By Ray Fleming

AFTER 30 years of civil unrest which eventually led last year to the brutal defeat of the minority rebel Tamil Tigers of Eelam, Sri Lanka goes to the polls today in the first presidential election since 2005. The two candidates have much in common and were both directly involved in the final stage of the war against the Tamil community which, according to United Nations estimates led to the death of close to 10'000 Tamil civilians. The incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who leads the United People's Freedom Alliance, decided on the final assault on the Tamils last year after an earlier cease fire had produced no result; he refused appeals from the international community for a further cease fire when the extent of civilian casualties became apparent and subsequently also refused access to the war zone to international relief agencies. His opponent today is General Sarath Fonseka who led the Sri Lankan army in its ultimately successful campaign against the Tamils but later resigned from the army and began a campaign for the presidency based on elimination of corruption, the rights of minorities and media freedom; he leads a coalition of opposition parties. The bitterness between the two candidates and their parties is intense despite the fact that they are both Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. Rajapaksa has led an authoritarian government which clamped down on the media; he sees Fonseka's intervention in the election as little short of treachery.

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