Sri Lanka vote: A new start?

Northern  Province    Dancers swirl to a rapid drum-beat as the wedding ceremony reaches its climax in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the Tamil Tiger rebels. But now the Sri Lankan army is in charge here, and it is staging a group marriage for former rebels who have gone through what the government calls a rehabilitation programme.

“We are happier now,” says erstwhile fighter Nadarasa Sukirtha, military fatigues now replaced by her bejewelled wedding dress. “We have started a new life.” And then she takes her position for her wedding photo – alongside the president’s son who has just arrived with his bodyguards.

The mood among most Tamils in northern Sri Lanka is far more downcast as they prepare to vote this weekend for their first ever provincial government.

But few are willing to talk openly, because of the ubiquitous and often suffocating military presence. At the wedding event the authorities are keeping a close eye, to make sure all goes to plan.

As we travel around the north, they are keeping a close eye on us too.

Within minutes of arriving in the Tigers’ former military stronghold of Mullaitivu, a Sri Lankan army patrol turns up to question us. A man who had been following us then gives the soldiers an account of our movements.

The same happens in Jaffna, when we try to talk to shopkeepers. Soldiers appear, then a police car and several men in plain clothes. Soon everyone dries up. We hear later that the one man we had talked to had been questioned.

Deep divisions

Four years after the end of the country’s civil war, the more obvious scars are fading – with new buildings and roads replacing the ruins. The government is ploughing large sums into rebuilding the north. It points out that it is living up to its commitments by allowing the elections to go ahead.

But there is no sign of trust returning – with both sides mired in recriminations over the war which left tens of thousands dead and injured.

Polling officers and police officers wait in line in Jaffna, a former war zone. The authorities are keeping a close eye on these elections

Many Tamils are still trying to find out what happened to their relatives.

“Yes there are new roads,” says a Tamil businessman, “but they are mostly being built by Sinhalese from the south. The government wants them to come here to dilute our culture.”

“The land is united again,” says one another. “But the minds of the people are still divided.” The military says it has to keep a close eye on the thousands of disbanded Tamil Tiger fighters, in case they regroup.

Among the Sinhalese majority in the south, there is still deep hatred for the rebel movement after decades of war – especially as suicide bombings were a Tiger trademark.

The most divisive issue is what happened at the very end of the war – when hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in the intense battles between the Tigers and the army.

The UN says that up to 40,000 people may have died in the last few days before the war ended in May 2009.

Both sides are accused of committing atrocities – the rebels of using civilians as human shields and the army of killing far more by indiscriminate shelling.

But the government has rejected calls for an outside investigation.

A Sri Lankan Tamil man cycles past a poster in Jaffna, which says: “Are you ready to go for another war?” Northern Sri Lankans are about to elect their first ever provincial council. They claim this and other accusations have been invented by government critics and supporters of the former rebels among the Tamil diaspora.

Hugely popular among the Sinhalese majority for ending the war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa feels under little pressure to act – despite the international criticism he is facing.

He is currently preparing to host the next Commonwealth summit in November. Canada has said it will boycott the meeting but the British prime minister has said he will attend, adding that it is more effective to deliver a strong message in person.(BBC News)

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