Candidates play peace card in Sri Lankan poll

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The Independent Online

Dirty politics have arrived in Sri Lanka. It goes to the polls on Tuesday to elect an president, and the two main candidates have been swapping gruesome threats.

Dirty politics have arrived in Sri Lanka. It goes to the polls on Tuesday to elect an president, and the two main candidates have been swapping gruesome threats.

Ranil Wickramasinghe, the main challenger to the incumbent, Chandrika Kumaratunga, said at a rally that if he won he would hand the president over to Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers, who for 16 years have been waging war to obtain a separate state. Mrs Kumaratunga responded by threatening to do the same to Mr Wickramasinghe's wife. Mrs Kumaratunga spoke in jest, but her opponent may have been half in earnest.

An election held in the midst of an unending civil war has its oddities. The most obvious is the candidates' attitude to the Tamil leader. With the majority Sinhalese vote evenly divided, both candidates must woo minorities, especially Tamils, who make up 12 per cent of the electorate. This involves paying lip service to the idea of doing a deal with the Tigers, who are effectively without rivals as the Tamil mouthpiece.

The opposition candidate has offered direct talks and the possibility of the Tigers taking charge of the north-east in an interim regional government. Mrs Kumaratunga has offered a vaguer olive branch.

But the man they are talking about dealing with has been authoritatively compared to Pol Pot. Mr Prabhakaran has eliminated all voices of Tamil moderation and arranged the assassination of numerous Sinhalese politicians, including a former president. In India he is wanted in connection with the assassination of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He has also carried out the "cleansing" or murder of all Muslims and Sinhalese in the area he controls.

Mr Prabhakaran made his mark on the campaign last month when, in a five-day onslaught his forces, re-took practically all the territory acquired by the Sri Lankan army over the past two years. The Tigers demonstrated their hold over the local population when they ordered the predominantly Tamil occupants of Vavuniya, the northernmost government-held town, to evacuate before an imminent Tiger attack. The town duly emptied. Not long afterwards the Tigers said they had changed their mind. The townspeople trooped back home again.

Schizophrenia is not restricted to the posings of the politicians. The whole island suffers from a mild dose of the condition. Through thick and thin Sri Lanka has held on to its name as a tourist destination, largely thanks to the fact that tourists have never been targeted in the war, and all the military activity is at the other end of the island. To build on that good work, the tourist board has renamed itself the Ceylon Tourist Board, evoking calmer, balmier, more pacific times.

Yet this week, according to a claim in the Daily News , a government organ, 450 terrorists were killed in the space of 72 hours in this island of palms and golden beaches. The Tigers had launched an attack on government positions in Elephant Pass, the neck of land leading to the Jaffna peninsula. And it is not merely the tourists who master the skills of the three monkeys. In Sinhalese Sri Lanka the mood is calm, the roads are choked with cars, the island's economic lead over India becomes ever more obvious.

Yet schizophrenia as state policy has one unfortunate side-effect: rampant public cynicism. "The war is the biggest problem," a thoughtful young clerk said. "These parties have been in power alternately ever since independence. But the war goes on. Why? People are making money from it."

* A bomb ripped through a market at Islamgarh, near Mirpur, in the Pakistan-ruled part of the disputed Kashmir region, killing nine people and wounding 15, police said.