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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 13.04.04

The worst fears about the peace process in Sri Lanka have come true rather too soon. The eruption of violence between rival factions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam may not be directly linked to the recent elections in the country, but it surely makes the new government’s task so much more difficult. When it takes charge later this month, the government of the prime-minister-elect, Mr Mahinda Rajapakse, will have to face its first test over resuming the peace-talks with the LTTE that broke down a year ago. It cannot ignore the fact that the United People’s Freedom Alliance, led by the president, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga, won the elections largely because of the Sinhala disapproval of the peace negotiations by the outgoing prime minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Sinhala perception that Mr Wickremesinghe was conceding too much to the LTTE had much to do with the defeat of his United National Party. The violence within the ranks of the rebels may make it difficult for the new government to accept the LTTE’s demand that it be taken as the “sole representative” of the Tamils. But then the government cannot be seen to be taking advantage of the conflicts within the LTTE. That would definitely give the LTTE an excuse to walk out of the peace process or even violate the ceasefire agreement.

The developments in Sri Lanka would naturally cause much concern in New Delhi. Mr Rajapakse has called for greater Indian involvement in the island’s peace process. No matter how anxious it is to see the peace talks with the LTTE resumed by the new government, New Delhi is unlikely to involve itself in the new initiatives for peace. The unhappy memories of earlier Indian ventures would be a deterrent. Moreover, New Delhi cannot afford to ignore the increasing hostility to Indian involvement from the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna, a partner in the UPFA. The hardening rhetoric during the election campaign casts a shadow over the peace process. And the fratricidal battles within the LTTE have only darkened this shadow. This was evident in Ms Kumaratunga’s warning that the resumption of dialogues could be delayed by the rebels’ factional fighting. Worse still, the Sri Lankan government itself could be embroiled in the fighting if it spread to areas outside the rebels’ control. There are grounds for hope, though, in Ms Kumaratunga’s public commitment to the ceasefire agreement and the UPFA’s electoral pledge to continue with the negotiations “with a correct approach”. It is for the new government to keep that hope alive.