BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Residents in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged east voted for the first time in more than a decade on Monday, but with armed former Tamil Tiger rebels seen as the likely poll winners, peace remains precarious.
The local elections are seen as a dry run for a wider provincial vote in the north and east — the government’s blueprint for devolution in minority Tamil areas it hopes will go hand-in-hand with its push to win a 25-year civil war.
“Our prayer is for calm and no war,” said 53-year-old Alagaiah Kouindasamy, who was displaced after the Sri Lankan army recaptured areas of the lush district of paddy fields, scrub jungle and lagoons from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last year.
“Because of the conflict we were displaced, lost our livelihoods. There was tension and fear, artillery was being fired. We just want normalcy.”
Rights groups and diplomats have questioned the government’s decision to endorse in the elections a breakaway rebel faction, the TMVP, which helped it defeat the Tigers in the eastern district of Batticaloa. The group is accused of abuses such as child soldier recruitment, abductions and killing.
Pradeep Master, Batticaloa political wing leader of the newly-registered party, is a former Tiger who joined the rebels as a child soldier. He is tipped as Batticaloa’s next mayor and is running on a ticket with the government.
A host of other former militant groups who joined the democratic mainstream in the 1980s are also taking part in the poll, as well as the island’s main Muslim party.
But with the TMVP given free rein in Batticaloa for months as the military battled the rebels, and the main opposition UNP and Tiger-backed TNA boycotting the poll, some say the election is a farce.
Thousands of troops and police stood guard at razor wire checkpoints as residents voted in a poll for one municipal council and eight local bodies, patrolling in armoured vehicles for fear of Tiger attacks or internecine fighting.
After the polls closed, election officials and monitors estimated voter turnout at around 45-50 percent, which they viewed as reasonable. There were no reports of violence.
Ordinary Tamils repeatedly displaced by a war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people since 1983 — some displaced yet again by the 2004 tsunami — long for lasting peace.
But the TMVP’s Tiger heritage is never far away. Like the mainstream rebels, its emblem is a roaring golden Tiger baring its claws against a red background. The party has replaced the Tigers’ crossed rifles with a pair of shaking hands.
TMVP president Sivanesathurai Chandra Kanthan, a former Tiger fighter who goes by the nom de guerre Pillaiyan, says his group will eventually give up arms.
“To safeguard our party we have them,” he said, casting his vote in his native village of Pethalai. “If there is no threat against our lives, automatically we will (give them up).
He denies accusations of human rights abuses like child soldier recruitment, abductions and killings. But admits there are former Tiger child recruits in his faction’s ranks.
“There are 30 or 40 children. No-one is considering their future, they just think about making complaints,” he added. “If they provide livelihood programmes for the children, then we will be in a position to hand them over.”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has long-refused to disarm the TMVP, arguing it could not find anyone carrying guns to disarm — despite the fact residents and aid workers could until a few months ago.
Initial results of the election are due out later on Monday.