Sri Lanka's Tamils vote under the shadow of guns

Tamil voters in northern Sri Lanka are set to elect their first ever semi-autonomous council on Saturday, in a post-war power-sharing exercise already marred by allegations of army intimidation and harassment.

The poll is being held with Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse under international pressure to allow a fair vote for the Provincial Council in the once strife-torn region which was a former stronghold for the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.

The Tigers were crushed by a Sri Lankan military onslaught in 2009, which remains dogged by war crimes allegations, and the army maintains a heavy presence throughout the region of about a million people.

"It is clear that there cannot be a free and fair election if the military continues its interfering presence in the Northern Province," the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party, R. Sampanthan, wrote in a letter to Rajapakse on Monday.

He asked for the army to be confined to their barracks for the election.

The Tamil Tigers, which held sway over a third of the country at their height, fought for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil population in Sri Lanka which is majority Sinhalese Buddhist.

Many Tamils complain they are treated as second-class citizens and face discrimination and Saturday's vote is seen as crucial in reducing ethnic tensions.

The 36-member Provincial Council will have no powers to address major local grievances which include war crimes allegedly committed by Sri Lankan troops or the issue of thousands of missing people.

Any decisions it takes -- for example, raising taxes, building new infrastructure or changes to local services -- can also be vetoed by the regional governor who is an appointee of the president.

A candidate for the moderate TNA, the largest Tamil party which is expected to win on Saturday, told AFP that soldiers had deliberately blocked some of his campaign meetings.

"We are going to win the election, but the government is doing its best to stop us from getting a two-thirds majority," Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP.

"At (the village of) Kollankallatti the army went in uniforms and closed down a hall where we were planning a meeting," he said.

The army says the heavy deployment, despite the end of fighting, is to prevent a resurgence of terrorism.

"You may not see it on the streets, but people are keen to vote," says Tamil journalist Sabeshwaran Armukarasa who works for the Jaffna-based Thinakkural daily. "Tamils see this as an opportunity to have their own leadership that will speak up for them."

Under heavy security, President Rajapakse entered the campaign trail in Jaffna at the weekend, a rare presence from the leader in the Tamil heartland.

Rajapakse, who was stung by criticism at the end of last month from the UN's top human rights expert, accused the TNA of raising false hopes among the local population.

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

"Holding an election in the north that was subjugated to terrorism for 30 years is a great accomplishment," Rajapakse added.

Rajapakse is hoping that economic revival in the once-impoverished region will see his party win the election.

Provincial Councils are the highest level of local government in Sri Lanka under the country's de facto federal system adopted in 1987, but elections for the north were never able to take place because of fighting.

Security forces maintained a crippling embargo on Jaffna at the height of the war. Even chocolates and penlight batteries were restricted fearing that Tigers could use them in their war effort.

Both the Tigers and troops did not allow civilians free passage out of the province. The Tigers had their own police, courts and a tax system and even a bank. All that has been replaced by the writ of Colombo.

Despite economic gains, Tamils say they are under constant surveillance, a problem raised by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay who visited the region in August and then criticised the country's "increasingly authoritarian direction".

Neighbouring India, which has its own ethnic Tamil population in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, has urged Colombo to honour pledges to the international community to share political power with the minority community.

aj/adp/ac