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    South Asia
     May 22, 2008
Hopes fade for a Tiger homeland
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - It does seem that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will have to shrink their dreams of a Tamil homeland.

Elections to the Eastern Provincial Council last week saw Sri Lanka's ruling coalition, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) consolidate political control over the Eastern Province. The Eastern Province is part of the LTTE's "Tamil homeland", the Tamil Eelam it is fighting to create.

The LTTE's grip over swathes of land in the Eastern Province began weakening in 2004, when its eastern commander "Colonel" Karuna left the organization, taking the LTTE's eastern wing and


its resources with him. From 2006, Karuna has helped the Lankan army score a series military victories in the east.

And in July last year, the army drove the LTTE out of the last of the enclaves it controlled in the Eastern Province. For the first time in almost two decades, the government was in control of the entire province. That control has been taken further with the elections to the Eastern Provincial Council.

What is more, it is the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its new Tamil partner, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), the breakaway faction of the LTTE, which together took 20 of the 37 seats in the Eastern Provincial Council. The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) boycotted the elections.

The government has interpreted its victory in the recent election as a mandate for its ongoing military offensive against the LTTE in the north. "The people of the east have given a clear mandate for peace through the defeat of terrorism, the strengthening of democracy and the development of the country," President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a statement.

The military offensive in the north is not going well, despite the government's use of air power. The LTTE is putting up fierce resistance to the Lankan army's advance in the north.

While the result is likely to embolden the government to step up its military operations in the north, the significance of the election lies not in the victory of the ruling coalition but in the decisive separation of the multi-ethnic east from the Tamil-dominated north.

The Northern and Eastern Provinces have traditionally been Tamil-dominated areas. Sri Lanka's Tamil nationalists regard them as the "Tamil homeland". Tamils insist that the east was part of the old Tamil kingdom, with its capital at Thirukonamalai (today's Trincomalee).

While Tamil moderates demand devolution of power to a merged North-Eastern Provincial Council, the LTTE has been fighting to establish an independent Tamil Eelam, which will include the Northern and Eastern Province.

A temporary and conditional (on a referendum in the east) merger of the two provinces was affected way back in 1987 under the India-Sri Lanka Accord. Elections to the NEPC were held in 1988 and the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) the LTTE's main rival at that time, formed the government. Propped up by India, the NEPC government functioned for a little over a year and collapsed with the departure of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in March 1990. But the merger of the provinces remained.

That changed in 2006, when the Supreme Court nullified the merger on procedural grounds. The recent election was the first for the de-merged Eastern Provincial Council.

It is the Eastern Province that is the real bone of contention between the government and the LTTE. This is not surprising considering the fact that it is Sri Lanka's breadbasket, and accounts for 15% of the island's land area and roughly a third of its coastline. And Trincomalee, one of the world's finest natural harbors, is located here.

To weaken the Tamil demand for inclusion of the Eastern Province in the "Tamil homeland", successive governments have sought to alter the demographic composition of the Eastern Province by encouraging Sinhalese settlements here - and they have succeeded. Today, the east is equally divided between the Tamils, the Sinhalese and the Muslims. It has become multi-ethnic. And Trincomalee has become overwhelmingly Sinhalese, which means the government has been able to break the contiguity of Tamil-dominated districts as well.

The government has now de-linked the Eastern Province from the north and set up a separate council for the east to which it will devolve power. The developments in the east have put the LTTE's Tamil Eelam goal further beyond its reach. If the LTTE wants a "Tamil homeland" it will have to militarily obtain it.

Sitting in jungle hideout, the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran must be ruing the day he decided to reject the India-Sri Lanka accord. That accord gave him a "Tamil homeland" on a platter. And while the government has made several gains with regard to the Eastern Province, it might be too early for it to celebrate.

The LTTE has made its feelings towards the new Eastern Provincial Council government more than clear. A suicide bomber rammed into a police bus in Colombo killing 13 people and wounding close to 100 others. The bomber struck a few hours ahead of the swearing-in of the chief minister at the presidential secretariat.

The attack took place in Colombo's high-security central business district, where the President's official residence, the World Trade Center and luxury hotels are located. The area was in fact swarming with security personnel preparing for opposition protests against the election. With the attack the LTTE has indicated what the Eastern Provincial Council government can expect in the months ahead.

The government has chosen TMVP leader, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, to head the new government in the Eastern Province. The choice of a Tamil as chief minister has ruffled feathers of the Muslims.

The Muslims were hoping that M L A M Hizbullah, leader of the breakaway Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which had contested the recent election as an ally of the UPFA, would be chosen as chief minister. During the election campaign President Rajapakse had indicated that the leader of the party that won most seats would head the new council. And most of the alliance's seats, indeed most of the seats in the provincial council, were won by Muslims, albeit with different political allegiances and agendas.

Rajapakse's decision to make Pillayan the chief minister appears to have been determined by the important role the TMVP has played in defeating the LTTE in the east. The government was not willing to risk angering the TMVP as there was the possibility of the latter withdrawing support to the government, which would severely undermine the government's military control of the east. Pillayan as chief minister will suit the Rajapakse government's aims in the east - to militarily check the LTTE rather than to address Tamil grievances or provide good governance.

There is concern, too, over how much power the government will devolve to the Eastern Provincial Council. Its hardline Sinhalese allies and Sinhala-Buddhist organizations can be expected to stand in the way of meaningful devolution.

The TMVP might have joined the political process but its leaders and cadres are armed and have not given up their old ways. They continue to engage in intimidation, murder and extortion and recruit child soldiers. It is unlikely that the TMVP in power will give up its arms or mend its ways.

Analysts have argued that the government should follow up on its promises to devolve the full range of powers contained in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including those of police and land.

"The significance of granting those special powers to the Eastern Provincial Council is that they will make it easier for the TMVP to transform its armed units into a legitimate police force," points out Jehan Perera, political analyst and executive director of the National Peace Council. "The devolution of power over land would also serve to reassure the Tamil people that their fear of government-sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the north and east will be less likely in the future."

The Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party of Sinhalese-Buddhist monks bitterly opposed to any devolution of power, has already expressed its opposition to granting "internal security and land allocation powers" to the Eastern Provincial Council. The JHU has nine seats in Parliament and is part of the Rajapakse government.
The question is whether the government is interested at all in tapping the provincial council's potential to transform the conflict.

The signals so far are far from positive.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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