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Sri Lanka Tamils back war-winning general for president

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The political proxy of the Tamil Tigers unanimously backed on Wednesday the presidential bid of the general who crushed the separatists in May, saying it was the only way to thwart incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election.

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The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a group of ethnic Tamil parties that took orders from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), said Rajapaksa’s record on human rights and law and order made defeating him a priority.

TNA parliamentary group leader R. Sampanthan told a news conference some in the alliance had reservations about supporting General Sarath Fonseka, who won few fans among Tamils during the war.

“The majority ... are of the view that the only meaningful way in which the desire of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to seek a mandate for a further term may be thwarted is by voting for joint opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka,” Sampanthan said.

Rajapaksa’s human rights record was “dismal,” he said.

“Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have been common, and the worst-affected are Tamil people. Corruption is rampant, and consequently the rule of law and good governance have reached the nadir,” Sampanthan said.

The TNA’s support for Fonseka is a reversal. During the war Fonseka, a career military officer and member of the Sinhalese ethnic majority, was often painted by pro-rebel groups as emblematic of the Sinhalese chauvinism that sparked the Tamil discontent that fueled the LTTE’s fight.

As army commander he conducted an uncompromising war to defeat the LTTE, kill its leaders and end their quarter-century civil war for a separate Tamil state.

But since he fell out with the president over a postwar promotion to what he deemed a job with no powers, he has softened his uncompromising image and become the candidate for a motley coalition of parties that only wants to beat Rajapaksa.

Over the weekend, Fonseka toured the formerly rebel-held Jaffna Peninsula, and pledged to create a conducive business environment, relax security measures and return land seized by the military to create high-security zones.

As army chief and previously commander in charge of Jaffna, Fonseka had vigorously supported tight security measures to stop the LTTE. In 2006, an LTTE suicide bomber nearly killed him inside army headquarters.

Analysts say Tamils, almost 12 percent of the population, are an important bloc of votes in the January 26 presidential election.

“That can be a significant feature in deciding the ultimate outcome,” said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the non-partisan National Peace Council. “This could send a signal to other minorities.”

Sri Lanka’s minority votes total about 25 percent, and also include Muslims and so-called Estate Tamils, the descendents of Indian-born Tamils brought to work on tea plantations.

The TNA on orders from the Tigers boycotted the 2005 polls that brought Rajapaksa to power and analysts said that took away what would have been a decisive margin for his opponent. Out of a 225-member parliament, the TNA has 22 seats.

Editing by Bryson Hull and Jerry Norton