COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s presidential frontrunners both promise lasting peace with the Tamil Tigers if elected at this month’s poll, but while their pledges strike a chord with ordinary voters, they may have misjudged the rebels. Sporadic grenade attacks and shootings in and around Tiger-held areas ahead of the Nov.17 poll serve as an eerie reminder of a silent conflict that has killed dozens since a 2002 ceasefire halted two decades of civil war.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – prime suspect of the August assassination of the island’s foreign minister — are refusing to resume peace talks they pulled out of in 2003 because they are not ready for a long-term deal, analysts say.
“The LTTE simply are not in a position to give up their demand for a separate state yet,” said Kethesh Loganathan of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.
“It is one of the factors which is holding them back from entering into negotiations on a permanent settlement,” he said.
“They are not committed to a permanent peace within a united Sri Lanka.”
The Tigers, who have an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 cadres, want interim self-rule in the 15 per cent of Sri Lanka they control with their own courts, tax system and even speedgun-toting traffic police.
But they insist on dictating the terms in their quest for a homeland for minority Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese, which stalled the peace process under outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Peace envoys and truce monitors say a return to a full-blown war that killed over 64,000 people is unlikely, but analysts expect little change whoever wins the election.
“You get the inevitable feeling that they have an agenda and that they have been keeping to it,” said Iqbal Athas, a defence analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly, referring to a spate of killings of intelligence and military officials.
“Since 2002 they have built a much stronger military machine ... That is one of the reasons the peace talks remain stalled at the moment,” he added. “(The election outcome) is not going to make a substantive difference to the peace process.”
Presidential hopeful and main opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who brokered the truce as former Prime Minister and is seen by many as best placed to cement lasting peace, is offering the rebels devolution of power along federal lines.
His main opponent, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, has allied himself with hardline Marxists and Buddhist monks who detest the rebels, and has angered the Tigers by ruling out a Tamil homeland and vowing to tighten the rules of the ceasefire.
The Tigers say they don’t trust either candidate, and pro-rebel students and worker unions have been urging Tamils to boycott the poll, which analysts say could go against the more moderate and conciliatory Wickremesinghe.
“After the election, all the promises are forgotten,” S.P. Thamilselvan, head of the LTTE’s political wing, said last week. “We are totally unconcerned about the outcome of this election.”
Frustrated diplomats and investors fed up with the protracted impasse are resigned that any permanent peace deal — key to opening the gates to foreign investment in the $20 billion economy — is a distant ideal for now.—Reuters