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Muted criticism of Tigers as Lanka poll nears

In the heartland of Lanka's war over a separate Tamil state, campaigning against wishes of LTTE rebels is a dangerous game.

india Updated: Mar 24, 2004 12:03 IST

In the heartland of Sri Lanka's war over a separate Tamil state, campaigning against the wishes of the Tamil Tiger rebels is a dangerous game.

Soldiers with machine guns accompany Tamil candidates who oppose the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the rebel-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Few will openly admit to supporting these candidates, but there is growing criticism of the LTTE.

"People are fed up with the LTTE. If they get the chance to vote freely, the TNA will be in big trouble. But I don't think they will get the chance," whispered one man at the edge of a bustling weekend market in Jafna, the centre of the 20-year war for a Tamil state.

Overall, the April 2 election is a struggle between the United People's Freedom Alliance of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The two groupings dominate the Sinhalese majority on the rest of the island, but neither is predicted to win a majority, leaving the TNA in a possible kingmaker role.

Many Jaffna residents said they supported the TNA because they felt their representation in parliament would help advance peace efforts, since the Tigers say they want to resume peace talks with the government that have been on hold since April.

But behind closed doors people say they are fed up with the high taxes imposed by the Tigers and are angered that intimidation prevents other candidates from campaigning.

"Already it's not fair. Only one party can go out and campaign freely," said another man who did not want to be identified.

Some non-TNA candidates scarcely venture out at all.

"In the 20 days since I have been back (from Colombo), only twice have I seen the sun. That is the life," said Douglas Devananda, who heads the Eelam People's Democratic Party, a Tamil party that opposes the Tigers.

BARRICADED IN MOVIE HALL

Devananda lives barricaded in the eerie dim of an abandoned movie hall, where visitors are frisked before entering and armed guards line the stairwells.

His supporters campaign with army and police escorts who hold their pistols drawn, because of what Devananda says are threats and intimidation from the Tigers -- who, despite a truce holding since February 2002, were accused of carrying out dozens of political killings last year.

"People can't hire vehicles or equipment to other parties (than the TNA), or they're threatened," said a Jaffna priest who did not want to be named.

"People need to question -- why do the other candidates have to go out with the army?" he said.

Despite murmurings of dissent, TNA candidates expressed confidence they had the full support of the people.

"Through parliamentary elections, we'll be able to tell the whole world the unity of the Tamil people and of our needs," said candidate Solomon Soosaipillai Cyril.

He denied allegations that if the party came under pressure it would resort to rigging.

"The people are fully aware that through these elections democracy will prevail," he said.

But the priest said ballot-stuffing was a worry because the names of people displaced by the war were still on voting lists.

He also said it was time to break what he called a culture of silence pervading Jaffna.

"People are saying, 'we will use our votes'. People say, 'there's no speech freedom, but through the votes we will leave some message,'" he said.

First Published: Mar 24, 2004 12:03 IST