Sri Lanka’s tense east to vote under shadow of the gun

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, March 9, 2008 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s restive east will hold local elections on Monday against a backdrop of fear, even though Tamil Tiger rebels were pushed out of the area months ago. The government has poured nearly 6,500 security personnel into the coastal district of Batticaloa, 300 kilometres (190 miles) from Colombo, hoping the vote will go off smoothly.

But locals say even though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were pushed out of the east last year after months of fighting, they live in fear of a government-backed Tamil militia made up of LTTE defectors.

“This election is a sham. People are not in a mood to vote, they are trying to rebuild their lives, resume their education. The whole exercise is ill-suited and ill-timed,” Buddhist monk Ampitiye Sumanaratne told AFP.

The elections, the first council vote in the lagoon town for nearly 14 years, come eight months after Sri Lankan forces wrested control over the region and pushed the LTTE back to the north.

The polls have been touted by the Colombo-based government as a move to win the “hearts and minds” of Tamils who dominate the lush Batticaloa area, battered by heavy fighting in 2007 and the Decem