Student groups with ties to Sri Lanka's feared insurgents called for minority Tamils to boycott Sri Lanka's presidential election, widely seen as a referendum on the country's faltering peace process. Groups linked to the Tamil Tigers have for weeks urged Tamils to stay away from the poll. But the students' announcement was the first call for an outright boycott.
"As far as the Tamil people are concerned, both candidates from the main parties are chauvinists," said a statement from the University Students' Union at the University of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka on Monday.
The election is largely a race between hawkish Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, whom the students' union said "has taken an open stance against the Tamils", and dovish opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom the students' called "a serpent who pretends to be innocent."
"Let us boycott this election, let us observe it as a black day and a mourning day," the group said.
The Tigers have not directly said whether Tamils should vote in Thursday's election, but they often speak through a variety of front groups, including the students' union in Jaffna, the main city in the Tamil heartland of northern Sri Lanka.
More student groups have called for boycott in the country's east, also home to many Tamils, according to the pro-rebel Web site TamilNet.
"Please be firm and be in your residence on Nov. 17 without participating in the presidential poll. The successful boycott of the election would be a victory for Tamil people who have been deceived by Sinhala political leaders," said a statement issued by the Tamil Students Consortium in the districts of Trincomalee and Ampara.
Nearly 66,000 people have been killed since the Tigers took up arms in 1983, claiming discrimination against the country's 3.2 million mostly Hindu Tamils by the Sinhalese majority, most of whom are Buddhist.
An uneasy cease-fire has held since 2002, but peace talks stalled more than two years ago over Tiger demands for greater autonomy in their northern and eastern strongholds.
The rebels run a de facto state in areas they control with their own military, courts and even traffic police. What they lack, however, is recognition, at home or abroad, of the region as a separate entity. "Politically, there has been no progress whatsoever on the Tamil question," said R. Sambandan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, an umbrella group of Tamil political parties that have allied with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
"Our non-voting can be seen as a judgment on the peace process, and the need to send a message to everybody that the Tamils cannot be taken for a ride," he told the Associated Press, noting that both of the country's main political parties have been in power since the cease-fire took hold.
Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe spent their last day on the campaign trail touting starkly different visions for reaching a final peace deal.
Wickremesinghe, who brokered the cease-fire as former prime minister, told thousands of supporters in the southern city of Galle that if elected, he "will immediately move to resume peace talks with the" Tigers. He said that he would offer Tamils autonomy in a federal state.
Tamil voters are widely seen as kingmakers in what is expected to be a close vote, and a boycott could hurt Wickremesinghe, whose campaign is banking on their support, reports the AP. I.L.