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September 25, 2004

Sri Lankans Fear Ceasefire's End

by Jim Lobe

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka - There are slim hopes that the Sri Lankan government and rebel Tamil Tigers will restart peace talks soon after four people, including a top renegade Tiger fighter, were shot dead in growing factional fighting in the country.

The killings on Thursday came days after Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim expressed his own frustrations at the on-the-ground reality between the two sides.

"Even if Jesus Christ or Buddha came, they will not be able to do this easily," Solheim told reporters last weekend soon after meeting the Tigers' political head S. P. Tamilselvan at the rebels' Peace Secretariat in this northern Sri Lankan city.

Solheim said that the Norwegians did not expect any breakthrough in the near future. "Some people think that the Norwegian facilitators are some kind of demigods or magicians. I can tell you it will not happen. It will not be finished in one visit," he said.

About 64,000 people have died in the war in Sri Lanka. Fighting has been on hold since Norway brokered a truce in February 2002, but many are worried that the current crisis could put the ceasefire under strain.

In April 2002, the Tamil Tigers pulled out claiming they were being sidelined. Later they wanted to discuss proposals for an interim government in the north – which the government of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was unwilling to do. And neither has the proposal received a concrete response from the present government.

On Thursday, the main unit of the Tamil Tigers ambushed and killed a rebel known as Reggie and two of his close aides in rebel-held eastern Sri Lanka, the Tamilnet Web site said. According to police, suspected Tiger gunmen also killed a rival political activist in the capital Colombo.

Reggie was the deputy and brother of breakaway Tiger leader V. Muralitharan, better known as Karuna.

The Tigers accuse Karuna of siding with the Sri Lankan army and waging what they call a proxy war against them. But the government and the army have strenuously denied any involvement with the rebel defector.

In the meantime, Norwegian envoy Solheim met with President Chandrika Kumaratunga in an attempt to shift attention from the deadlock to gains achieved from the 2002 ceasefire.

"Everyone should appreciate the enormous benefit of this no war-no peace situation. If war had been here, maybe 10,000 or 20,000 people would have been killed," he said.

The benefits have undoubtedly been immense. At the Kilinochchi Central College, the student population has increased more than hundred percent since the ceasefire – from 662 in 2001 to 1,585 this year.

"Children are now eager to come to school," the college's principal P. Muttaiah told IPS.

Banks operating in Tiger held areas are also doing good business.

"Since the ceasefire the customer base has grown by a large number," said Vivekanandan Jananadan, the Kilinochchi branch manger of the Tiger controlled Bank of Tamileelam.

The branch serves more than 10,000 customers. Three banks under the Sri Lankan government, too, operate in the town and boast of a similar customer base. One of them, the National Savings Bank has an allocation of 170,000 U.S. dollars for loans to businesses.

At the Kilinochchi vegetable market, vendors said that business has never been this stable before.

"Business is good here, we don't have big problems. It will be good if it stays this way," K. G. Hemalatha told IPS.

She and her husband are the only Sinhalese doing business in Kilinochchi's main market. This northern city is predominately Tamil, though Sinhalese make up about 70 percent of the island's 19.2 million population.

Most of vendors at Kilinochchi market said that despite transport costs and taxes levied by the Tigers, business was stable as supplies were getting there without disruptions. "We have no plans of leaving this place if things remain this way," said Hemalatha's husband, Raju.

While the talks might be deadlocked, development work is continuing in this northern city. A new water tower is being built right next to the one destroyed during the war.

The A9 highway that links the northern Jaffna Peninsula with the rest of the country is paved and well-maintained, a far cry from the pothole-ridden dirt track that was open to the public in 2002 just after the ceasefire.

But fears of a resumption of hostilities still persist among Kilinochchi residents.

"No body is going to live forever, not even [Velupillai] Prabhakaran [Tamil Tiger leader] or the president," said Shamnugam Sivasa, a coconut seller.

"While this struggle is for land, the sons of innocent men and women are dying," he lamented.

Until the ceasefire was declared, the Tigers had been fighting for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east. They argued that theTamils have been discriminated against by successive majority Sinhalese governments.

But, as peace talks progressed, the Tigers dropped their demand for independence and said they would settle for regional autonomy – a major concession.

A resumption of hostilities would roll back whatever that has been achieved during the almost three years of peace.

"If war breaks out all this would be lost," Kilinochchi Central College principal Muttaiah said.

In areas under its control, the Tigers definitely have the support to revert to armed hostilities.

"You have to understand that even if we don't agree with all the policies of the Tamil Tigers, they are fighting for us. We have to be given what was denied to us in the past," said P. Kandasamy, a retired civil servant.

Tamil Tiger political chief Tamilselvan stopped short of giving an all out guarantee on peace last week.

Remarking that the peace process has reached a crisis situation, he told IPS, "We are adopting patience and the Tamil people are adopting patience, but of course there is a time limit."

"We will not stipulate on time frames, we will only say that the people are the judges. At the time when the people lose their patience, the act of the Tigers will become inevitable."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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