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Sri Lanka's Tamils vie for leadership role

Behind sandbagged walls, a driveway lined with metal spikes, a battery of security cameras and rifle-wielding bodyguards sits the man who would be the next leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil community.
Image: Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan
Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, Sri Lankan national integration minister and a former Tamil Tiger military commander once known as Col. Karuna, right, shakes hands with Sri Lankan law maker and presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa at a ceremony held to celebrate the war victories over Tamil Tiger rebels in Colombo, Sri Lanka.Eranga Jayawardena / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Behind sandbagged walls, a driveway lined with metal spikes, a battery of security cameras and rifle-wielding bodyguards sits the man who would be the next leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil community.

Douglas Devananda, a former militant leader who bears the scars of nearly a dozen assassination attempts by the rival Tamil Tigers, tells the AP that with the rebels' defeat he is ready to assume the leadership of the minority group's struggle for greater political power.

"Now the path is clear, we want speedy action," said Devananda, a government minister who also leads a Tamil paramilitary group.

The death of Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran — who targeted government leaders and Tamil rivals with equal zeal — has left a huge void in the Tamil nationalist movement at a crucial moment when the government is promising to negotiate an end to the country's ethnic divide.

Among those vying with Devananda are a former rebel commander whose defection to the government side helped destroy the group, the Tamil Tigers' main ally in parliament and an intellectual critic of both the government and the rebels.

Differ on the degree of power sharing
Nearly all say the path to peace lies in the government devolving authority to the provinces, which would give the Tamils more control over their own affairs in the north and east. But they differ on the degree of power sharing, with some demanding the provinces be essentially self governing and others saying control over social services would be enough.

How much support they have among the Tamil community, and whether any of them would be seen as a legitimate negotiator with the government, is difficult to judge since there has not been a legitimate election in Tamil areas for decades.

Some are seen as government quislings, others as frontmen for the rebels who sent hit squads to kill those who dared challenge Prabhakaran's leadership.

Other potential leaders left the country years ago — under threat or simply seeking a better life far from the war.

"The Tamil leadership is fragmented and facing a daunting task in regaining legitimacy," said Vasantha Sritharan, a political analyst and a leader of the Jaffna branch of the University Teachers for Human Rights.

Devananda, 52, is blind in one eye and half deaf after 11 attempts on his life blamed on the Tamil Tigers. Two years ago, a women with a bomb in her bra blew herself up at Devananda's Social Welfare Ministry, killing one of his top aides. A metal cabinet still standing in the waiting room is pocked with shrapnel.

But Devananda has outlived his nemesis, who was killed last week along with most of the Tamil Tiger leadership in the final battles of the quarter-century war here.

"The demon is gone," said Devananda, a feared paramilitary leader himself.

A time of nationalist fervor
Devananda came of age in a time of nationalist fervor among the Tamils, who had long chafed under what they see as the discriminatory rule of the Sinhalese majority. Many saw no future for themselves in Sri Lanka and began demanding an independent state of their own in the north and east that they called Eelam.

Devananda joined one of many competing militant groups and was sent to Lebanon in 1978 for training by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah group and several years later to Syria for training by other Palestinian militants. In Sri Lanka, he helped lead attacks on Sri Lankan forces.

Serious political grievances
When Prabhakaran began gunning down his rivals, Devananda and his Eelam People's Democratic Party linked up with the very government they had fought.

The Tamils have serious political grievances, Devananda said, but the community should turn away from violence and calls for independence given the government's promises to negotiate.

"If we can solve this amicably, what is the need for a separate state," he said in his cavernous, heavily guarded office.

He said he planned to contest eventual elections in the north. But his candidacy is complicated by his band of armed militants, who are accused of killing, kidnapping and terrorizing Tamils in parts of the north and east.

Across Colombo, in another heavily guarded government ministry, sits a former Tamil Tiger military commander once known as Col. Karuna.

'People can believe the government'
Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan's defection to the government side in 2004 along with thousands of rebel fighters weakened the Tamil Tigers and helped bring about their eventual demise. He still controls a violent militia accused of widespread violence across the east. Now he says he wants to be the Tamils' representative in national politics. But he may have gone too far in his embrace of the government.

He has joined the ruling party, accepted a ministry and perhaps most damning of all, he addressed a victory rally last week in the language of the Sinhalese majority.

Sitting in front of a large Sri Lankan flag at a desk adorned with another smaller national flag, Muralitharan praised President Mahinda Rajapaksa for defeating the rebels and said Tamils have nothing to fear.

"Tamil people can believe the government," he said.

Another contender for the leadership mantle is Rajavarothayam Sambanthan, a lawmaker from the Tamil National Alliance, which has 22 seats in parliament and was closely allied with the rebels until the final days of the war when it suddenly disavowed the group.

'The support of the people'
Yet another would-be leader is Veerasingham Anandasangaree, a veteran politician who leads the Tamil United Liberation Front, which fell out with the rebels over its call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Anandasangaree dismissed his rivals in the Tamil National Alliance as rebel puppets, Karuna as "a dead person" to the community and Devananda as a "threat to democracy, a threat to people's freedom."

His group, one of the oldest and most respected of the Tamil organizations, was shut out in the last election under orders from Prabhakaran, who often directed the Tamil vote from the barrel of a gun, Anandasangaree said.

"We have no parliamentary representation at all. Other than that, we have the support of the people and the faith of the people," he said.