Short fuse in Sri Lanka

Posted in Asia | 05-Dec-05 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (L) shakes hands with UN envoy Bill Clinton.
Recent events in Sri Lanka suggest that the island desperately needs help from international peace brokers if it is to avoid slipping back into a bloody internecine war that has been suspended since a 2002 cease-fire.

The outcome of last month's presidential election has stoked fears that the war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam will resume in coming months. The new president, Mahinda Rajapakse, won a narrow victory in alliance with two hard-line Sinhala nationalist parties thanks to an election boycott by most of the minority Tamils in the north of the island.

In an address to Parliament on Nov. 26, Rajapakse warned ominously that he will reject self-determination for the Tamils, that he is committed to a "unitary state" controlled by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, that he wants to dissolve the current joint Tiger-government administration of post-tsunami relief, and that he plans to end a peace process that has been mediated by Norway.

Two days later, the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, delivering his annual Heroes' Day speech, restated the Tigers' familiar aim of self-government in a Tamil homeland, noted a "vast" policy difference between the new president and the Tigers and warned that Tamils are losing patience. "The new government should come forward soon with a reasonable political framework that will satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamil people," he said. If no such offer is forthcoming, Prabhakaran said, the Tigers will in the next year "intensify our struggle for self-determination."

This either-or threat, seen alongside Rajapakse's own hard-line stance, presages an imminent renewal of civil war.

Former President Bill Clinton, who toured government-controlled areas of Sri Lanka on Tuesday as a UN special tsunami envoy, grasped the danger looming over the island should the current cease-fire be washed away. "Any recovery progress achieved this year will be quickly reversed if Sri Lanka returns to civil conflict," Clinton warned.

Sri Lanka has limited strategic importance for the United States, but America's new strategic partner, India, has much to fear from a recurrence of warfare between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. India and the United States should bring international pressure to bear on the island's belligerents to sustain the current cease-fire and craft a political resolution that recognizes the Tamil need for self-government.