Page last updated at 16:42 GMT, Sunday, 9 March 2008

Former Tamil rebels set for poll victory

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Batticaloa

TMVP party logo
The TMVP logo replaces the Tigers' crossed guns with shaking hands

People in Batticaloa are voting in the first polls since the government drove the Tamil Tigers from eastern Sri Lanka.

The elections are for a municipal council and smaller local authorities in outlying areas.

But the party that is expected to win - the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal party (TMVP) - is made up of former Tamil Tiger rebels, and they have not laid down their arms.

Pradeep Master is a leading candidate for political office, standing in Batticaloa's local polls for the TMVP.

During the campaign he was out on the streets visiting shops and handing pamphlets to passers-by.

But at the age of 16, he was carrying an AK-47 for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting in Sri Lanka's civil war.

Child soldiers

The TMVP turned their backs on the LTTE, who want a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, in 2004, but they have retained their regalia.

Like the rebels their logo is a roaring tiger's head.

Former Tamil Tiger Pradeep (L), 9 March 08
Former Tiger Pradeep (L) Master is running for election with the TMVP

The crossed rifles on the original have been replaced with a pair of shaking hands.

But the symbols are not matched by reality; the TMVP has not laid down its arms.

"Having weapons is not our wish," says Mr Master, 34, who in more recent years ran a Tiger education unit.

"But our members have been killed in Colombo, in high security zones, in courts, in public places and temples. So we had to take weapons into our hands.

"We will put down our weapons when a situation emerges where we get complete entry into a political framework and there is full security for us."

When it split from the Tigers, the TMVP was at first known as the Karuna faction led by their commander in the east, Colonel Karuna.

Their defection helped government forces to drive the rebels from the east in an operation that was completed eight months ago.

They also stood accused of recruiting child soldiers and carrying out abductions and killings.

Carrying guns

In the run-up to the polls the TMVP's gunmen were notable by their absence from the streets of Batticaloa.

[The TMVP] might not be waving them as freely as they did before, but the gun is their principle of existence
Fr Harry Miller
Batticaloa-based priest

Instead there were thousands of police and soldiers deployed by the government.

Armoured personnel carriers cruised around the town and checkpoints had been set up on the roads.

But some people in Batticaloa say the elections cannot be free and fair.

Fr Harry Miller, an American Jesuit priest, arrived in the town in 1948.

He still has an attic office in the local St Michael's College where he was once principal, and runs a coconut plantation that helps pay for the Jesuits' work.

"Certainly, you cannot let people who are carrying guns take part in the election and these people are carrying guns," he says.

"They might not be waving them as freely as they did before, but the gun is their principle of existence."

Benefitting the people?

This election may be local, but it has wider significance on the island.

Motorcyclist and campaign posters, Batticaloa, 9 March 2008
Campaign posters lined the streets of Batticaloa ahead of the polls

It is being seen as a dry run for a later province-wide vote in the east that the government says will be the foundation to devolve some power.

In combination with a major military offensive to crush the Tamil Tigers in the north by the end of this year or next, the Government hopes it will end the long running civil war.

"To destroy terrorism, one might say that the mechanisms we have used are not democratic," said Keheliya Rambukwella, a cabinet minister and the government's defence spokesman.

"But remember one thing, the final achievement that the government, its people, in terms of liberation, in terms of political stability, in terms of economic stability.

"The people have benefited at the end of the day."

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