JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Jan 9, 2015 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s Tamils on Friday celebrated their key role in ousting Mahinda Rajapakse, whose 11th-hour charm offensive and exhortation to vote for "the known devil" was too little, too late.
Rajapakse was strongly resented among Tamils in Sri Lanka after ordering a brutal military suppression of a separatist insurgency in which thousands of civilians are said to have died.
With the majority Sinhalese vote split between the president and his successful challenger Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s largest minority group emerged as kingmakers in the polls.
"We were the deciding factor at this election," said school teacher Kanchana Keethiswaran in the northern Jaffna peninsula, scene of the worst of the violence in the decades-long conflict.
"We hope the new president does not forget that he won only because of our (Tamil) votes."
Rajapakse had travelled to Jaffna last week for a campaign rally, as the extent of support for the opposition among majority Sinhalese became clear.
During a campaign rally he told residents that Sirisena was a stranger to the region, while he had travelled there at least 11 times after first becoming president in 2005.
"The devil you know is better than the unknown angel," he said in Sinhala, speaking through a translator. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me."
The somewhat mangled metaphor appears to have rung true for many Tamils, who came out in unusually large numbers to vote for Sirisena despite some reports of intimidation.
More than a million Tamils endorsed Sirisena, who took a 51.28-percent share of the vote nationwide to secure the presidency.
– Vote for peace –
The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), backed Sirisena’s candidacy and said it was grateful to its supporters for electing their choice for the top job.
But it made clear it expected him to address the issue of greater autonomy for Tamil areas of the country — something that may prove a challenge given that his diverse support base includes Sinhalese nationalists.
"The new president Sirisena has to address urgently many grave issues the country faces, including an honourable resolution of the national question," the TNA said, in a reference to Tamil autonomy.
The Tamil Tigers ran Jaffna as a de facto state for nearly five years until they were dislodged in 1995 and the area has been heavily militarised since the war ended in 2009.
Tamils in the arid peninsula strongly oppose the large military presence in the region, which they see as an occupation.
International rights groups have also asked Colombo to withdraw its troops, a demand rejected by the government.
Retired Tamil civil servant S. Sebanayagam, 73, said Tamils had voted for "change" — the campaign slogan of Sirisena, who has promised to investigate war time rights abuses, a highly emotive issue.
Rajapakse refused to acknowledge that his troops killed any civilians while defeating Tamil rebels in a bloody offensive in May 2009. In all, around 100,000 people were killed in the conflict between 1972 and 2009.
Rajapakse had spent billions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure in the former war zones, but failed to win popular support.
"We voted to get our dignity back," said a Tamil journalist who asked not to be named.
"We may have good roads and a new railway line, but what we want is to live in peace."