Sri Lanka's New President Tries to Grab Tigers' Tail


AFTER her decisive victory in Sri Lanka's presidential elections last week, Chandrika Kumaratunga has turned her attention to fulfilling her main campaign promise: finding a peaceful solution to the 11-year-old civil war with the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group fighting for an independent homeland in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

Mrs. Kumaratunga, leader of the People's Alliance party and former prime minister, captured about 62 percent of the vote. What was unusual about her victory was that she garnered many votes from Sri Lanka's Muslim and Tamil minorities. ``Support for her cuts across the ethnic divide,'' says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a constitutional lawyer.

Kumaratunga defeated Srima Dissanayake, wife of the slain opposition candidate, Gamini, who was killed in a suicide bomb attack with 53 others on Oct. 24. Police suspect the Tigers of the attack, although they deny responsibility. After the assassination, peace talks with the Tigers were suspended.

But the possibility of resuming talks in the near future has been left open. In what appears to be a goodwill gesture, the Tigers announced a unilateral week long cease-fire on Nov. 13.

Kumaratunga, who was sworn in on Saturday, has promised to revamp the Constitution, diminishing the powerful post of president to a largely ceremonial one by next July.

Unlike her predecessors, Kumaratunga has tried to appease the leaders of the Tamil Tigers. She released a dozen prisoners, eased an economic embargo on the rebel-controlled Jaffna Peninsula, and opened preliminary peace talks. But some Sri Lankans have criticized her conciliatory approach. ``I think she's naive,'' says Michael Mack, a local businessman. ``I don't see the war ending in any hurry.''

Well-trained and armed, the Tigers are a formidable fighting force. Members of the guerrilla army are renowned for their commitment to their cause. The group's leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is an elusive and rarely seen figure. ``He's viewed with a mixture of romance and fear,'' Mr. Tiruchelvam says. ``People see him as superhuman.''

Mr. Prabhakaran, who runs the Tigers from a jungle hideout in Jaffna, has sent mixed signals to the government in Colombo. On the one hand, he has seemed responsive to peace talks, but at the same time, the Tigers have continued their attacks. On election day, they launched a raid in northern Sri Lanka, killing four soldiers.

Those attacks - and the group's likely involvement in the recent assassination - have led many here to question their sincerity. ``Whether the Tigers are using [the peace talks] as a ploy or whether they are genuinely negotiating, nobody really knows,'' says Vijitha Yapa, a former newspaper editor.

Meanwhile, the Tigers' support among Tamils themselves appears to be eroding. When a government peace delegation arrived in Jaffna recently, they were mobbed by cheering Tamils - people who might normally fear retribution from the Tigers for such an open display of support for the government.

Most Sri Lankans - Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims alike - say they are weary of the war, which has killed more than 30,000 people and hamstrung the economy. ``We could develop this country much faster if we didn't have this wretched hemorrhage'' of money, says Mervyn de Silva, editor of the Lanka Guardian newspaper.

Many, however, caution that reaching a peaceful settlement won't be easy. With control of Jaffna, the Tigers already have won their de facto state, and they may be reluctant to relinquish it - even if it means an end to the fighting.

``People in Sri Lanka have come to terms with the fact that this violence might go on,'' says Jayadeva Uyangoda of Colombo University. ``They know it cannot be stopped overnight.''

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