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 won’t 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 Prabhakaran’s 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
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 Norway’s role as a peace
Analysts say Rajapakse’s 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
Rajapakakse’s 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
Center’s 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
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
That group could work to thwart the ceasefire
agreement unless it is included in the peace
The search for a new mediator to take Norway’s
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 1980’s to keep the peace in Sri
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,