A victory by the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition of President Mahinda Rajapakse in the local government elections held at the end of March was expected. Political parties that have won national elections immediately preceding local polls invariably do well at the local level. But a landslide victory of the sort that the SLFP achieved was not foreseen, if only because its ally in the presidential elections, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), was contesting in opposition, and made no secret that they anticipated winning at least 50 seats.
In fact, the JVP won only one seat, while the ruling party secured over 200. Even the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), came in a poor second, garnering little more than 30 positions. The JVP’s surprise poor performance is revealing of the moderate nature of the electorate. The public gave its votes to the ruling party, which has been making an effort to put the Norwegian-facilitated peace process back on track, with President Rajapakse taking the lead. The voters indicated their clear rejection of the JVP’s fiery brand of xenophobic, revolutionary politics based on unidimensional economic and ethnic nationalism. In the pre-poll campaigning, the JVP leaders had vehemently opposed foreign involvement in Sri Lankan affairs, attacking the multilateral aid agencies and calling on the government to halt all Norwegian involvement within a month.
The electoral verdict should have made it more difficult for the Tamil Tigers to pull out of the second round of Geneva talks, originally scheduled for 19-21 April. But events on the ground have put this into doubt. There has been a steep rise in violence in the northeast, and the LTTE has expressed its discontent at the non-implementation of the agreements reached at the first round of Geneva talks, held 22-23 February. The rebel leadership believes that the government should be disarming all the paramilitary Tamil groups, in particular the breakaway group of former LTTE commander Karuna in the east, which has not yet happened.
Within ten days of the signing of the Geneva agreement in February, two LTTE cadre were shot dead in rebel-controlled territory in the east. This was followed by several other killings, including the high-profile murder of a pro-LTTE political activist, V Vigneswaran, in the government-controlled town of Trincomalee. The government and its security forces failed to take effective action to identify or apprehend the culprits, however, and the LTTE believes that the government may have had a hand in the murders.
The LTTE’s mine ambushes and other attacks have already taken a toll of over 30 security personnel in April alone. This has generated fierce resentment among both the Sri Lankan military and Sinhalese civilian population, even more so following a bomb blast in a crowded marketplace in Trincomalee. Meanwhile, the security forces themselves have turned a blind eye to sporadic acts of mob violence against Tamils in the east. Relations between the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities who inhabit these areas have plummeted, in keeping with the deterioration in relations between the government and the LTTE. While further talks in Geneva may stem the violence for a limited period, a permanent peace will require significantly more from all parties.
One part of the solution would be for President Rajapakse to commit himself fully to the peace process. Despite the president’s pro-peace orientation, his government retains hardliners who regularly send mixed messages. Evidence of a single-minded commitment would send a message throughout Sri Lanka – including to the security forces – that peace and inter-ethnic confidence-building is the utmost national priority. The country enjoyed such a period of commitment in 2002, in the early days of the peace process, when then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to issue orders to the security forces that were dutifully carried out. At that time, the manner in which both the roadblocks and the economic embargo on the northeast were removed demonstrated that, when the government leadership was of one mind, orders would be followed throughout the chain of command.
The other part of the solution involves the LTTE, whose demand is the disarming of the various Tamil armed groups, as agreed in Geneva in February. Given its own current reneging on the Geneva agreement, the rebel leadership does need to remember that they have previously attacked disarmed paramilitaries, especially during the period of the former UNP government. Obviously, verbal guarantees will no longer suffice. Together with the government and the international monitors, there is a need to come up with a more workable solution vis-à-vis the LTTE demand, so that those who are disarmed do not suddenly become easy prey, as has happened in the past. With the question mark hanging over the peace talks themselves, however, this question may remain unanswered for some time.