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Tigers roar at president

The election of hardline president is pouring fuel on the flames of violence in Sri Lanka. Venu Menon reports

Escalating violence in Sri Lanka this week has further raised tensions in a country that lost 60,000 lives during its 20-year civil war. The February 2002 ceasefire brokered by Norway is coming under pressure with the election last month of hardline president Mahinda Rajapakse.

Amnesty International says the Government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are now locked in a vicious circle of provocation.

Rajapakse says he is ready to hold talks with the Tigers but wont grant concessions in the name of peace, thus keeping faith with the hardline constituency that helped him win the closely fought election that has left the country polarised along ethnic lines.

The hardline Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna ( JVP ), staunchly opposed to any concessions to the rebels, and the Buddhist-clergy led Jathika Hela Urumaya ( JHU ) cornered the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community votes for Rajapakse.

His opponent, Ranil Wikramasinghe, failed to get the full backing of his minority Tamil support base because of a boycott call by the Tigers.

Some analysts are puzzled over LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakarans decision to enforce a poll boycott in Tamil majority areas.

A full vote might have given the victory to Wikmasinghe and he would most likely have energised the stalled peace process.

Rajapakse is hemmed in by the hardline agenda of his allies.

In his victory speech he was careful not to alienate his political support while defining his approach to peace.

He ruled out any scope for self-government or a separate homeland for the Tamils and proposed to revisit the ceasefire agreement and, if necessary, draw up a fresh one.

He cancelled a signed and sealed tsunami aid-share deal and shut the door on Norways role as a peace broker.

Analysts say Rajapakses course is reckless and could provide the Tigers with an alibi to return to the gun.

One line of thinking is that LTTE boss Prabhakaran deliberately did not back Wikramasinghe, who was favoured by Tamils, to ensure the election threw up a hawkish president who would provoke the Tigers into restarting hostilities.

The rebels rank and file are suspicious of the peace process and prefer instead to consolidate their hold on the territories under their control and rule out any scope for peaceful co-existence.

Stopping short of a declaration of war, Prabhakaran poured scorn on the peace process and ceasefire agreement, describing the distance between Rajapakse and us as being too vast to bridge. He gave Rajapakse: Settle the Tamil question within a year --- or else.

Prospects for future negotiations look bleak. The two sides talk across a yawning ethnic divide that Rajapakakses predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga had strenuously sought to bridge.

Rajapakse must be aware that he has inherited from his predecessor the longest spell of peace for Sri Lanka in two decades

. If Rajapakse continues his hardline approach he may bust up what is left of the peace process, says Robert Rotberg, director of the Belfer Centers Programme on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University.

If Rajapakse can present a truly united negotiating front, and if he approaches the Tigers with imagination and strength, major shifts in the parameters of the negotiations can occur, said Rotberg.

Government negotiators are keen to make the peace talks broad-based to include the rebel faction in eastern Sri Lanka that broke away from the LTTE last year.

That group could work to thwart the ceasefire agreement unless it is included in the peace process.

The search for a new mediator to take Norways place could be another potential stumbling block. India has been touted as a possible replacement but opinion on this is polarised.

India would appear to be a natural choice because it has its own Tamil state but for some factions India evokes bitter memories of its troops being deployed in the 1980s to keep the peace in Sri Lanka.

The stalled peace talks need to be revived before the country slips into the spiral of violence that resulted in the assassination of its foreign minister. The Government blamed the rebels for the killing, which the LTTE denied.


Additional reporting Daily Telegraph
The New Zealand Herald * Saturday, December 10, 2005

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