Pro-government former rebels win key Sri Lankan election despite rights violations charge
Tue March 11, 2008 01:53 EDT .
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (AP) _ A militia of former Tamil Tiger rebels swept local elections in eastern Sri Lanka, winning control of the city of Batticaloa amid accusations it waged a campaign of violence ahead of the voting, official results showed Tuesday.
The Karuna Group, which is now allied with the government, took 53 percent of the votes cast in Batticaloa on Monday, giving it 11 of the 19 seats on the municipal council, according to official figures.
The government had billed the vote, the first in 14 years, as a first step toward restoring order in a region long dominated by the Tamil insurgents and only taken by government forces last year.
However, human rights groups and opposition politicians said a climate of violence and chaos tainted the election.
Much of the violence was blamed on the Karuna militants, who have been accused of forcibly recruiting child soldiers, demanding protection money from businessmen and brazenly killing people since the government takeover in July.
Rasiah Thurairatnam, who ran as an independent candidate in Batticaloa and appeared to have won a seat on the council, said people voted out of fear of the group. He alleged serious irregularities by Karuna supporters at many polling stations.
``This is a victory for violence, and it will elicit serious repercussions from the people,'' he said. ``I see this as a license for extortion and child abduction.''
However, Nafur Khan Ramllan, a candidate from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, hoped the militia's victory would help transform it into a democratic party.
``They can't do politics with arms and retain the people's confidence at the same time,'' he said.
Several diplomats said before the vote that a major victory for the militia would raise questions about the fairness of the election.
Observers reported the election was free of violence and fraud and there was no evidence of vote rigging, said Sritharan Sabanayagam of People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, an independent election monitoring group.
The militia _ officially called the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal _ was formed in 2004 when the top rebel commander in the region, known as Col. Karuna, broke from the Tamil Tigers and took thousands of fighters with him. The defections helped the government rout the rebels from the region last year and force them back into their de facto state in the north.
Fighting between the rebels and government troops has escalated in the north in recent months. On Tuesday, the military reported that 40 Tamil Tiger rebels and four soldiers were killed in two days of fighting along the front lines in the north.
Both sides have been accused of inflating their enemies' casualties. Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan did not answer a call for comment.
The Karuna Group's electoral victory _ it also won control of eight smaller town councils _ means that former rebel Edwin Krishnanandaraja, known better by his nom de guerre Pradeep Master, is likely to become mayor of Batticaloa.
Krishnanandaraja dismissed allegations his group engaged in violence and said he hoped to disarm his fighters ``gradually.''
Even before the vote, human rights groups and opposition parties said the election was irredeemably tainted by the climate of violence. The country's main opposition parties boycotted the election, saying they would not run against armed groups.
The Rev. Harry Miller an American Jesuit priest who has lived here for more than 60 years, said the election should not have been held because of the unrest here, and though it was relatively peaceful during the election period, he feared violence would soon return.
Residents said they were desperate for order to be restored.
``We don't expect the leaders to give us anything other than a chance to live in peace,'' said voter Sinnakutty Nagalingam, 36, a father of three who works as a mason.
The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state in Sri Lanka's north and east for minority ethnic Tamils, who were marginalized for decades by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
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Published: Tue Mar 11 04:12:16 EDT 2008