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Sri Lanka's Political Turmoil Dangers Truce with Tamil Rebels - 2004-02-23

Sri Lanka is marking the second anniversary of a truce with Tamil rebels. It is the longest spell of peace since 1983, but the prospects of a permanent end to the conflict have been dimmed by political conflict in the country.

There were no celebrations in Sri Lanka to mark the two-year truce between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels - only a warning from Norway, the country that mediated the cease-fire.

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen says "determined leadership" is required to sustain the truce and the peace process in the coming years.

A political fight between the country's president and prime minister has crippled the peace process with the rebels, who have waged a two-decade struggle for more rights for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

The country is preparing for a general election on April 2 - three years ahead of schedule. But political analysts say the polls are unlikely to help revive the peace process, stalled for nearly a year.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has wide powers, has deep differences with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over how to handle peace talks. She has allied with a Marxist party called the JVP to fight the elections. The Marxists oppose granting the rebels the autonomy they are demanding.

Jehan Perera at Colombo's National Peace Council says neither a victory for the prime minister's United National Party nor a victory for the president's alliance will put the peace talks back on track.

"If the UNP wins and the prime minister can claim a mandate, he will once again face the problem of the president having overarching powers," he said. "Similarly if the President's alliance wins, the future looks difficult, because her alliance partner, the JVP has taken a very retrograde stance on not only the peace process and the cease-fire, but even on inter-ethnic relations."

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at Colombo's Center of Policy Alternatives, says there is uncertainty about how talks with Tamil rebels will move ahead. But he says all political parties remain committed to the truce, and there are expectations that the cease-fire will continue.

"It is not in the political interest of any of the key actors to return to hostilities," said Mr. Saravanamuttu. "So in that respect one can expect a continuation of the 'no war, no peace' situation."

The two-year halt in fighting has boosted the country's economy. But analysts say the deadlocked peace process has stalled the rebuilding of the war-shattered north and east. That is causing deep resentment among Tamils who had hoped the cease-fire would improve their lives.

The Tamil rebels have vowed to honor the truce, despite the political turmoil, but are calling the early election a "grave setback" to the peace talks.