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Regional Polls Raise Hopes of Lanka's Tamils

Regional Polls Raise Hopes of Lanka's Tamils

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Published by: Thavam on Oct 11, 2013
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Last Modified: 09 Oct 2013Former proxy of LTTE rebels wins provincial council elections, but will theybe able to achieve reconciliation?
Following a disastrous civil war, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority is slowly trying toreintegrate into the political process, after a strong showing in local elections in theisland’s restive north last month.The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), once a political proxy of the vanquished armedTamil rebels (LTTE), scored a landslide victory in provincial elections on September 21- winning 30 out of 38 seats in the northern Provincial Council, a body with little power but lots of hope riding on it.The United People's Freedom Alliance, led by Sri Lankan President MahindaRajapaksa, managed to win only seven seats with 18 percent of the vote, while oneseat went to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party.It was the first election following the end of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war in 2009, in a
 
region where a sense of alienation runs deep among ethnic Tamils, who havecomplained of discrimination by the Sinhalese-led government."The TNA victory is undoubtedly a big boost to democracy, but it remains a symbolicsuccess," Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow at the Chatham House's AsiaProgramme, told Al Jazeera in an email interview.Four years after government forces defeated the LTTE fighters, a heavy armypresence remains in the region, private land has been appropriated for militarypurposes and reports of human rights violations are rife."How the elections change things on the ground will depend on whether thegovernment will withdraw the army and return the land to the people," SureshPremachandran, a senior TNA leader and member of parliament, told AlJazeera. "About 150,000 army personnel out of the total 200,000 are in [the] NorthernProvince with a population of nearly 1 million," he said. "We will take all actions,including mobilising international support, for the withdrawal of the army."Thousands remain displacedThe government has been criticised for not doing enough to rehabilitate people, asthousands remain in camps with little access to basic amenities. The issue of thethousands of people who disappeared at the end of the war has also remainedunresolved.
Mahinda Rajapaksa talksto Al Jazeera
"We are ready to work for reconciliation, but we have to know the truth about the war.Several thousand people are missing and there is no government mechanism toinvestigate it," Premachandran said. As many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final month of the separatistwar, 
, which has been pressuring Sri Lanka for a credibleinvestigation.The election is a hopeful sign for the Tamils, who make up nearly 15 percent of the
 
country's 20 million people, and of whom
. About 70 percent of the more than 700,000 eligible voters - most of them Tamils -exercised their franchise in the hope of a better future amid reports of intimidation bythe army, a
."The problem is mostly with the land, which has been occupied by the military in thenorth. Thousands of Tamils are still living in camps because their lands have beentaken away by the military and declared high security zone," DushiyanthiniKanagasabapathipillai, a senior journalist who has covered the war, told Al Jazeera."What people want is free access to their land. To be able to travel without beingintimidated," she said.MilitarisationThe TNA, a loose coalition of five parties, raised the issues of militarisation, landseizures, the missing people and the final political status of the Tamil region in 
.But with little legislative and financial powers vested in the provincial government, itwill be nearly impossible to get things done without the cooperation of the Sri Lankancentral government."Power is still entrenched in the hands of the Sri Lankan military and there are fewsigns to indicate that the Rajapaksa administration will actually devolve power in theNorthern Province," Hogg said.The regional government will have to tackle the issue of daily livelihood such asfarming and fishing - one of the mainstays of income - which has been curbed by themilitary."They would like ... [the] ability to return to their land and opportunity to farm their land," said Vino Kanapathipillai, the former editor of pro-Tamil newspaper TamilGuardian. "I don't think it is in the hands of the provincial government to deliver that."Canadian modelThe Sri Lankan government under Rajapaksa has refused to give more powers to theprovincial government. TNA leader Premachandran said his party was ready to acceptthe Northern Province being run under a federal constitution, with the centralgovernment retaining control of defence and foreign affairs."The Canadian model can be one of the best examples to emulate," he said. "Thereshould be proper devolution of powers vis-a-vis taxation and policing, and we shouldalso be allowed to get loans and grants from international institutions for development."Hogg from Chatham House said: "The current administration is unlikely to devolvepowers relating to land administration, taxation and policing to the provincial councils;the military will maintain its intrusive presence in the north of the country."The central government has claimed that it has developed infrastructure in the regionand built roads, but people still await rehabilitation."If you take north, where the war was going on, we have managed to build all theinfrastructure, we have spent about $3bn to do that," the Sri Lankan president told Al

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