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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 28.11.05

When it takes hard work and patience to carve out even the first step to a peace process, the threat of a return to harder positions can be very disheartening. The elevation of the former prime minister of Sri Lanka, Mr Mahinda Rajapakse, to the chair of president of the island nation has, inevitably, given rise to such fears. A left-of-centre hardliner, Mr Rajapakse allies himself to Marxists and nationalist Sinhalese Buddhists, with support from rural Sinhalese. There is no way he would take the softer line towards the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that his defeated rival and opposition leader, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, might have taken. The latter was the architect of the ceasefire of 2002, although the peace negotiations have begun to falter for a while. The assassination of the foreign minister by suspected rebels in August is an index of that. The LTTE not only boycotted the elections, but also prevented the people in the Tamil-dominated north and east from voting. Ironically, that pushed Mr Wickremesinghe towards defeat. Mr Wickremesinghe, from his moderate position, may have offered the ethnic Tamils the alternative of some degree of autonomy; Mr Rajapakse will not consider a federalist option. That would make it easier for the extremists to demand separation for the Tamil minority.

Extreme positions tend to provoke violence of greater intensity and duration. Although it is to be hoped that Mr Rajapakse will be able to put the peace process in place again, his dismissal of proposals of greater power for the Tamils or sharing aid with the tsunami-hit Tigers leaves no doubt about his attitude towards the extremists. He has also sworn in the hardline nationalist, Mr Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, as his prime minister instead of his running mate, who was of a federalist disposition. It is the job of extremists to destroy peace and ask for what is hardest to get. They might be using the interval of the ceasefire to regroup. But for the new president, keeping violence in check would be the priority.