Ethnic Tamil voters in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north went to the polls Saturday to form their first functioning provincial government, hoping it is the first step toward wider regional autonomy after decades of peaceful struggle and a bloody civil war.
The elections are expected to give them a limited say in their own affairs — a taste of democracy after years under rebel or military control.
The elections are seen by the United Nations and the world community as a crucial test of reconciliation between the Tamils and majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control the government and the military.
The country's ethnic divisions widened with the quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009, when government troops crushed the Tami Tiger rebels who fought to create an independent state.
At least 80,000 people were killed and northern cities, including many in Jaffna, were reduced to rubble.
The Tamil National Alliance, considered a political proxy to the Tamil rebels during the conflict, is the favorite to win the election and has fielded a former Supreme Court Justice, C.V. Wigneswaran, as its chief candidate.
More than 700,000 voters are registered to elect 36 members to the provincial council, which will not have much power. A governor appointed by the central government will wield the most control, and Wigneswaran says if elected his party would lobby for wider self-rule based on federalism.
Angajan Ramanathan, a 30-year-old businessman and the leading candidate for President Mahinda Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, says working close to the government will bring more benefits to the war-hit community.
Campaigning has been marked by sporadic attacks and threats, mainly against Tamil Alliance supporters.
Tamils have been demanding regional autonomy to the country's north and east, where they are the majority, since Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948. The campaign took the form of nonviolent protests for many years, but in 1983 civil war broke out between government forces and armed Tamil groups calling for full independence.
The provincial council was created in 1987 as an alternative to separation. But the Tigers — the strongest of the rebel groups, and eventually the de facto government across much of the north and east — rejected it as inadequate. The fighting that followed prevented the council from functioning.
The military defeat of the Tigers meant Tamils were back to where they had started 60 years earlier.
The U.N. welcomed the election in a statement, calling it an "important opportunity to foster political reconciliation."