Earlier this week government-backed former Tamil Tiger rebels, accused of abductions and killings, have won a landslide victory in local elections in eastern Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government is hailing these elections as a major victory, and hopes to repeat the same in Tiger-held areas in the north, where fighting is intensifying.
Security has been tightened in Sri Lanka
After the 2002 truce between the government and rebels collapsed in January, fighting has intensified in recent months amid government promises to capture the rebels’ de facto state in the north and crush the Tamil Tigers by the end of this year.
But diplomats and other observers say the army is facing more resistance than it had expected.
Never the less, the Sri Lankan army hopes to wipe out the Tigers from the north, just as they wiped them out from the east of the country last year. Around eight months ago, the Sri Lankan army had delivered a crushing defeat on the Tigers in the east.
Just this week, the Sri Lankan government held local elections in the recovered territory of Batticaloa district. Elections were held here for the first time in 14 years.
These 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 crush the Tigers militarily.
Although the elections were largely peaceful, they were far from perfect, says Rev. Fr. Sylvester Sritharan, the Batticaloa district coordinator for People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections, an election watchdog in Sri Lanka.
"Unfortunately, the two major political parties did not contest these elections. After nominations were out, the candidates could not move around freely --- there was a lot of far. People also were not taking these elections very seriously -- they were divided on whether to vote or not."
Tamil rebels win
A breakaway group of the Tamil rebels won these elections by a landslide. The Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers or TMVP won 72 of the 101 electoral seats. This political faction is headed by Vinayakamoorthi Muralitharan -- also well known as Colonel Karuna -- who was once a close aide of LTTE chief, Prabhakaran. He broke away in 2004 to become an ally of the Sri Lankan government, alleging Prabhakaran was overlooking the aspirations of Tamils in the east.
Colonel Karuna is widely accused of gross human rights violations in the east of the country. Human Rights Watch accused him of being involved in killings, forced abductions and of employing child soldiers in his breakaway force.
Observers say the government gave the armed faction a free rein in the eastern Batticaloa district for months, as the military battled the rebels.
Human rights concerns
Human rights groups are concerned that the TMVP would continue to carry out human rights violations even after coming to power. But Sritharan insists that people in the violence-infested region would expect them to change their ways.
"In any military movement around the world, we observe that whenever a rebel group fields candidates to contest elections, they remain the same. People (in Batticaloa) would expect them to change their mentality and become more democratic."
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration 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.
The government came under criticism for holding the vote with human rights groups and some political parties saying violence and voter intimidation made a fair election impossible, but Rajapaksa hailed the voting, calling it a success of his government's policy of restoring to the people of the east their democratic rights.