By calling a snap general election on April 2, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has played into the hands of
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even as the rebel group is rocked by a rebellion within.
It was not in her reckoning when she dissolved Parliament that the LTTE would turn the campaign into a referendum to legitimize its claim as the 'sole representative' of the Tamil people and assert its right to control the affairs of the merged Northern and Eastern provinces.
The President's February 7 decision to dissolve Parliament, in spite of the fact that the United National Front (UNF) Government commanded a majority, caught the LTTE unawares. Yet, in a profound display of political prudence, the LTTE was quick to issue a statement that it would continue to honour the ceasefire agreement, whatever the crisis in the South, and whatever Government was in office.
And soon it got into action and came up with a game plan that would certainly become a headache or create a Catch-22 situation for whichever party that forms the next Government. Psephological analyses say that no party will be in a position to win the minimum 113 seats required to form the Government. Neither the UNF of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe nor President Kumaratunga's new United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) will be in a position to form the Government or continue in office without the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which the LTTE has endorsed as its political vehicle.
However, the LTTE plan has suffered a major setback with its eastern leader Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias Karuna, who claims that more than 6,000 cadres are with him, demanding more authority for himself, and challenging the decisions of leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who is not known to tolerate dissent.
In its determination to sweep the entirety of the North and the East at the elections, the LTTE warned Tamils against contesting from either of the south-based mainstream political parties - the UNF and the UPFA - which are still capable of winning some Tamil votes. And the warning was unmistakable. After a Tamil UNF candidate contesting the eastern district of Batticaloa was shot dead, four other Tamil candidates contesting on the UNF ticket withdrew from the contest.
As a warning to other anti-LTTE Tamil parties such as the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a suspected LTTE pistol gang killed an EPDP member at Valachchenai in the Batticaloa district on March 1, and a couple of days later, another EPDP member was shot at. It is said that V. Anandasangaree, the besieged Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader, who defied the LTTE dictates and runs as an independent candidate in the Tiger stronghold of Jaffna, is also under LTTE threat.
The LTTE aiming at a Tamil political monopoly wants no Tamil to be elected from the North and the East unless he or she is a candidate of the TNA. The TNA says it is confident of winning about 23 of the 31 seats at stake in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. To maximize the TNA's share of the electoral cake, it also seeks to divide the Muslim votes by fielding Muslim candidates on its list. With the main Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress being hit by internal squabbles and divisions, it will not be difficult for the TNA, a four-party alliance, whose candidates were screened and approved by the LTTE, to help the LTTE achieve its goal. If no south-based mainstream party secures a sufficient number of seats to form a Government on its own steam, the kingmaker will be the LTTE-backed TNA. This gives it the power of making or breaking the next Sri Lankan Government and of dictating terms to any party that seeks TNA support. TNA support will be a sine qua non for any minority Government to win a vote of confidence in Parliament. Even if either the UNF or the UPFA are in a position to form a majority Government, with or without the help of fringe parties such as the Ceylon Workers' Congress which is a force to be reckoned with among Sri Lankan Tamils of Indian origin, the strong TNA presence in Parliament will give the LTTE enough muscle to bargain for concessions and greater political power. It will also create a platform for the rebel group to put up a democratic façade. Thus, whatever the reasons for the dissolution of Parliament - whether it was a coup by Kumaratunga aimed at capturing power, or a necessity to safeguard national security as the President claimed - the move has only strengthened the hands of the LTTE.
The LTTE does not want its plans to go haywire with Karuna's rebellion. Karuna's recalcitrance has been attributed to a variety of factors, ranging from differences between the northern and eastern Tamils, to his opposition to the killing of political opponents, as well as his reported ambition to run an autonomous administration in the Batticaloa district, which has virtually come under the LTTE control largely due to the Wickremesinghe Government's policy of pursuing peace at any cost.
Karuna, in an interview with the Associated Press, said he was seeking a separate truce. Such a move, analysts say, could complicate the peace process. The Government, on its part, is playing it safe. It has rejected reported requests for protection, made by Karuna from his hideout in the Thoppigala jungle in Batticaloa, and indicated that it will abide by the ceasefire agreement it signed with the LTTE. Karuna, reportedly playing the peace card, is said to have objected to Prabhakaran's request to send 1,000 cadres to the rebel heartland of Wanni, questioning such a need during peacetime. "There is no question of reconciliation, everything is beyond reconciliation. In future we will have a full self-administration (in the east)," Karuna told AP. "We'll receive no more command from the Wanni administration or Mr. Prabhakaran," he said, adding that his group would respect the current truce until the Government signed a new one with his group. Echoing the age-old rift between the Tamils of the North and the East, Karuna alleged that northern cadres were favoured for positions, while more than 2,000 Eastern Tamil cadres paid with their lives to build up the organisation and achieve their dream of Tamil Eelam.
Amidst electioneering, the President and the Prime Minister have been kept informed of these developments. Both leaders have adopted a cautious approach towards the emerging scenario in the east and indicated that their dealings are with the LTTE led by Prabhakaran. Political analysts in the south, however, first treated the rebellion as an LTTE ploy to gain full control of the East. They believed the Karuna faction would renege on the ceasefire agreement and resume the war in the East. This would enable the LTTE-led by Prabhakaran to blame the Karuna faction for the war in the east, while it would continue to 'abide' by the ceasefire.
It now appears that there is more to the crisis than meets the eye, though the LTTE says the problem is being solved. Acknowledging the mutiny, the LTTE has described it as 'a temporary problem'. However, Prabhakaran wasted no time to take counter-measures with the twin purpose of damage-control and stripping Karuna of his powers. The LTTE does not tolerate dissent. Many fear that what befell Mahendraraja @ Mahattaya, the group's one-time Number Two, will befall Karuna as well. Mahattaya was killed in mysterious circumstances in 1994. But the LTTE, aware that its every move is currently monitored by the international community, is said to be taking "other measures" to deal with Karuna, an LTTE hero who had won many battles for the organisation.
In all events, the unfolding circumstances in the east do not augur well for Sri Lanka or the peace process. If the LTTE succeeds in bringing the situation under control, it could still put its plan into operation and reap the benefits after the coming elections.
The main charge of the President and her Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) ally was that Premier Wickremesinghe's Government was compromising on national security and paving the way for a division of the country. This was the justification offered by President Kumaratunga for the dissolution of Parliament. It is, consequently, no surprise that the peace process has become the main campaign issue in the run-up to the third General Election in less than four years. Adding to the sense of overwhelming uncertainty that the President's snap polls decision has created in the country, is the confusion the average voter in the south of the country is bogged down in. The voter-confusion is as much over the uncertainty of the outcome of the general election as it is over the fate of the peace process.
Aware that the people are worried about the peace process, the People's Alliance (PA) led by President Kumaratunga and the JVP - the two main parties in the newly formed UPFA - were compelled to make drastic policy concessions with regard to their stand on the LTTE and its proposals for an interim self-government authority. Initially, the two main partners of the UPFA held diametrically opposing views on a possible solution to the country's burning national problem. The JVP vehemently opposed devolution of power - which the PA has accepted - and articulated decentralization of power by strengthening grassroots representative institutions. However, both the PA and the JVP had flatly rejected the LTTE's interim administration proposals. Yet, when the campaign started and the two parties realized the importance of the peace factor, a softening-up process began, with the two parties declaring that a future UPFA Government would talk to the LTTE and honour the ceasefire agreement, which the Wickremesinghe administration signed with the LTTE. The two parties have even gone to the extent of describing the LTTE, which they had, not long ago, accused of violating the ceasefire agreement at will, as a disciplined group.
Whether such a softening of stances is an election gimmick or a genuine desire to continue the peace process remains to be seen.
In many respects, the impending election is different from any previous election this country has seen since Independence. For the first time in Sri Lankan political history, more than 250 monks have entered the fray on the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, National Sinhala Heritage Party) ticket. Their entry into national politics, observers say, will eat into the vote bank of the PA-JVP alliance, which had the backing of hardliners opposed to the Wickremesinghe peace process. With myriad political parties, projecting diverse policies on issues ranging from the ethnic conflict to the national economy, in the fray, the stage is being set for horse-trading once election results are out.
Ameen Izzadeen is Deputy Editor, Sunday Times, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review
of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
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