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Sri Lankan poll unlikely to resolve leadership tussle

By Ramananda Sengupta in Colombo
April 01, 2004 09:39 IST
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The split in the LTTE has cast a question mark over Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's attempts to convert Friday's election into a referendum on the peace process.

The election, the third in four years, was necessitated after Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga failed to reach an accord on how to negotiate with the LTTE. Kumaratunga -- who lost an eye in an LTTE suicide attackĀ  in 1994 -- believes that far too many concessions were being made to the terrorist outfit which now demands autonomy in the north and the east of the island.

Under the Sri Lankan constitution, the president, who is elected separately, has executive powers, while parliament controls legislation and finance. In November, Kumaratunga declared an emergency and assumed charge of various key ministries, sparking a political crisis which led to the Norwegian delegation overseeing the peace process to suspend its efforts.

When a series of meetings between the two leaders failed to resolve the crisis, the president dissolved parliament in February and elections were announced for April 2.

Soon afterwards, Karuna, a LTTE warlord from the east, broke ranks with supremo Vellupillai Prabhakharan over the perceived injustice meted out to his cadres by the northern leadership. The revival of the peace process now depends on how this rift is sorted out.

"There is a piquant situation where both the government and the LTTE need to sort out their leadership question before the peace process can be revived," says former deputy foreign minister Harindra Corea.

With most analysts predicting a hung parliament, Friday's elections are unlikely to resolve the political leadership tussle. As for the split in the LTTE, Prabhakaran cannot let Karuna, the challenger from the east, get away without serious erosion of his authority and credibility, but has been hesitating over direct military action because Karuna's forces seem to match his own at the moment. Instead, he has launched a campaign threatening and cajoling the cadres under Karuna about deserting the 'real LTTE.'

This election will have several firsts.

To start with, 280 Buddhist monks are campaigning for the first time as a single political force, under the National Heritage Party. The monks oppose the federalism on which the peace talks with the LTTE are pegged, and accuse both the president and prime minister of trying to divide the nation and failing to protect the interests of the majority Buddhist Sinhala population. Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people are Buddhist.

According to one report, the monks also want to create a 'sacred area' around the Temple of the Tooth -- where Buddha's tooth is preserved -- in the Buddhist holy city of Kandy, and to 'cleanse the area of religious and ethnic minorities.'

'All Christian churches and Muslim mosques should be shifted out of the sacred city,' Reuters quoted candidate Kosgoda Gnanaseeha as saying in a campaign pamphlet. 'That non-Buddhists make millions from devotees who flock to this sacred city is a decade-old complaint that no government has listened to.'

'All Sinhala Buddhists must vote as one to bring down 500 years of Christian domination and thwart the plan to balkanise Sri Lanka. For this we must defeat both Chandrika, Ranil, their affiliates and all what they represent,' railed another Buddhist leader.

Simmering tensions between the Buddhist clergy and the Christians, who are accused of aggressive conversions, came to the fore after a prominent Buddhist leader died under 'mysterious' circumstances in Moscow in December.

Gangodawila Soma Thera, 57, had gone there to receive an honorary doctorate conferred on him by the International University Of Fundamental Studies in St Petersburg.

News of his death, officially blamed on a heart attack, sparked outrage among the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka, who launched nationwide protests and a hunger strike until the government ordered an investigation into the death. Many believe Thera was murdered for his outspoken criticism of Christian outfits -- like The Assembly of God, Pentecostal Church and Jehovah's Witness -- for indulging in forced conversions, a charge denied by the sects.

Fearing a backlash, Sri Lanka's Roman Catholic Church issued a statement, condemning the acts of 'certain Christian sects.' Catholics form 6.4 percent of Sri Lanka's population while the other Christian sects comprise less than 1 percent.

'We, the Bishops of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka, are deeply conscious of the social unrest allegedly caused by certain activities of the fundamentalist Christian sects, particularly by the more radical elements. Some of their reported activities have begun to endanger the peaceful co-existence among different sections of society,' said a statement issued by the archbishop of Colombo.

Fearing that they could eat into their traditional votebanks, both the UNP led by Wickremesinghe and the Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party launched a crusade against religious leaders entering politics.

This has also stuck a chord with secularists across the nation.

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"Given the already volatile ethno-religious situation in the country, it is better if religion is kept away from politics," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. "The entrance of 280 monks into the mainstream policy suggests that the two main parties have failed. There is a great deal of disillusionment and distaste for their corruption."

In another first, Kumaratunga has entered into an electoral alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the radical leftist outfit accused of having gunned down her husband, movie superstar turned politician Vijaya Kumaratunga, in 1988. A subsequent government probe, however, hinted at the involvement of then UNP prime minister R Premadasa, who was killed in a LTTE bomb blast on May 1, 1993.

'Who killed Vijaya?' read posters plastered across Colombo mid-February, a few days after the SLFP-JVP alliance was announced.

Then, in another unprecedented move which followed charges of misuse of the official media by the two main political parties, state election commission chief Dayananda Dissanayake seized control of all state media outlets March 22, and appointed a 'competent authority' to oversee their functioning until the conclusion of the election.

In yet another first, people living in the LTTE controlled areas in the north and the east will be allowed to vote for the first time since the ethnic war split the island in 1983. But whether or not this will translate into more parliamentary teeth for the Hindu Tamil minority remains to be seen.

The killing of a Tamil candidate took election-related death toll to three, but observers fear further violence. Over 150 international poll monitors, from Japan, the European Union and the Commonwealth are already in the island, but they are avoiding the areas ruled by the LTTE given the volatile situation there.

The new parliament is expected to be sworn in April 22, but the prolonged instability in the nation has raised concerns about the $4.5bn of foreign aid pledged last June for Sri Lanka's peace process. Most of that is dependent on progress in the peace negotiations, admit government as well as Tiger sources.

Given the persistent speculation about the possibility of a hung parliament, which could pit the prime minister (if Wickremesinghe wins re-election, that is) against the president, and the split in the LTTE, the chances of the talks resuming anytime soon remain bleak.

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Ramananda Sengupta in Colombo