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COLOMBO: Peace lobbyists claim war is not imminent, despite the newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse appointing a hardliner prime minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who has previously supported a military crushing of the LTTE.

Peace advocates opine that the premiership being given to SLFP party senior and a former premier Ratnasiri Wickremanayake is not a pro-war move but a tactical one to salvage peace within the UPFA’s main constituent party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which saw much turbulence recently.

Peace activists state that President Rajapakse, elected by a margin of 180,786 votes, is not a war-monger but casts doubt on how he and his minority government can override the highly influential Marxist partner, the pro-war JVP who helped him win the election.

Meanwhile top government sources on Tuesday confirmed the holding of a general election early next year, with the aim of securing a two-third majority government.

Political observers envisage that a general election could obtain the government enough votes for a majority regime, provided Rajapakse breaks down the prejudice that has piled against him following extremist Sinhala chauvinist parties campaigning for him.

“President Rajapakse seems to be treading a moderate liberalist line but the question is just how much he can keep the JVP’s ultra nationalistic demands at bay. A general election and an acquiring of enough votes for a majority in parliament is the only way to avoid being held a virtual political hostage by the JVP,” observes Dr Jehan Perera, media director of the National Peace Council in Colombo.

“He has to win the trust of the minority Muslims and Tamils as well as the Sinhala community who put their weight behind Wickremesinghe at the presidential election”, says Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuthu, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

“Rajapakse’s commitment to the unitary state will make getting a headway with the LTTE a difficult task,” says Dr Kumar Rupasinghe, head of the Foundation for Co-existence.

He notes that Rajapakse’s win dictates caution but adds that much of what the future may hold for the country will depend on the LTTE leader and war maestro Vellupillai Prabhakaran who will make public his grand design in his annual heroes’ day speech on November 27.

The LTTE’s hopes for President Rajapakse and his Marxist allies to bite the war bait was revealed in a recent broadcast by one of its main ideologues, K V Balakumaran, over Voice of Tigers radio. Balakumaran declared that ‘Rajapakse’s victory is Prabhakaran’s victory’.

Balakumaran contended that the LTTE boycott of the November 17 election was dictated by a desire to ‘test the mind’ of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in regard to the Tamil ethnic question.

According to him the election result would help demonstrate to the West that the dominant Sinhala-Buddhist constituency was against meeting the basic demands of the Tamils.

However key government minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle dismissed that the LTTE was attempting to trap the government.

“We do not think they want war. As far as we are concerned we will immediately begin setting a base for peace talks. They (the LTTE) will not be able to claim we are against Tamil aspiration,” he said.

He stated that the government would give the LTTE the ‘maximum possible devolution of power’ within a unitary state.

Asked about LTTE’s strong reservations to the terminology ‘unitary’, Fernandopulle claimed that ‘undue prominence’ should not be given ‘to a mere word’.

“There is no question of a separate state but we will certainly take all aspects of their demands into consideration and devolve power to all regions,” the minister said.

Meanwhile in an unexpected stance the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which pledged support to Ranil Wickremesinghe, said it would give President Rajapakse’s UPFA ‘conditional support’.

SLMC secretary Hassan Ali said the decision was taken following the interest shown by President Rajapakse towards renewing stalled peace talks with the Tigers.

“The decision to support the government was reached on Wednesday but this is only in relation to the peace process. We have asked the government to tell us how they would carry the peace process forward,” Ali said.

He said the SLMC would push for an autonomous power sharing arrangement for Muslims in the LTTE dominated northeast, on a non-contiguous basis. The Muslim Congress is to insist on a separate stakeholder status in peace talks.

Norwegian Embassy media spokesperson Tom Knapskog commenting on the peace momentum said that Norway, which has already intimated to the new president its availability to continue as peace facilitator, was waiting for a formal response.

Asked to comment on statements by President Rajapakse that he would want India and regional countries to be involved in the peace finding task, the spokesperson said that Norway would not oppose any regional country being ushered in as co-peace facilitator.

“We have always kept closely in touch with India with regard to the Sri Lankan peace process and have no opposition against India being brought into the picture,” he said.