A Perilous Victory

2 minute read
Alex Perry

Mahinda Rajapakse’s win, with 50.3% of the vote, in Sri Lanka’s presidential election last Friday could determine whether the strife-ridden country sinks deeper into conflict. The signs are not good: a four-year cease-fire with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is under severe strain, with internal conflict in the rebel-controlled east and political killings blamed on the Tigers in the Sinhalese south. Rajapakse, 60, who says the peace process has been too soft on the Tigers, proposes ripping up the agreement and starting talks from scratch. Sri Lanka’s stock market plunged 7% in a day on news of his victory.

Even one of his aides says Rajapakse’s attitude to the Tigers is “very, very risky.” His win might give their reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, an excuse to restart hostilities. Many Tigers have expressed frustration over the peace process, which they see as little more than an opportunity to bargain away the gains that years of war have brought them: a virtually separate state with its own borders, flag and national anthem. Prabhakaran’s decision to enforce a boycott of the election by ethnic Tamils in the north and east, who overwhelmingly preferred opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to the hawkish Rajapakse, almost certainly cost Wickremesinghe the presidency in this tightly fought contest. “If Prabhakaran wanted any kind of peace, even peace on his own terms,” says Dayan Jayatilleka, a visiting scholar in South Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University, “he wouldn’t have sunk Ranil. So he’ll go to war.”

Prabhakaran’s verdict on the new Presidentwho has proposed direct peace talks with himwill likely become known on Nov. 27. At a torch-lit ceremony in Tiger territory to remember the 20,000 rebels who have died in Sri Lanka’s civil war since 1983, the guerrilla leader will make his annual policy address. His words, as much as Rajapakse’s victory, will decide whether Sri Lanka’s future is peace or more war.

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