A stunning advance by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers could hurt President Kumaratunga's chances in this week's election and, maybe, bring peace talks
By MICHAEL FATHERS Batticaloa
At the beginning of November, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger guerrillas cut through army lines in the north of the country and regained in one week all the territory that had been taken from them over the past two years. It was a spectacular rout. Hundreds of government soldiers fled the rain-sodden jungle, dashing the army's chances of securing a land route to garrisons in the Jaffna peninsula at the tip of the country. The setback made it clear that there could be no military solution to Sri Lanka's 16-year civil war. "It was a debacle," says former army chief General Gerry De Silva. "Something drastic is needed. We just don't have the resources to take them on realistically."
On one side of the ballot is President Kumaratunga, 54, scion of the country's leading political family. She swept into office in 1994, leading a coalition called the People's Alliance. She fought that campaign on a platform to end the ethnic war that pits Sri Lanka's 2.2 million Tamils against its 15 million Sinhalese. She also proposed constitutional reforms designed to devolve substantial power to Sri Lanka's provinces, in a bid to meet the LTTE's demand for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country. The Tigers scuttled her first and only attempt to negotiate, in 1995. In response, she stepped up the war, sending the army to seize Jaffna and open a land route through the Tiger-held northern area of Wanni. In this she also failed, and her constitutional reforms were rejected by both parliament and the LTTE. The goodwill that brought her to power has largely dissipated.
The President's main rival is Ranil Wickramasinghe, 50, leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP). A former Prime Minister, he presents himself as the only option left for peace. He promises to open an immediate dialogue with the LTTE and set up an interim council of the north and east to restore "normalcy." He has also accepted the LTTE's demand for international mediation, though he coyly redefines this to be "third party assistance."
"No one knows what the LTTE will settle for," says a Western diplomat. "Nor does anyone know whether the LTTE has reached the point of exhaustion where they want to negotiate. Are they willing to settle for anything less than a homeland?" These are questions the two main presidential contenders cannot answer. Unlike the Irish Republican Army, which has Sinn Fein as its political arm, the Tamil Tigers lack an equivalent civilian representative. There is only one leader, one voice: Velupillai Prabhakaran. In an address last month, Prabhakaran described Kumaratunga's rule as "a curse on the Tamil people." He added: "She does not have the honesty and determination to resolve the Tamil national conflict in a fair and reasonable manner."
Below the surface, however, is another world. Some areas, not cleared of Tamil insurgents, are left alone by the army. A dual government operates in the gray areas where Colombo's writ is not firmly established. "There is a night government and a day government," says Nallaia, a retired paper worker at a pro-Wickramasinghe election rally in a village north of Batticaloa. "The night government supports the people, but I won't open my door to anyone after nightfall. The day government harasses us and rounds up our young men for spot checks." People move freely between the checkpoints into and out of LTTE-controlled areas after showing their identity cards. Foreign aid groups such as Médecins sans Frontières make the trips almost daily. "You can't divide people here," says Batticaloa's Roman Catholic Bishop Kingsley Swamipillai. "There is a constant mingling of civilians."
M.L. Hizbullah, the district's parliamentary representative and Sri Lanka's deputy minister of posts and telecommunications, says he has good relations with the Tigers. "I cannot develop Batticaloa without LTTE support," he says. "All raw materials are under their control and nothing can be built without their approval." The roads may belong to the government, but the countryside belongs to the insurgents. Last week Hizbullah was told by the LTTE to cut back on his campaigning for President Kumaratunga in LTTE-controlled areas. He stopped going there, but his political workers did put up posters. There are no such LTTE restrictions on the rival campaign. According to the Bishop, the Tigers have made their choice clear: they prefer Wickramasinghe. "There is no other choice for the Tamil people, and I have reason to hope that a settlement is probable," he says.
Back in Colombo, it is hard to believe that the country has been at war since 1983; that 60,000 people have been killed; that political murders have wiped out almost a generation of the country's leaders, including a President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and an Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi; that the army is short of recruits; that desertion is commonplace; that the cost of the war so far is $20 billion. In the capital, the country's élite party on; new restaurants are opening; the sun is shining. The economy is ticking along with an annual growth rate of around 4%, and the war is being financed by deficit. Tourism is picking up, the new garment industry is thriving. There is no draft and no peace movement of any size. The war remains distant. "The vast majority of Sri Lankans don't know how bloody the war is--it is just not part of their psyche or their understanding," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the non-government Center for Policy Alternatives. The same could probably be said about most of the country's politicians. At last week's election rallies, the two presidential candidates spoke about prosperity, creating jobs and reshaping the economy so that Sri Lanka would emerge in the new millennium as the Singapore of South Asia. And the war? It never got a mention.
With reporting by Waruna Karunatilake/Colombo
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