Key Win Over Rebels Leaves Sri Lanka Uneasy

Long ethnic war takes a turn after Army forces Tamil Tigers out of their stronghold

WHEN Sri Lanka's Lion flag was hoisted from the ramparts of the 400-year-old Jaffna Fort last week, it marked a crucial turning point in the 12-year-long civil war..

With the successful capture of the strategically important headquarters of the nation's separatist group - the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) - the government hopes the rebels will return to the negotiating table.

But many analysts say winning the battle for Jaffna will not restore peace to the troubled island nation. Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga now faces the daunting task of appeasing Tamil sensibilities, consolidating her Army's military gains, and pushing through a political settlement to end the conflict that has claimed up to 50,000 lives.

Tamils make up about 3.5 million out of Sri Lanka's 18 million population. Most of them are Hindu and have lived in the north part of the country for thousands of years. The majority of Sri Lanka's population is made up of ethnic Sinhalese who are Buddhists and who control the government and military.

As the Army finished its operations in the deserted suburbs of Jaffna city last week, Ms. Kumaratunga's nationally broadcast victory speech contained none of the self-congratulatory tone usually adopted by triumphant armies. She was being careful not to further alienate moderate Tamils, unhappy about the 48-day offensive which led to the displacement of more than 300,000 Tamil refugees.

"The Tamil people feel hurt," says M. Sivasithamparan, president of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front. "Jaffna symbolizes the historical and cultural heartland of the Tamils. The president must now make some conciliatory moves [toward the Tamils]."

Sri Lanka's last hope for peace now hangs on a devolution deal unveiled by Kumaratunga last August. The package, which will shortly be presented to a parliamentary committee, envisages more autonomy for Tamil minorities, formation of a federation, and redrawing the borders of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Under the package, areas such as local government, law and order, education, and housing would be administered by regional councils, who would be under the executive control of a governor appointed by the president.

"We never thought the problem can be solved through a military victory," says Ravinath Ariyasinghe, a government spokesman. "The ethnic problem needs to be solved as well to achieve a political solution. However, it was necessary to get rid of the people that were being an obstacle to peace."

With the capture of the LTTE stronghold, the rebels sustained heavy casualties in trying to defend the city and analysts say their withdrawal to less defensible areas has weakened them. The Tigers, as they are often known, are no closer to laying down their arms. From their new jungle hideouts, the well-armed and fanatically loyal 10,000-strong guerrilla group is now expected to turn increasingly to terrorist attacks to press their demands for an independent Tamil state.

The government's amnesty offer to LTTE soldiers has been categorically rejected by their elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who called the offensive against Jaffna a "gigantic historical blunder."

The amnesty package and Kumaratunga's commitment to constitutional reform are being seen by many in Sri Lanka as an attempt to garner international and domestic support.

The LTTE was widely condemned by Tamils in Sri Lanka, many Western countries, and neighboring India for unilaterally breaking off peace talks in April 1995. Foreign capitals have become alarmed at their use of increasingly sophisticated weapons. And in response to Kumaratunga's plea for help, some Western governments have provided arms and intelligence.

India particularly is concerned that if the conflict continues, it will lead to more Tamil refugees, arms smuggling, and infiltration by the LTTE guerrillas into its Tamil Nadu state. In 1991, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a LTTE suicide bomber in retaliation for India's failed attempts at trying to suppress the Tigers during the late 1980s.

Tamil rebels, who are also responsible for the assassinations of many Sri Lankan politicians, began their fight for a separate state in the late 1970s. Sri Lanka's civil war started in earnest after massive anti-Tamil riots in 1983 by the majority Sinhalese in retaliation against the killing of their soldiers by the LTTE.

In 1987, the Tigers were pressured into signing an accord jointly sponsored by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments. But the LTTE reneged on the agreement and for the next three years fought a bitter war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force.

Since India's withdrawal in 1990, the Tigers have gradually lost territory to the Army, which has been buying arms and equipment from countries such as China and South Korea.

According to Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu at the Centre for Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Colombo, the retaking of Jaffna has done nothing to increase Kumaratunga options for bringing peace to Sri Lanka.

"She is caught in a conflict brought about by a primary reliance on the military for conflict resolution, which will have an adverse affect on winning the hearts and minds of the Tamils so essential for long-term peace."

The military victory is also likely to increase the resolve of Sinhalese political parties to dilute the devolution package since the governing party doesn't have the requisite majority to push through the reforms.

The government's confidence that the fall of Jaffna is a turning point may be short-lived. Rather than bringing forward the end of the war, Kumaratunga could find herself fighting battles on new political as well as military fronts.

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