TOPICS: Lankan poll outcome spells return to arms

Amantha Perera

True to the hawkish image that propelled him to electoral victory, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, has begun his six-year-term by indicating readiness to review not only a Norwegian-mediated peace process with Tamil rebels but also the historic 2002 ceasefire.

Dampened business confidence in the wake of his victory, indicated by a seven per cent fall in the Colombo stock market, was a sign that, in the near future, negotiations with the LTTE will take precedence over revival of the economy.

“The voters said that the country should not be divided in any way. Our Sri Lankan identity should not be divided into political fragments,” Rajapakse said in his first presidential speech

— although the 50.3 per cent of the popular vote that he won was closely followed by the 48.4 per cent polled by his rival and architect of the 2002 truce, Ranil Wickremasinghe. There are suspicions that the Tigers may have shrewdly engineered a return to hardliner positions by ordering Tamil voters — who strongly favoured Wickremasinghe according to poll surveys — to stay away from the elections. A week before polls opened on November 17, the Tigers officially announced that they saw no benefit for the Tamils from the election and called for a boycott.

Although the Tigers did not endorse Wickremasinghe’s candidature, the drift was clear from the fact that, during the campaign period, they constantly kept referring to Rajapakse as the ‘war candidate.’ In Jaffna, only 438 votes, out of a registered 62,089 were cast. It was worse in Tiger-held Killinochchi, from where voters were expected arrive in government-controlled areas to vote. Of a registered 89,454 voters, only a single vote was received. The Tigers, for their part, insist that the boycott was not forced and that Tamil voters had abstained from the poll to indicate to the international community the preference of the majority Sinhalese.

The Tigers have, so far, not reacted to Rajapakse’s hardline presidential address and the official position will be made known on November 27, when LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, makes his annual Heroes Day speech. Observers say Prabhakaran is likely to dig in and not climb down from his well-kno-wn hardline position. International terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said that the Tiger leader would, most likely, react with threats.

Available signals from the Tigers after Rajapakse’s election were not encouraging. A statement that appeared on the LTTE Peace Secretariat website said that Rajapakse’s victory was an indication that southern voters did not support a federal power-sharing mechanism and the Tamil demand for wider self-determination. Senior Tiger leader V Balakumaran said, over Tiger-controlled radio, that Rajapakse was acting no different from nationalist Sinhala leaders of the past who had pushed the Tamils into taking up arms soon after an election. In Jaffna, tension was apparent among civilians after the election and many fear that the rhetoric from Colombo and Killinochchi could soon turn into real war.