India loses key mediator on Sri Lanka. Tamil leader's death could cut Gandhi's link to militants

Having lost a key mediator, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi faces a harder task in trying to settle the ethnic conflict in neighboring Sri Lanka. The death by natural causes last Thursday of the colorful chief minister of Tamil Nadu State comes as Mr. Gandhi is struggling to salvage the peace accord he signed in July with Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene.

M.G.Ramachandran - widely and fondly known as ``MGR'' - was a matinee idol who became one of India's most powerful politicians, exerting extensive influence with ethnic Tamils in India and Sri Lanka.

``This looks like a setback for Rajiv. MGR was his best tie to the Tigers [Sri Lankan Tamil militants],'' a Western diplomat here said. ``His death will change the political map of southern India and likely will affect regional policies as well.''

Ramachandran had ruled politically sensitive Tamil Nadu for a decade. Home to 50 million Tamils, the state has long chafed at domination by India's huge Hindi-speaking majority and has often been a flashpoint for secessionist activity.

Since 1984, the state has been caught up in Sri Lanka's bitter conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils who are ethnically related to those in Tamil Nadu. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled across the narrow strait dividing their island from Tamil Nadu.

Recognizing the political support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, Ramachandran gave shelter to the Tamil militants fighting for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka's North and East Provinces. He became the patron of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the charismatic leader of the major extremist group, the Tamil Tigers.

However, of late, Ramachandran, a political pragmatist, had become a supporter of Gandhi's tougher line against the militants.

In October, when the Indian Army launched an offensive to force the Tamil Tigers to comply with the accord, Ramachandran marshalled public opinion behind the policy.

However, analysts say that MGR's death could make it more difficult for Gandhi to maintain his Sri Lankan policy, which faces growing criticism. Uneasiness is spreading in India as Indian troops, first introduced as a 3,000-member peacekeeping force, have become a de facto fighting force of more than 25,000 bogged down in a two-month battle to force Tamil militants to surrender.

``With MGR out of the picture, supporters of the militants could stir things up in Tamil Nadu and force Gandhi to change his tune,'' said a senior New Delhi diplomat. [On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that at least 25 people - mostly civilians - were killed in a fierce gunbattle in Sri Lanka's eastern port city of Batticaloa. According to one witness, Sri Lankan and Indian security forces opened fire after Tamil rebels killed a Sri Lankan policeman. But an Indian diplomat in Colombo denied that Indian troops were involved.]

About 300 Indian soldiers have died in the prolonged fighting which some observers feel could force Gandhi to withdraw the troops soon. In addition, President Jayewardene has yet to implement key parts of the accord.

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