Post Civil War: Sri Lankans Vote For President

Sri Lankans went to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballot in a hard-fought president campaign between the incumbent and his former army chief. For decades the country dealt with a civil war. The war ended when Sri Lanka's government defeated the Tamil Tiger Rebels last May. In a surprising plot twist, it may be the Tamils who decide the winner of the presidential election.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. Sri Lankans are electing a president today. A civil war battered this Indian Ocean island for decades, claiming tens of thousands of lives. The war ended when Sri Lankas government defeated the Tamil Tiger Rebels last May. And now in a surprising plot twist, it may be the Tamils who decide the winner of todays election. NPRs Philip Reeves joins us from Sri Lankas capital, Colombo, to talk about the voting.

Good morning, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

SHAPIRO: So is running in this election and whats the significance of the vote?

REEVES: Well, although there are 22 candidates, the contest is really between two men who are by far and away the front runners. These are the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa,´┐Żand the former commander of the Sri Lankan army, General Sarath Fonseka. They used to friends and allies, but they fell out after the war ended.

They are, among other things, in dispute over who should be credited with winning the civil war by wiping out the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers, of course, are the separatists who for several decades fought in vain for a homeland for the islands Tamil minority and who once controlled a large part of the islands north and east.

As president, Rajapaksa ordered the armys successful offensive on the Tigers last May. As army chief, Fonseka carried it out.

SHAPIRO: Is there any indication of which of the two men is most likely to win?

REEVES: Well, it looks like a pretty close run race. Had you asked that question a few months back the answer wouldve been the incumbent, President Rajapaksa, by a mile. The governments victory over the Tamil Tigers made him extremely popular among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Since then, though, the moods changed somewhat.

Sri Lankans complain about rising prices and government corruption and also nepotism. Three of the presidents brothers are highly placed in the government. General Fonsekas decision to run also changed the picture. Hes expected to split the Sinhalese nationalist vote, which is interesting because it means, as you said earlier, rather ironically, that the vote by the Tamil minority now becomes very significant.

SHAPIRO: Its surprising to me that the Tamils are willing to vote at all for either of these men who were instrumental in suppressing the Tamils.

REEVES: Well, we don't yet know how many of them will vote. We won't know that until we see the turn-out numbers. On the one hand, yes, the Tamils are unlikely to have relished the choice that they face in this election. Two men, both are Sinhalese nationalists who crushed the Tamils aspirations for an independent homeland.

On the other hand, they do have many grievances they want the government to address, such as rebuilding their shattered communities, rehabilitating the multitude of Tamils displaced by the war, some of whom who are still in camps, access to land, and the general need in Sri Lanka for some kind of reconciliation after so many years of conflict.

SHAPIRO: Well, this is the first peacetime vote Sri Lanka has had in nearly three decades. Give us a sense of what the scene is like Colombo. Has there been any violence? What do you see on the street?

REEVES: Well, the run-up to the election was pretty ugly. There were hundreds of incidents. For example, attacks on party workers in their homes. Five people were killed. So far today, though, the moods been pretty calm. Theres been no significant reports of trouble, beyond a couple of unexplained explosions in the north, which caused no casualties.

But securitys extremely tight. There are 68,000 police out on the streets today, plus 25 army platoons. And all bars across Sri Lanka are closed for two days in a further effort to make sure that theres no unrest.

SHAPIRO: Thats NPRs Philip Reeves speaking with us from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Thanks, Philip, and stay safe.

REEVES: Thank you.

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