Ballots, bullets: Peace after poll in east Sri Lanka?

VAVUNATIVU, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Standing by the bullet-strafed ruin of her home in east Sri Lanka, housewife Jegan Devika prays the first poll in over a decade in an area recaptured from the Tamil Tigers will mark the end of her civil war.

Police carry their belongings as they report for election duty at the main vote counting office in Batticaloa March 9, 2008. The island will hold local elections in the eastern district of Batticaloa on Monday. REUTERS/Buddhika Weerasinghe

Devika and thousands like her yearn for long-elusive, and lasting, peace after 25 years of war.

She was forced to flee her home in this former rebel-held town in the eastern district of Batticaloa yet again in 2007 as artillery-backed troops regained the rebels’ eastern strongholds.

Monday’s vote is seen as a test run for eventual provincial elections in the north and east, which the government regards as the basis for devolution it hopes will go hand in hand with its push to win the war militarily.

But there’s a problem.

Former Tigers who split from the mainstream group, and regarded as allied to the government, have formed a political party and are seen as the poll front-runners.

They are accused of abuses such as child soldier recruitment, abductions and extrajudicial killings and have yet to lay down their weapons.

“Contesting elections is good. If peace prevails, life will be better for us,” Devika said, cradling her 8-month-old daughter in front of the breeze block and corrugated metal shelter she, her husband and in-laws have built since resettling in the area.

It will be the first time 26-year-old Devika has voted.

Local elections were last held here in 1994, disrupted since then because of the war and Tiger control.

“We were unable to live peacefully with all the fighting,” she added. “If they come again with a gun culture, that will be a problem for us.”

Like thousands who fled to camps because of the fighting, she and her family are rebuilding their lives from scratch. Inside, a few clothes hang on a string. Two sleeping mats are spread out on the bare concrete floor. They have few belongings, and cook on a makeshift stove outside.

The legacy of years of war is visible all around, the town peppered with the burned out, pock-marked ruins of buildings shelled during the 1990s, and others flattened last year.

The breakaway Tiger faction, the TMVP, is running on a government ticket for the municipal council of Batticaloa.


Pradeep Master, a former AK-47 toting Tiger fighter and education unit head, is the party’s candidate for Batticaloa mayor.

He says the group’s weapons have all been stored in the jungle and will be given up after the poll, and denies accusations of abuses.

“They are baseless,” he said in an interview at his party’s headquarters in Batticaloa. Photographs of the faction’s fighters killed in battles with the Tigers hang on the wall, some circled by plastic garlands.

“Our members were being killed. Because of that, we used weapons,” he added. “When our political right is confirmed, we will 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 see them until a few months ago.

The group’s armed fighters are now conspicuously absent from the streets.

Accused of rights abuses and fostering a culture of impunity, the government is now taking the fight to the Tigers, with near daily land clashes and air raids. Having recaptured the east, it aims to crush them in their northern stronghold this year or next.

“The fact of the matter is we have gone for the larger interest of the people,” said government minister and defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.

“We may have used certain methods that may be sometimes commented on as unethical,” he added. “The final goal of the whole thing we have achieved is liberating the east from the Tigers.”

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.

The government has deployed thousands of troops in Batticaloa which, like much of Sri Lanka’s eastern seaboard, is still striving to recover from the devastation of the 2004 tsunami.

Armored personnel carriers patrol the streets, and soldiers with assault rifles man razor wire checkpoints across the district.

Some are worried a TMVP win could mean former Tiger-held areas of Batticaloa will remain ruled by the bullet, even after the ballot.

“You can’t have an election with people who carry guns,” said Father Harry Miller, a Jesuit missionary from New Orleans who moved to Batticaloa and is a leading voice among civic society. “It won’t be a genuine election.”

“The TMVP in particular have been carrying guns until now. They are stealing children from people and demanding things,” he added. “It says the government has no interest in the Tamil people here or anywhere else for that matter.”

Editing by David Fogarty