Concerns for Sri Lanka ceasefire as hardliner squeezes into power

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The Independent Online

There were concerns for the future of the ceasefire in Sri Lanka yesterday after a hardliner who opposes demands for autonomy from the Tamil Tiger rebels was elected president. Mahindra Rajapakse beat the architect of the 2002 ceasefire that ended more than two decades of civil war, Ranil Wickramasinghe, to the presidency by the narrowest of margins, winning just over the 50 per cent of the vote he needed for outright victory.

Within hours, the leader of the Norwegian peace envoys who helped broker the ceasefire said he would fly to Sri Lanka to try to revive the stalled peace process. "The situation now is very difficult," the Norwegian Development Minister, Erik Solheim, said. "There may be a danger that Sri Lanka can slide further into uncontrolled violence in considerable parts of the country." Mr Rajapakse has made it clear he is not in favour of further Norwegian involvement.

Mr Rajapakse, who was Prime Minister before yesterday's victory, won despite widespread disaffection at his government's performance in rebuilding homes destroyed by the tsunami.

Many observers believed the election was an effective referendum on the peace process. While Mr Wickramasinghe indicated he was prepared to consider the Tigers' demands for autonomy in the north and east, Mr Rajapakse has said he will never accept them.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting a war for an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils in which more than 64,000 people have died. They have indicated they may agree to some form of autonomy. They already have largely de facto independence in large areas of the country.

"I will bring about an honourable peace to the country, respecting all communities," Mr Rajapakse said yesterday. He wants to renegotiate the ceasefire, and is against allowing foreign tsunami aid to the Tigers in the areas they control.

But he said yesterday that he wants face-to-face talks with the Tigers' leader Prabhakaran -- though the rebel leader rarely agrees to such meetings.

Analysts agree Mr Wickramasinghe lost the election as a result of a boycott enforced by the Tigers. Mr Rajapakse won by just 180,786 of a total 9.7m votes.

The rebelsset up barricades of burning tyres to warn people not to cross into government areas to vote. Mr Wickramasinghe enjoys support among Tamils because of his willingness to listen to demands for autonomy. The question everybody was asking yesterday was why the Tigers did not allow Tamils to vote.

Some believe the Tigers are angry at a recent boast from a member of Mr Wickramasinghe's party that it was behind the breakaway of a faction from the Tigers. The Tigers have long accused Mr Wickramasinghe's former government of being behind the split, but he has always denied it.

Others have suggested the Tigers may see a government under Mr Rajapakse as their best opportunity, as they may declare independence unilaterally, arguing that Mr Rajapakse's refusal to consider autonomy gave them no alternative.

Mr Wickramasinghe demanded a fresh poll in the north because of the boycott but election officials rejected the idea.