Page last updated at 15:15 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 16:15 UK

Ex-Tamil Tigers set their eyes on polls

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka

Child soldiers of TMVP
Col Karuna's faction has forced many children into its ranks

Former Tamil Tiger fighters are hoping to win political power in eastern Sri Lanka in provincial elections this Saturday.

The poll will lay the foundation for limited devolution that the government bills as the answer to ethnic minority Tamil people's decades-long complaints of domination by Sinhalese-led central governments.

Last July the government announced that the military had driven the Tamil Tigers from the area, after a year of fighting.

The offensive was helped by a defection from the Tigers.

In 2004 a rebel army of fighting men and women, complete with artillery, broke away led by Colonel Karuna Amman.

He had been the Tigers second in command.

The faction has now evolved into a political party, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) or Tamil People's Liberation Tigers.

Col Karuna Amman is in immigration detention in Britain after entering the country on a false passport. The TMVP is now led by a former Tiger child soldier who goes by the nom de guerre, Pillaiyan.

'Do better'

He has not only turned his back on the Tigers' ideal of independence for the Tamil minority, but his party is also allied with the government in the election.

"We were trying to get a separate state for ourselves with guns in our hands," Pillaiyan told the BBC.

"Despite all our efforts we couldn't get a proper solution for our Tamil people, an independent state for them. So we left the Tamil Tigers, our responsibility is to the Tamil people. We want to do better for them through the political process."

Fishermen in Sri Lanka
Life has got better for fishermen in Sri Lanka

The TMVP held an election rally in Batticaloa on Sunday.

Pillaiyan was rushed up to the stage by his bodyguards wary of Tiger revenge for what they see as treachery.

The crowd that had gathered on the patchy grass of a football pitch was small, and did not seem very enthusiastic.

Bottles of soft drink were handed around to keep them happy while they waited for Pillaiyan to speak.

But the TMVP won a clean sweep of Batticaloa town and village councils when local elections were held in March.

Now they hope to win power province-wide.

The TMVP may be entering the democratic process, but they have not given up their guns.

During campaigning gunmen could be seen in party compounds.

At a meeting after hours in a school three young men were seen with AK47s.

When the candidates left they provided a motorcycle escort to their vehicle, roaring down the street with the weapons openly on display.

Police assigned to the candidates did nothing.

Forcing children

The TMVP says guns are needed for their own protection.

The party has forced children into its ranks too.

"After school I was playing with my friends," a recently released 15-year-old boy told the BBC.

He was prepared to speak about his abduction on condition of anonymity.

"They shouted at me to go with them, saying if you don't come we will beat you. The other boys ran away."

Former child soldier and now head of TMVP Pillaiyan
Pillaiyan has aligned with the government

The teenager said he was given training in how to handle guns, and put to work.

The TMVP has given a number of children back to their families in the run up to the polls.

But the boy said others had been left behind in his camp.

"We don't need child soldiers but we have kept the children with us because we want to protect them and we wanted to guide them towards a bright future," said Pillaiyan, when asked about the issue of child soldiers.

"We didn't use them as a fighting force, we solved their problems. We had only 48 children in our group, we have sent 42 back to their homes."

But the government-allied TMVP's opponents are confident they have enough support to beat them in the eastern province, where the population is roughly evenly divided between Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese.

"They have a sordid past, people are not going to forget it easily," said Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress who hopes to become chief minister if an alliance of opposition parties wins the poll.

Better life

"We have enough evidence to show they resort to abductions, intimidations, harassment and killings. They have lived by the gun and they have survived by the gun and very unlikely they would eschew violence as a means to achieve their political goals."

Life has certainly got better in eastern Sri Lanka since the end of the fighting here.

Fishermen are free to bring in their catch, motoring across the waters of Batticaloa's lagoon before holding impromptu auctions on the shore.

A major development programme has been promised to lift the area out of poverty, though people say they have seen few results so far.

Refugees displaced by the conflict in a camp in east Sri Lanka
Thousands still remain in refugee camps in eastern Sri Lanka

And the provincial election will usher in some, limited, devolution of power, which the government bills as an answer to the Tamil people's demands for more autonomy.

"I think the election will be a major step in the direction of ending the violence," said Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, "convincing the entirety of the Tamil population that their future lies with the rest of Sri Lanka in a peaceful environment where they can achieve their dreams in the way that they wish to."

Sri Lanka is marking a grim anniversary this year in the island's seemingly interminable civil war.

It will be a quarter of a century since major conflict began between government forces and the Tamil Tigers.

Heavy price

Bloody war is still raging in the island's north, where government forces are on an offensive to crush the Tamil Tigers by the end of the year in territory they still control.

Sri Lanka's government says it is winning. But a heavy price is being paid.

Thousands of people have been killed since a ceasefire formally ended in January, according to the military most of them Tiger fighters.

Rauff Hakeem
Mr Hakeem hopes to become the chief minister of the east

The rebels dispute the casualty figure claims.

Last week the Kusumawati family from Kurunegala, two hours drive from Colombo, buried their only son.

He was a soldier who was killed in a battle in the northern Jaffna peninsular.

"He has left us all alone," said his mother WD Kusumawati, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Whatever money we have will go to his boy, but he has no father. My daughter-in-law is so young. We won't live for much longer, what will happen to her in the future? He was so young too."

The soldier's widow is just 20.

In the east most people displaced by the earlier fighting have been able to go home, but thousands remain in camps.

Some sit and play cards as they wait for news on when they will be resettled.

Alaheswery Rasa Sakunthala has lived in a small shack for more than two years with her children.

They walked miles to get to safety, through shelling.

"Here we want only peace, we don't want war," she said, her four-year-old boy and two-year-old girl by her side.

"We don't need to be given food but we need a peaceful life. We don't want to hear gunfire and we don't want to see people being killed."

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