Sri Lankan election seen as referendum on peace process with Tamil rebels |

Sri Lankan election seen as referendum on peace process with Tamil rebels

Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Security forces guarded polling sites across Sri Lanka Thursday as voting began in an election seen as a referendum on the peace process in a country bloodied by more than two decades of civil war.The tightly contested election caps a year that opened with the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami and is ending with fears of failing negotiations to end the conflict that has plagued this island of tea plantations and wide beaches that, in better times, were packed with foreign tourists.The main candidates – Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe – face a floundering economy and a dispute over whether to share tsunami aid with the Tamil Tiger rebels. The Dec. 26 disaster killed at least 31,000 people on the island and swept away the homes and livelihoods of 1 million others.But the key to solving nearly every problem – from aiding tsunami victims to developing the economy – starts with ending the civil war, which has killed 65,000 people since erupting in 1983.Election-related violence – which killed dozens in past votes – has been relatively minor, but authorities were taking no chances just three months after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. That killing was blamed on rebels.The troops protecting the vote were armed with assault rifles and backed by armored vehicles. There were no reports of violence early Thursday.Voters showed up early at polling stations in Colombo. “I don’t want to miss my vote and I have to work,” said Jagath Warnakulasuriya, 58, who cast his ballot under the eyes of police.Riot police were on standby and army reservists were prepared in case violence flares up during Thursday’s vote, senior police official Rohan Abeywardene said. At least two officers will guard each of the nearly 10,000 polling stations and a curfew will be imposed if needed, he added.No polling stations were being set up in rebel territory – home to some 100,000 voters. Those who want to cast ballots will be bused to government-held areas.”Is this peace?” asked A.M. Atthapattu, a 22-year-old student in Colombo, where troops and police fortified polling stations Wednesday. “My younger generation wants our country to change from what the older generation experienced.”A 2002 cease-fire ended major fighting, but peace talks stalled in disagreement over the Tigers’ demands for broad autonomy in their northeastern stronghold, and clashes, though sporadic, have intensified.In violence Wednesday, at least four people were killed in eastern Sri Lanka, including a village guard reportedly shot by the Tigers, the military said.Thirteen candidates were contesting the vote, but it was largely seen as a contest between Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe, who each promised peace but staked out opposite sides.Rajapakse, 59, has pledged to review the stalled peace process and not share political power or tsunami aid with the Tigers – hard-line stands that have won him wide Sinhalese support.Wickremesinghe, 56, who signed the cease-fire when he was prime minister, has promised to strike a peace deal by granting Tamils a degree of autonomy. He also favors further liberalizing the economy.The incumbent, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, is not running because of a constitutional two-term limit.The Tigers repeatedly have demanded access to some of the $2 billion in tsunami aid promised to Sri Lanka, but a deal with the government to share relief funds was never implemented.The Tigers rebelled over discrimination against Tamils, a largely Hindu minority, by the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese, the majority of Sri Lanka’s 19 million people.Most observers say the race is too close to call, making the 3.2 million Tamils – many of whom support Wickremesinghe – a crucial swing vote and major question mark. There are 13.3 million eligible voters.While the Tigers have made no overt statements on whether Tamils should vote, pro-rebel student groups that often speak for the insurgents have urged a boycott.Still, the Tigers have not weighed in on the election violently, as they have in the past. Kumaratunga lost an eye in a Tiger suicide bombing at her last rally in the 1999 campaign.Vail, Colorado

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