In Sri Lankan crisis, rebels lie low

Mediators suspended peace talks last week over government disarray, but the Tamil Tigers keep ceasefire.

With its clean cafes, boisterous markets, and law-abiding drivers, it's easy to forget that this is a town that terror built.

Headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - perhaps the most highly trained and motivated militant group in the world - Kilinochchi is at the heart of a 20-year brutal war that has killed 65,000, and created an ethnic Tamil homeland that is fully under LTTE control.

But while the Tamil Tigers are famous for teaching the Palestinian Liberation Organization and other militant groups the deadly technique of suicide bombing, today the Tigers are trying to change their image and negotiate their way to a lasting peace. With much at stake in the peace process - including $4.5 billion in promised aid that was tied to the talks - the rebel group appears to have chosen to wait out the government's recent political crisis rather than break a promising cease-fire.

"I don't think the LTTE wants to provoke a return to hostilities," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. "In 20 months, they have built up legitimacy that they don't want to lose."

Late last week, international mediators suspended peace talks between the Tamil Tigers and the government. The Norwegian brokers said the Sri Lankan government needed to decide who was in charge of the talks as a political crisis enters its third week between the president and prime minister. The two rivals made progress toward reconciliation on Saturday, as President Chandrika Kumaratunga offered to share control of the Defense Ministry with the prime minister.

"We will go home and wait," said Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen, during this weekend's trip to Colombo. "We have no intention of abandoning the peace process, but there are limits to what we can do."

With the politically dominant Sinhalese in disarray, the Tamil minority appears to be united - and eerily quiet.

Six months after an audacious daylight attack on the Colombo International Airport, the Tamil Tigers declared a unilateral cease-fire in December 2001. Today, they are trying to keep 20 months of peace talks on track, mostly by doing nothing at all.

Infamous rebel group

But memories of the Tigers' past military exploits are difficult for the region to forget. Since the late 1980s, the Tigers have committed a spate of civil terror that remains unmatched, including:

• Nearly 200 suicide bomb attacks, including an October 1997 suicide truck-bomb attack on Colombo's World Trade Center, killing 18 people.

• Assassinations, including the 1991 suicide blast that killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the 1993 attack on Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

• A 1999 assassination attempt on President Kumaratung, who lost an eye in the attack.

Tamils - primarily Hindu - say their troubles began in 1957, after the country's parliament passed a raft of laws that favored the Sinhalese majority, making Sinhala the national language, and Buddhism the state religion. In 1975, the LTTE formed to demand a separate state. While the Tigers have recently said they would settle for an "interim self-governing authority," some observers say they will never yield until they have full control of what they consider the traditional Tamil homeland.

"It hurts us to call us terrorists," said Tiger spokesman Daya Master, speaking from the Tiger's headquarters here in Kilinochchi. "We are not terrorists. We are doing social services, we are sacrificing our lives in service of our people."

While the signs of war are apparent in the bullet-pocked walls of every home, shop, or temple, the signs of that terror campaign are all but hidden here in what the Tigers call their Eelam, or homeland. Most of the soldiers and commanders of the LTTE have been ordered to put their weapons down and pick up shovels, focusing their attention on reconstruction, training, and social duties.

Tiger discipline

In the Martyr's Cemetery outside Kilinochchi, Tiger soldiers keep busy by assembling small tombs on top of the 1,944 graves of their comrades.

"I have been fighting for seven years, and I have received every kind of training that the LTTE gives, but I want a solution to this problem, I don't want war," says Commander Theraki, a 30- something woman in charge of the platoon of soldiers here at the graveyard. "But, we are just soldiers, so we don't talk about the political situation. Whatever our leader [Velupillai] Prabhakaran says we should do, that we will do."

Tiger discipline is famous - all of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 fighters wear cyanide capsule necklaces so they can commit suicide if captured.

But discipline has benefits as well. There have been no cease-fire violations, even during the current crisis in Sri Lanka's capital. While Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe play out a personal rivalry that has entangled the peace process, the Tigers seem ready to watch and wait.

"I really think both sides are trying to be as calm as possible," says Agnes Bragadottir, spokesperson for the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, led by the Norwegian government.

The results of 20 months of peace can be seen in the thriving businesses seen in all the towns and districts near Kilinochchi. With money sent by Tamil ex- patriots living abroad, and funneled through the Tiger's development wing, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, shops have sprung up all along Sri Lanka's north-south highway, A-9.

But much of the development remains in the hands of the Tigers themselves. There are Tamil Tiger hotels, restaurants, bus stands, shopping centers, tea shops, along with governmental functions, such as police departments, courts, prisons, hospitals, and even a Tamil Tiger bank. On the streets, cars and motorcycles move at a respectful 25 miles an hour, knowing that the Tiger's police department will fine them 200 rupees ($2) on the spot for speeding.

Critics of the Tigers call it a police state, but many admit that it is a surprisingly well run one.

"It's all pretty repressive, but then again, everything works," says one aid worker, who requested anonymity. "The thing is, the Tamil people are so industrious, so hardworking, that if this country had just a little bit of peace, they could really make this place work."

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