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Sri Lanka’s Tamils back president’s challenger

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The retired postal worker knows who he's voting against in Thursday's presidential election. Like most ethnic Tamils on this island nation, he cannot even imagine voting for the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man who solidified his power base by crushing a brutal Tamil insurgency and then largely ignored Tamil demands to heal the wounds of the decades-long civil war. So 67-year-old Santhiyapillai Pathmarajan plans to cast his ballot for the president's former friend and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, who defected from the ruling party just a few weeks ago and has created a formidable political opposition. But he's not happy about it. "We will see what a new leader will do," said Pathmarajan, who lives in Jaffna, in the northern Tamil heartland. "But both (candidates) are evil." For Sri Lanka's Tamil community, the election is about the chance to defeat Rajapaksa. The main Tamil political party is not offering a presidential candidate and has come out in support of the opposition. But it's hard to find a Tamil voter pleased with either of the two main candidates. Francis Pillai Roylans, a security guard in Jaffna can't decide if he'll vote for Sirisena or simply ruin his ballot paper in silent protest. "We need a change of government," he said. "Mahinda is seen by the world as a war criminal. If we back him, the world community will not be with us." But even Sirisena "hasn't said what solution he has for us," he said. It's hard to know who will win Thursday's election as reliable polling data is scarce. Tamil political leaders have thrown half-hearted support behind Sirisena mainly because they detest Rajapaksa so much. They are also hopeful that a change in leadership would help Tamils to rebuild their lives after the war, and perhaps even lead to a power-sharing agreement that would give Tamils more autonomy, even though Sirisena has said he opposes the idea. "We need a leader who will have the courage and conviction to give all the people of this country their right to live as equal citizens," Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance told Sri Lanka's Sunday Times newspaper a few days ago. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are ethnic Sinhalese, who make up about three-quarters of the island's 21 million people. Neither man has done much to reach out to Tamils, who account for about 9 percent of the population. Their policy statements ignore central Tamil political demands, from locating missing persons to ending the military occupation of private land in Tamil areas. Rajapaksa's power has grown immensely since the war's end in 2009, when he was hailed as a savior among many Sinhalese for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels, a campaign that included relentless artillery bombardment that a U.N. report says may have killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians. That, of course, is why he is despised by most Tamils, who also blame him for abductions, allegedly by pro-government militias, at the end of the fighting. Five years later, thousands of Tamils remain unaccounted for, and hundreds remain jailed without charges. Instead of seeking to integrate Tamils into Sri Lankan society after the war, rights groups say the government has isolated them by neglecting refugees and maintaining a large, intrusive army in the Tamil heartland. They also accuse the government of involving the military in private business deals. Rajapaksa has denied all the allegations, and says his efforts to rebuild the country's infrastructure, such as its road and electricity networks, prove his commitment to the Tamils. He called the election two years before his second term ends, hoping to win a third six-year term before memories of the war faded. Provincial elections also showed that his popularity was sliding. Rajapaksa seemed destined for easy victory until Sirisena's sudden defection. Since then, Sirisena has gathered support from dozens of formerly pro-government politicians, many angry at the president for taking too much power for himself and his relatives. The opposition accuses Rajapaksa of widespread corruption, a charge he denies. The president accuses Sirisena of courting "separatist forces" and says his defection is the result of a conspiracy by Western governments and overseas Tamils who want to destabilize the country. Sirisena, meanwhile, accuses Rajapaksa of protecting former Tiger leaders, particularly the group's former arms buyer, who was arrested in Malaysia after the civil war's end but has never been prosecuted. Political analyst Kusal Perera said both candidates have ignored Tamil concerns because they are nationalists who "don't see Sri Lanka as a pluralistic, secular state." In recent months, Rajapaksa has taken a few steps to seek Tamil support. He has ordered the return to owners of gold jewelry pawned in Tamil Tiger banks and seized by government forces during the fighting. He also oversaw the resumption of train service to the Tamil heartland after 24 years. But he knows how Tamil voters see him. "I don't know if you know Sirisena, but you know me," he told a campaign rally in northern Jaffna. "All I want to tell you is that there is a saying, 'The known devil is better than an unknown angel,'" he said." I want to remind you that this known devil is far better than the unknown."