ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Sri Lanka faces a pivotal moment. The mostly Buddhist island nation spent 26 years fighting a civil war. It ended a decade ago when government forces defeated ethnic Tamil separatists. But the war is still vivid as Sri Lankans go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the Tamil heartland in the island's north.
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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On the side of the road in northern Sri Lanka, women camp out in a protest tent and wave photographs at passing cars. They're school portraits of their children who went missing during the country's civil war.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kasi Pulaya Romee.
FRAYER: Kasi Pulaya Romee was 16. She wanted to be a doctor.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sheeva Kumar.
FRAYER: Sheeva Kumar was 20. He went to work and never came home. Rajendran Uday was 22 when soldiers came at night and took him away, his mother says. They're among tens of thousands of people, mostly Tamils from the north, who disappeared in Sri Lanka's civil war.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: The man these mothers hold responsible is the former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He commanded the much-feared Intelligence Corps when his older brother was president. He's an American - or at least he was. He says he's since renounced his U.S. citizenship but not before he was sued in U.S. court for allegedly ordering torture, rape and abductions here. Rajapaksa denies that and has never been convicted. And now he's the frontrunner to become Sri Lanka's next president. When asked last month about these human rights allegations, Rajapaksa laughed them off.
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GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA: You are talking all the time on the past, no. Ask the future (laughter). I'm trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Can you move on without addressing the past?
RAJAPAKSA: Yeah, sure, we can move on.
FRAYER: Sri Lanka wants to move on from its bloody past, and many voters want a strong pair of hands to fight a new threat. This past Easter, Islamist suicide bombers killed more than 250 people at hotels and churches. St. Sebastian's, north of the capital, Colombo, was one of them.
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FRAYER: Masses have resumed here, but a statue of Jesus is still pockmarked with shrapnel. And the parish priest, Father Manjula Fernando, is still frightened.
MANJULA FERNANDO: Terrorists and extremists are everywhere. We need a good leader who is going to eradicate all these people.
FRAYER: When Sri Lankans think of a leader who eradicates his enemies, they think of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. To many of the country's majority Buddhists, he's a war hero.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
FRAYER: His official campaign video shows Buddhist temples and lots at soldiers with guns. The message, says political scientist Jehan Perera...
JEHAN PERERA: Security and, also, pride in one's nation trumps other matters.
FRAYER: Other matters like human rights, welfare - and how much is too much Chinese investment? These are not getting much play in this election despite efforts by Rajapaksa's main rival, Sajith Premadasa. He draws support from moderates, minorities and the youth.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hello.
FRAYER: I ran into a pack of Premadasa volunteers going door to door north of Colombo.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This man is good. He is going to do something for this country.
FRAYER: Do something like build houses, feed the poor and, most importantly, heal after a 26-year civil war, they say. But one volunteer admits these doorstep conversations keep coming back to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and whether a strongman will become leader of yet another country - this time, Sri Lanka.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Colombo.
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