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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Tamil Tigers seek voters' support

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Punguduthivu, northern Sri Lanka

Election rally in northern Sri Lanka
Many Tamils see the poll as a referendum on the armed struggle
Hundreds of Sri Lankan farmers and fishermen sit cross-legged on the ground in the dark, entranced by the very loud music.

After 20 years of war, the music group made up of Tamil Tiger rebels is a major attraction on the tiny island of Punguduthivu, off the northern Jaffna coast.

Old men have tears in their eyes as they sway to the music - young boys look on in amazement.

And amazed they should be by lyrics like, "we have the leader's order so attack and protect the Tamil Eelam soil" and "the Sinhalese burned our houses and then laughed at us".

The songs of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) might make you think this was a rebel recruitment drive rather than a meeting to drum up support ahead of Friday's general elections.

"To us the LTTE is the only movement that counts and [Tigers' chief Velupillai] Prabhakaran is the only leader who counts," says Eelavendan, a candidate for the Tamil National Alliance, which has the backing of the rebels.

Street drama

This is the first time the Tigers have campaigned openly in the north-east.

First we want healing, only then can we think about our election
Padmani Sithamparanathan, candidate

Senior rebel commanders attend election meetings in government-controlled territory - something that would have been unthinkable just two years ago, before a ceasefire came into effect.

Mr Eelavendan says this is not so much an election as a referendum on the armed struggle.

"The world is saying, alright you fought and did some wonders but what guarantee is there that you have the backing of the people," Mr Eelavendan says, adding that this election will prove 70% to 80% of the Tamil people back the rebels.

By day, the campaign trail involves street drama.

People who have lost their land are encouraged to express their anger and one woman breaks down in tears saying she wants to go back to her home to die but it is in a military high security zone.

Setting an example

"First we want healing, only then can we think about our election," says 49-year-old Padmani Sithamparanathan - a new entrant into politics.

Addressing a crowd of villagers she says it is time to tell the world that they support the Tigers and want self-determination.

If she is elected on the Tamil National Alliance ticket, Ms Sithamparanathan will become the first woman MP from Jaffna - in itself a small revolution.

Election rally in northern Sri Lanka
Tigers are not standing directly, but back the Tamil National Alliance

"The LTTE is ours and we are LTTE-ers," she says with a sweet giggle.

And if the electorate were in any doubt, women Tigers turn up at her meetings to clap and sing the campaign songs.

"We are proud that women have come forward and set an example," says the political chief of the women Tigers, Thamilini.

"I think our dream is coming true," she says, referring to the feminist ideology of the rebel movement.

The Tigers are so heavily involved in this election campaign that the question arises why they do not contest it directly.

Ms Thamilini has the answer: "So far, Tamils' rights have not been recognised and no final settlement reached so at this moment it is not possible for us to accept the Sri Lankan government's constitution and stand for elections."

In the run-up to Friday's poll, there have been reports that the Tigers have been intimidating Tamil groups not supporting them.

Some say it is wrong for a group that is still armed to be involved in electioneering at all.

Others argue it is a positive development that the rebels are forced to solicit votes and be responsive to their people.

I ask one voter, Indradevi, who says she is going to cast her ballot for the Tamil National Alliance, whether she is unconcerned that the party is backed by the same rebels who have been abusing human rights.

"Although they collect tax from us and recruit child soldiers, the Tigers are still the sole representatives of the Tamil people," she says, adding: "They are fighting for us".

Their methods may sometimes be brutal but for many Tamils the Tigers are also the last defence.

The appeal of Tamil unity runs deeper than concerns about democracy.

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