Assault on Sri Lankan leader may win votes

President Kumaratunga's chances to win reelection tomorrow could be

Many times before, terror has come to this capital, and many times it has been quickly forgotten.

But even in a country inured to 16 years of civil war, Saturday's suicide bomb attack on Sri Lanka's president won't easily fade. As Chandrika Kumaratunga lay in a hospital recovering from an eye injury, analysts were predicting a sympathy wave that could secure her a second six-year term in tomorrow's elections.

The failure of the notorious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and its feared "Black Tigers" suicide squads, may, ironically, have ensured Mrs. Kumaratunga's political survival.

After Kumaratunga called early elections in October, the Sri Lankan Army began losing ground in the north against the Tigers' "Unceasing Waves" offensive. In the past several weeks, the LTTE guerrillas have threatened to retake their former stronghold in the Jaffna peninsula. Five hundred troops have died in fighting for strategic Elephant Pass in the past week alone.

Despite evidence on the ground that the Tigers would like to see a change of government, LTTE spokesmen have insisted the election could not solve the problem. The bombings are a lethal reminder of their resolve to hold out for direct, unconditional talks mediated by a third party on its demand for an independent Tamil state.

Minority vs. majority

The roots of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict run wide and deep. After centuries under different kings, the culturally distinct Tamils and Sinhalese were brought under one government by British colonial rulers. With independence in 1948, the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese - who comprise 74 percent of the population - withdrew the citizenship rights of 1 million majority-Hindu Tamils, made Sinhala the national language, and eventually changed the country's name from Ceylon to the Sinhalese "Sri Lanka."

No Tamil candidate is running for the presidency, but in a close contest the 18 percent Tamil vote - which is favoring the opposition candidate - will be crucial. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had promised to restart dialogue with the LTTE, but if Kumaratunga wins, the prospects for dialogue with her would-be assassins are bleak.

In 1994, Kumaratunga's promise to deliver peace won the elections for her People's Alliance coalition. But after initial peace talks, she embarked on a vain effort to secure a military victory over LTTE guerrillas.

The disastrous strategy, dubbed "War for Peace," was supposed to include devolution of power to Tamil majority regions, but the opposition blocked the plan in Parliament.

Some observers believe a change of government now will restart the peace process, or at least provide a respite in the conflict, which has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

"Both Colombo and the Tigers need a breathing space, but there is insufficient trust between them to conclude a peace settlement," says Tamil journalist Chris Kamalendran of the Sunday Times newspaper.

Western diplomats doubt the election will make any difference.

"Neither side has been dealt a blow which forces it to come the table on any terms but its own," says a Colombo-based diplomat.

For more than two decades, the LTTE separatist campaign has been led by the son of a low-caste Hindu civil servant, Velupillai Prabhakaran. On the battlefield, the fighters follow the laws of guerrilla war, burying their guns and blending in with the local population when overwhelmed. LTTE guerrillas wear an ampule of lethal potassium cyanide around their necks, which they are trained to swallow if faced with capture.

To send a message to Colombo, the suicide bomber is the weapon of choice. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was murdered by one such bomb in 1991. Hundreds of Sri Lankan civilians have died the same way, including at least 30 people at Kumaratunga's rally and a separate bombing north of the capital Saturday.

Guerrillas' commitment

"There's a kernel of force in the LTTE that the government is unable to smash," says the Colombo-based diplomat. "It's the force of Prabhakaran's personality, the strength of his organization, and the cadres' commitment."

Yet devotion has not made the Tigers invincible. The loss of their de facto capital in Jaffna in 1995 exposed the limitations of a guerrilla force outnumbered 6 to 1. And the groups' favored solution to the conflict - the partition of the island - could lead to a tragic and costly transfer of population, as happened when India and Pakistan were separated.

Annual defense expenditures of more than $1 billion consume more than one-quarter of the national budget. When a Sri Lankan soldier dies in battle, his family is paid his salary, including a posthumous pay raise, for up to 21 years.

The United States had earlier declared the LTTE a terrorist organization, and India has offered a reward for the arrest of Mr. Prabhakaran in the Gandhi murder case.

But such efforts to legislate and shame the Tamil Tigers out of existence have failed to make much difference to terrorism in Sri Lanka.

"The Tigers are very fine people," says veteran Tamil aid worker Emmanuel Martyn. "The only thing is, if you cross them, you will pay for it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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