August 8, 2009 / 10:27 AM / 10 years ago

Sri Lanka holds first post-war polls in north

By N. Parameswaran

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka on Saturday held the first elections in 11 years in two towns at the edge of the area formerly ruled by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were crushed when the government won a 25-year civil war in May.

Turnout was mixed for the polls to elect local councillors in Jaffna and Vavuniya, where campaigning took place without violence — which has been a rarity at polls in northern and eastern Sri Lanka during the Tigers’ long rebellion.

The military laid down tight security which required opposition candidates to get permission to visit the areas, while ruling party candidates moved about freely. Some voters in Jaffna said it was still an improvement over the time of the war.

"We have more freedom without fear in this election," Tharmalingam Tharmendran, 24, told Reuters.

"I can’t say whether this election will do anything better for us. Only once it’s over and we see the way the elected people act will we have a more clear idea whether this was a really needed election."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils more democracy after defeating the Tigers, who fought to create a separate nation for Tamils to free them from abuses by governments led by the Sinhalese majority.

Riding a wave of popularity since winning the war, Rajapaksa is expected to hold early parliamentary and government elections to secure himself another six-year term.

The shadow of the war, which ended less than three months ago, hung over the polls on Saturday, with 250,000 Tamils who fled fighting still languishing in tightly guarded refugee camps

Ruling party candidates included government allies who ran paramilitary groups that operated as army proxies to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"The people who are contesting in the elections are the same people who shot us and abducted our people," said one resident of Chundikkuli, near Jaffna, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I don’t think the election results will help us in anyway, so I abstained from voting," the resident said.

Vavuniya, site of a major military base, saw turnout of 60 percent by midday, election officials said.

Jaffna, under army rule since 1995, saw only 10 percent turnout, the district government agent K. Ganesh said.

Foreign journalists were not permitted to visit the areas. (Reporting by Shihar Aneez, Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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