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Sri Lankans vote in key provincial election

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BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankans voted Saturday in a provincial assembly election seen as a test of whether ethnic minority Tamils still want self-rule or are satisfied with government-led economic development in a region devastated by a quarter-century civil war.

As of midday, only small numbers of voters had turned out at polling booths in Batticaloa, one of three districts in Eastern Province. Voters were electing 35 members of the Eastern Provincial Council from 1,470 candidates.

More than a million people were eligible to vote in the three districts.

The Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil political party, is seeking to control a provincial assembly for the first time and hopes a victory will be seen internationally as a mandate for more power-sharing in Tamil-majority areas. The alliance has sought a form of federalism, but talks with the central government have been stalled since January.

The ethnic Sinhalese-controlled central government, meanwhile, wants to show that Tamils are content with postwar development.

The Tamil alliance is unlikely to be able to form a single-party provincial government even if it wins the largest number of seats and has invited a Muslim party, the Sir Lanka Muslim Congress, to join it in a coalition. The Muslim party, another strong contender in the election, has not yet responded.

Tamil politicians have long claimed that Eastern Province is part of a Tamil homeland along with Northern Province.

However, unlike the north where Tamils are an overwhelming majority, the east has near-equal numbers of the three main ethnic groups — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Tamils complain that successive governments since independence from Britain in 1948 have sponsored Sinhalese settlements with the aim of changing the province's demography and weakening the Tamils' claim to it.

Arumugam Shanmuganathan, a 64-year-old Tamil fisherman from Thettrathivu village, said he believes the political rights of Tamil people outweigh the government's record in economic development.

"It's the responsibility of the government to develop all the people, so I voted for our political rights," he said.

Government-backed incumbent Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan said he is confident of winning re-election because the province is regaining the development it lost during the civil war. He said Tamils can only rebuild if they work hand-in-hand with the government.

The country's civil war ended in May 2009 when government forces defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who were seeking to create a separate state for Tamils. Since then, the government has rebuilt a number of roads and bridges in the province, connecting it better with the rest of the country. It also has started a domestic airport project and promotes tourism in the province's long stretches of beaches.