Colombo // A doctor who drew world attention to civilian deaths during the Sri Lankan army's defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels last year is to contest polls this week for a party that backs the man behind the offensive. Veerakathipillai Shanmugarajah, 40, was detained following the army's final victory over the Tigers and accused, with four other medics, of falsely spreading rebel propaganda to international aid agencies and journalists.
Now he's running for parliament in Thursday's election for a Tamil party that has thrown its support behind the president Mahinda Rajapakse, who ordered the military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). "I believe President Rajapaksa is ideally suited to lead and rebuild our country after the war. I will work to support him," Mr Shanmugarajah said ahead of the vote, which is expected to consolidate the president's hold on power.
The United Nations says at least 7,000 civilians perished in the final four months of the army's assault on the northern jungle area holding the remnants of the LTTE's fighting force. That assessment was partly based on the information provided by the handful of doctors who remained inside the war zone right up until the military secured victory over the Tigers on May 18, after more than three decades of conflict.
The doctors said between 350 and 400 civilians were killed in fighting in the final month of battle, while a similar number perished between January and April last year. During their subsequent detention in military custody, Mr Shanmugarajah and the other doctors retracted their claims, saying they had only spoken under rebel pressure. They were then released and given their jobs back. "I don't want to talk about the casualty figures. That's over," Mr Shanmugarajah said by telephone from his home in the northern town of Mullaittivu.
"We worked under very difficult conditions, with no electricity, proper medicines or equipment during the final days," he said. "We had to keep moving the hospital to avoid the bombs and shells. Our people suffered a lot. But now things are much better with the war over." Mr Shanmugarajah, who has performed hundreds of field surgeries during the fighting, gave up his state sector job and is a candidate from the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students - a former militant group that was linked to the LTTE but now backs Mr Rajapakse.
According to the elections department, some 267,000 people are registered to cast their vote in the Wanni area, which covers six constituencies including Mullaittivu, which Mr Shanmugarajah is contesting. But the actual number of voters is believed to be less than half that, as many remain in makeshift state-run relief camps further north, nearly a year after the bitter conflict ended. "I am confident my people, the patients I looked after, will vote for me and get me to parliament," Mr Shanmugarajah said.
* Agence France-Presse