COLOMBO (AFP) – Nearly six years after Sri Lanka’s army destroyed the Tamil Tigers, their ghosts are haunting a bitterly fought presidential election as the embattled incumbent seeks to boost his share of the vote.
The Tamil Tigers terrorised Sri Lanka for decades with their trademark suicide bombings and high-profile assassinations before suffering a spectacular defeat in May 2009, ending a civil war that had claimed 100,000 lives.
President Mahinda Rajapakse took credit for the no-holds-barred military offensive that all but wiped out the rebels, and won a landslide re-election victory the following year.
But as the post-war gloss begins to wear off, the president has hinted darkly at a Tiger resurgence if he is not returned to power when the country goes to the polls on Thursday.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) traumatised the population and deliberately undermined previous Sri Lankan elections by carrying out bomb attacks that killed candidates and scores of supporters.
Even the Tamils they claimed to represent were not spared by the rebels’ ruthless attacks and they are accused of killing thousands within the community to take leadership of the struggle for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka’s biggest ethnic minority.
In the aftermath of the war, the president bulldozed Tamil Tiger memorials and war graves to remove any trace of the fallen rebels.
But analysts say he is hoping the prospect of a resurgence may be enough to dissuade voters from ditching their strongman president.
"The president thinks that the LTTE factor will influence the Sinhalese to vote for him," rights activist Jehan Perera told AFP.
"There is so much propaganda it will be difficult for people to figure out what is the truth and what is not," said Perera, head of the Colombo-based National Peace Council.
– Election rhetoric –
The LTTE were best known for orchestrating suicide bombings that claimed the lives of a Sri Lankan president and a former Indian prime minister.
At the height of their powers, the Tigers had a dedicated band of suicide bombers as well as light planes, crude submersible craft and an efficient naval unit.
They ran their own police, courts, a civil administration and even a bank.
Norwegian-brokered peace talks that began in 2002 unravelled by 2006 when the Tigers tried to assassinate the then army chief Sarath Fonseka.
Although there have been no Tiger attacks since the end of the war in 2009, the rebels have figured in the rhetoric of both sides.
Rajapakse accuses the opposition centre-right United National Party (UNP) of appeasement because the party tried to secure a peace deal with the rebels when it was in power between 2002 and 2004.
Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena has accused Rajapakse of bribing the Tigers to organise a Tamil boycott of the 2005 election that brought him to power.
The rebels expected Rajapakse to be a soft president, but he turned the tables on them and launched a no-holds-barred offensive to finish off what was widely believed to be an un-winnable war.
He is now seeking an unprecedented third term, although allegations of rampant corruption and a failure to bring about reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese population have dented his popularity.
Tamils voting as a bloc on Thursday could emerge kingmakers in the likely event of the majority Sinhalese vote splitting down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena, who are both Sinhalese.
Although Rajapakse is generally popular among the Sinhalese for crushing the Tigers, he is disliked by many Tamils.
Many of the domestic travel restrictions imposed during the war have been eased and a state of emergency lifted.
But the draconian Prevention of Terrorism law is still in force and the former war zone remains under tight military control.