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  Asia-Pacific
Sri Lanka's Ethnic War Knows No End
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Chandrika Kumaratunga

Sri Lanka's two-decade-old ethnic war does not appear to be closer to a solution. The island nation's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, has invited the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, for a meeting.

The Tigers have been waging a war for the independence of Tamil speaking regions in the country. Sri Lanka is run by the majority Sinhalas, who are Buddhists.

Kumaratunga, while agreeing to meet Prabhakaran, has made it conditional that the stalled peace talks must "progress." She also declared that she would not hesitate to send troops into the LTTE-controlled regions if the internecine conflict endangered the nation's stability and prosperity.

In a recent interview with an American news agency, the president said: "I am willing to meet Mr. Prabhakaran not for the sake of shaking hands, but with the firm intention of seeing that this will lead to the resumption of the negotiations, and their definite progress."

Although the Tigers did drop their demand for a separate homeland for Tamils in the north and east of the island, and have instead settled for greater political, economic and administrative autonomy, subsequent developments have been sending confusing signals to both Colombo and the rebels.

Velupillai Prabhakaran

What, however, is clear is that there is unrest in the LTTE ranks. A couple of months ago, there was a revolt by the LTTE's former military commander, V. Muralitharan, and Kumaratunga had then suggested that Prabhakaran allow the government forces to restore order in especially the eastern region where the trouble had brewed. But the Tigers declined to accept the help.

Observers say that the "mutiny" indicated restlessness among the LTTE's cadres and leaders. Obviously, there are many among the Tigers who are weary of this long battle with Colombo and are now eager to settle down to a peaceful and economically viable existence.

But, Prabhakaran seems to be still rigid. The Tigers told the Press recently that they were under no pressure from the international community to restart the peace talks. If they continue to remain suspended, the cause was Sri Lanka's political contradictions and power struggles. The Tamils have lost faith in the process.

There is a running feud between Kumaratunga and her political party and that of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a system that resembles the French political pattern. There have been enough pointers to suggest that this "quarrel" has been a detriment to restarting the peace process. Both leaders want to clinch the honor of having been the one to crack a very difficult imbroglio.

Sri Lanka's Tamil regions

The LTTE is admittedly ready to resume the dialogue, but on the basis of a proposal to establish an Interim Self Government Authority. This was endorsed by the Tamils at the recent general elections.

What the polls certainly did not was the terror tactics unleashed by the Tigers in July. There were three gruesome attacks in Colombo that not only re-opened the LTTE's urban front, but also revealed that its intelligence wing had the remarkable ability to penetrate even the most carefully laid-out plans of the adversary.

That the Tigers can never be tamed has been the contention of Kumaratunga and some others in Sri Lanka. A common belief is that the tiger cannot be expected to change its stripes.

This may be somewhat exaggerated, because there is a distinct group within the LTTE that wants to lay down arms and become part of the mainstream society. Encouraging this is the general world view after September 11 that is far less tolerant of violence as a means of achieving political goals.

Although this may sound farfetched and unrealistic at the moment, it now appears that unless Prabhakaran decides to step down or considerably soften his stand, an end to the war in Sri Lanka may not be coming so easily. Prabhakaran's ruthless methods are legendary, and he brooks no dissent. Rather, he kills it, and does this with little mercy.

A Tamil Tigers plainclothes soldier stands watch over a news conference by the group's political wing in rebel-controlled Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka Mar 6, 2004.
Courtesy Reuters/Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi

His concern for the Tamils may be genuine, but the price he is willing to pay to get a rightful place for this on the island is enormous. Murder, mayhem and forcible recruitment of children to serve in his army are but some of the notorious things that Prabhakaran has been freely doing.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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