be the first step of a process to secure real political power for Tamils.

"People see it as a start," said the journalist, who declined to be named because of repeated death threats. "This election is going to decide the political future of Tamils."

Wigneswaran's priority is war reparations, securing an army pull-out from the former zone, and taking back land the military still occupies four years after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for outright independence.

"I will try to work with the (Colombo) government," Wigneswaran told AFP in an interview at his office in Jaffna.

But, he said, he will take his case to the international community if Colombo fails to cooperate.

The election was promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka after nearly four decades of fighting that killed up to 100,000 people, but the ballot is proving to be divisive as ever.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who campaigned in Jaffna last week for his candidates, accused the TNA -- a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants -- of raising expectations of a separate state.

"The TNA is misleading the people by promising self-government and independence," he told a rally of his United People's Freedom Alliance.

Wigneswaran hit back Friday, saying Rajapakse was maintaining an "occupation army" to keep Tamils under "constant surveillance".

"This is an occupation army. They are here for a political purpose and not for security reasons," he said. "They must go."

Jaffna housewife and a mother of three daughters, Premdas Pradeepa, 41, said she was keen to vote, hoping to end the intrusive military presence in the region, home to over a million Tamils.

"I will vote because I want to end this suffering we are facing now," she said, adding that she still does not know what has happened to her Tamil guerrilla husband since he surrendered at the end of the war four years ago.

Candidate Anandi Saseedaran, 42, is in a similar plight. Her husband, a senior Tiger political wing cadre, disappeared after giving himself up to the military.

While thousands are still missing, the military says over 12,000 cadres who surrendered were "rehabilitated" and re-integrated in society.

A foreign election monitor said people appeared keen to vote, but were nervous about the security presence.

"The overhanging army is causing a fear factor," the monitor said, asking not to be named. He said they had found several instances of irregularities involving the ruling party.

Some 906 candidates are contesting the 36 seats up for grabs in the Northern council. Two more seats are allocated to the party with the largest amount of votes, under a system of proportional representation.

Two other provincial councils in the largely Sinhalese North West and Central also go to the polls Saturday with President Rajapakse's party expected to win both.

Rajapakse has won almost every election since he led the campaign that crushed Tamil Tigers in 2009.

However, the spectacular military success has also triggered international calls to probe allegations that his troops killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.