By Shihar Aneez
Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils say President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-war development and infrastructure projects in the former war zone in the island’s north have yet to address their real concerns and have not excluded their participation.
Sri Lanka’s northern cities hold local polls for the first time in many years on Saturday amid opposition and poll monitor complaints of intimidation.
Healing after a 25-year war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in May 2009, Tamils in the northern city of Jaffna, long the centre of Sri Lanka’s Tamil culture, feel there is little to gain from voting.
“There were a number of elections like this and a change has never happened. I have little doubt that this is also going to be the same,” said Thuvaraki Nakeswaran, 22, a journalism student who will vote for the first time in her life.
“I will vote for those who think to help Tamils.”
She is among 350,000 voters in 16 constituencies registered to elect local leaders. But voting in Jaffna, as it did in war time, will take place with a heavy military presence.
Tamils in Jaffna are reluctant to speak in public due to the presence of government intelligence officers and soldiers, and many Reuters approached gave a brusque “No comment.”
Free expression has not been a way of life for decades: either the government or the LTTE routinely killed, beat, harassed or otherwise punished critics via unidentified gangs.
Rajapaksa has launched many infrastructure projects under a rebuilding programme he has dubbed the “The Northern Spring”, some of which are rejuvenating roads and railways that fell into neglect during the war.
But building trust between Rajapaksa, who is from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority, and Tamils is a difficult task. No government since independence in 1948 has given Tamils much confidence, and many have grown up around the LTTE’s rabidly separatist and anti-Sinhalese doctrine.
“I am your friend; I am your relative; You can trust me,” one poster of Rajapaksa says. “We will build our villages together.”
The campaign posters of Rajapaksa and candidates from his ally, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), were all over Jaffna, but those of the opposition were scarce.
The evidence of development and economic revival, which Rajapaksa has said will help Tamils rebuild their lives, are ample in Jaffna. Numerous private banks have opened up in the town and many roads are under construction.
“There is a selfish motive behind the government’s development programme and it’s Sinhalisation that really has been taking place,” a 59-year old man told Reuters on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal.
Sinhalisation, a term espoused by the LTTE, refers to the moving of Sinhalese people into areas the separatist group said were traditionally Tamil-majority, throughout Sri Lanka’s nearly three millennia of history.
“All the jobs created through these projects are given to Sinhalese people,” the man said. “The government has never involved us in the development projects either through providing job opportunities or giving the contracts to Tamils here.”
Thambithurai Hariharan, a 55-year-old farmer, complained that the development has not helped bring down the high cost of living or created jobs for the unemployed.
“Now some agricultural produce is brought here from the rest of the country despite being grown here. That has reduced our profit margins,” he said.
(Editing by Bryson Hull and Daniel Magnowski)