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Sri Lanka Faces Political Uncertainty and Growing Violence


Last month's assassination of Sri Lanka's foreign minister is part of a growing trend of political killings that many analysts say has thrown the 3.5-year-old cease-fire between separatists rebels and the government in jeopardy.

In a sign of just how edgy Sri Lankans have become, a bomb scare on a jetliner preparing to take off from Colombo earlier this month sparked a stampede that killed one person and injured a dozen others.

And last month, a sniper killed Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar as he swam near his heavily guarded home, leaving many observers to say that the chance for a lasting peace between the government and separatists has dimmed.

The Tamils are a minority group on the island, but not all are separatists. The Tamil Tigers, however, are a rebel group fighting for independence. Human rights groups say more than 200 opponents of the Tamil Tigers have been gunned down since a ceasefire was signed in 2002. The government blames the Tamil Tigers for the foreign minister's death. But the rebels deny any involvement.

James Ross, a senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch in New York, says the foreign minister was the most prominent victim in a growing trend of political assassinations. “He had long criticized the Tamil Tigers and was instrumental in ensuring that the Tigers were put on terrorist lists in a number of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom," he explains. "Many of the killings that have occurred since the ceasefire have been against members of Tamil political parties not associated with the Tigers, journalists who have written about the Tigers or human rights activists who have expressed concern about how the Tigers operate.”

Empty Cease-fire?

Even though both sides agreed to hold high-level talks in the wake of the foreign minister's assassination, most analysts contend the peace process will remain on the back burner and might deteriorate before the November 17 election. "Over the course of the last three years there have been numerous attacks on Sri Lankans, notably Tamils, by the Tamil Tigers," says Mr. Ross. "So you have a cease-fire, but you don't really have peace.”

Robert Rotberg, Director of the Program on Intra-State Conflict at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, questions whether President Chandrika Kumaratunga can maintain Sri Lanka's fragil peace. “I think the peace process is at a perilous point now," he says. "The Tamil Tigers have not retreated in any way from their demands for home rule. Also with an election set for November, the president's power is basically that of a lame duck. It is not clear whether [President Chandrika Kumaratunga] will have enough clout to actually pursue peace. The results of election may weaken her successor given that [President Kumaratunga] is ruling over an unstable coalition. And the Tamil Tigers are not really negotiating and have not really done so in the last three years.”

Long History of Peace

Over the wide swath of the history of the island, first called "Serendip" by Arab geographers, "Ceylon" under British rule and Sri Lanka or "resplendent island" by locals, violence was rare.

Raju Thomas, professor of international affairs at Marquette University in Milwaukee, says different ethnic groups lived on the island peacefully for ages. “Tamils and Sinhalese -- they both came to the island around 500 B.C." says Professor Thomas. "The Sinhalese came from North India at the time when Buddhism had just been founded by Buddha and they came to Sri Lanka after that as Buddhists. And then the Tamils came around the same time. From then until 1983, there was no conflict. They lived together in peace for all these centuries.”

But ethnic tensions had been building since the mid-19th century when many of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority resented what they saw as favoritism toward the mainly Hindu Tamils under British rule. The growth of a more assertive Sinhalese nationalism after independence in 1948 fanned the flames of ethnic division until civil war erupted in the 1980s between Tamils pressing for self-rule and the Sri Lankan government.

Two decades of fighting have killed about 65,000 people. During that time, the Tamil Tigers or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have struggled to establish a crescent-shaped Tamil homeland or "eelam" in the north and east.

Brutal Tactics

Harvard University's Robert Rotberg says the Tamil Tiger's use of child soldiers, suicide bombings and targeted killings of opponents has hurt their cause. “They massacred moderate Tamils who were trying to negotiate peace and they blocked all kinds of negations throughout the years," he says. "The Tigers, having developed out of laudable goals, then proceeded to operate just like any warlord group.”

But Raju Thomas of Marquette University says, “we should not dismiss them simply as terrorists because it is a political problem that needs to be addressed. How else can they fight back? They don't have the weapons of war. They are not crazy. They have real, genuine grievances. Certain compromises and concessions from both sides will resolve the issue. Give Tamils a special status for the language in their areas and don't impose Sinhalese. Yet both sides should maintain Sri Lankan territorial unity.”

Most analysts say that in addition to security and peace, many Sri Lankans are concerned about their economy. The ongoing violence continues to harm the tropical island's tourism industry, which accounts for more than 10% of the country's gross domestic product. The economy took a major hit last December, when a tsunami killed nearly 40,000 people and caused massive destruction of property. And inflation is also running at nearly 6%. All these issues, plus the hope for peace, scholars say, will be on the minds of Sri Lankans when they go to the polls to elect a president this November.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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