JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Tamils in Sri Lanka’s former war zone voted on Thursday to elect parliamentarians for the first time in three decades without the Tamil Tiger rebels dictating their ballots at gunpoint.
During their three-decade reign over parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) routinely intimidated voters and forced them to vote for their political proxy, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
Even so, turnout was around 20 percent in most former rebel areas compared to about 50 percent islandwide, election monitors said. Thousands of soldiers remain garrisoned in the region, which critics say hampers a sense of freedom.
“People here are voting interestedly because this is the first time we are having a general election without the LTTE,” said R. Croose, 25, a private sector employee in Mannar, an area of the western coast under Tiger control until July 2008.
Thursday’s voting process was far from perfect, with missing names on voter rolls, a fact officials have blamed on the multiple displacements of people during the war and the Tigers’ tampering with government records.
“My name is not in the list,” said Weerasingham Nahamma, a 62-year old vegetable vendor, who had walked more than three miles for her nearest polling station, told Reuters.
Nor was the voting without intimidation, this time from supporters of a government minister, according to election monitors. They said the minister’s supporters blocked buses meant to carry Tamil war refugees from their camps to polling stations.
During the war, armed government proxies intimidated Tamils at the periphery of the Tigers’ sphere of influence through threats and violence as a counter to the rebels, leaving people caught in the middle.
With that electoral history, expectations remain low in the former LTTE areas.
“We didn’t have any control or influence in this election and my only hope is for all to live in peace,” said Thambithurai Aiyar, 59, a Hindu priest who voted.
The LTTE fought for a separate country for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, who had suffered decades of mistreatment at the hands of governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a Sinhalese Buddhist, and has struggled to win support in the mainly Hindu Tamil areas despite campaigning there on behalf of his ruling alliance candidates.
“People are still not confident the next government can give a political solution for Tamil problems,” said a Jaffna political analyst on condition of anonymity. “They have a feeling that Rajapaksa might enforce a solution which he thinks appropriate.”
He has all but rejected Tamil demands for devolving power, and said economic development is the route to reconciliation.
“We voted this time with a large number of hopes,” Sellaiya Ranjaneedevi, 51, told Reuters TV.
Since the end of the war in May last year after a drive by government forces, she has lived in a camp with tens of thousands of other refugees in the northern city of Vavuniya. She escaped the brutal finale of the conflict.
“First we want to return to our village and we want a new home there, a good school for the children, good drinking water and agriculture facilities. We are hoping to get these from the newly elected government.”
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Bryson Hull and Ron Popeski