Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka's next challenge: peace with Tamils

AP , COLOMBO

Supporters of Sri Lankan President-elect Mahinda Rajapakse hold his poster and cheer outside the election commissioner's office in Colombo, on Friday. Rajapakse won the presidential elections by a slim margin, and said that once in office he wants to hold face-to-face peace talks with the secretive leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers.

PHOTO: AP

Mahinda Rajapakse, who was sworn in yesterday as Sri Lanka's new president, faces the daunting task of forging a permanent peace with the Tamil Tiger rebels or risk a return to civil war on the tropical island.

Rajapakse, whose victory on Friday also coincided with his 60th birthday, narrowly defeated challenger Ranil Wickremesinghe in a vote that was marred by a rebel boycott which prevented thousands of ethnic Tamils from casting ballots.

Chief Justice Sarath Silva was to administer the oath of office to Rajapakse at a ceremony yesterday that comes as escalating violence threatens a fragile 2002 ceasefire.

"He is taking charge of the country at a time when it has been on decline with the regard to the ethnic conflict," political analyst Jehan Perera said.

Unlike Wickremesinghe, Rajapakse took a hard line against the rebels while campaigning for the election, which was seen as a referendum on the peace process.

Rajapakse said that he would never give in to demands by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for sweeping autonomy in their strongholds in the north and east.

"The position he had taken during the election campaign will make it difficult for him to reverse the decline" in relations between the government and the rebels, Perera said.

"He needs to get the LTTE into a mutually acceptable framework. If he fails, there is risk of war returning," he added.

The Tigers have not made any comment on Rajapakse's victory but they have accused Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese of discrimination and say that ethnic Tamils can only prosper in a separate state.

"The ethnic question is already staring at him in the face," the independent Island newspaper said in an editorial yesterday.

"He will have to unveil his plans as to how he is going to deal with the problem which has defied remedies for two decades," the editorial said.

Rajapakse secured support from Sinhalese voters, the most radical of whom oppose any concessions to the Tamil Tigers.

Wickremesinghe, who has favored granting the rebels more autonomy, was overwhelmingly supported by Sri Lanka's Tamil and Muslim minorities.

The Tamil Tigers began fighting for a separate state in 1983. More than 65,000 people were killed before the ceasefire, which led to peace talks that stalled over the Tigers' demands for broad autonomy.

Clashes, though sporadic, have intensified.

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