JAFFNA, Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka's minority Tamils began voting Saturday to elect what they hope will give them a shot at self-rule after decades of ethnic bloodshed that claimed over 100,000 lives.
Tamils in the country's battle-scarred northern province are voting for the first time to elect a semi-autonomous council, in an election called amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated government to share power with the main ethnic minority.
"Even though this is a local election, there is more interest in it locally and internationally," S. Arumainayaham, the top civil administrator in the provincial capital of Jaffna, told reporters at his office.
Retired Supreme Court judge K. Wigneswaran, who is expected to be elected the region's chief minister, said he wants to work with Colombo on pushing his party's manifesto, which calls for "self-government" for Tamils.
Wigneswaran's priority is war reparations, securing an army pull-out from the former zone, and taking back land the military still occupies four years after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for outright independence. "I will try to work with the (Colombo) government," Wigneswaran told AFP in an interview at his office in Jaffna. But, he said, he will take his case to the international community if Colombo fails to cooperate.
At a polling booth in the Mankayarkarasi College in Jaffna, men and women lined up even before balloting opened at 7:00am (0130 GMT). A 63-year-old engineer, Murugaiah Vijayeswaran, said he came early to vote hoping to make a change. "After a long time we have an opportunity like this to make a change," he said. "We want to be independent."
The election was promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka after nearly four decades of fighting that killed up to 100,000 people, but the ballot is proving to be divisive as ever. President Mahinda Rajapakse, who campaigned in Jaffna last week for his candidates, accused the TNA - a coalition of several Tamil groups, including ex-militants - of raising expectations of a separate state.