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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 16:26 GMT
No end in sight to Sri Lanka conflict
By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Colombo

Tamil Tigers
The Tigers want an independent homeland for Tamils
Vijaraja Lakshumi takes pride in her son's appearance.

Every day she dresses him for school in a crisp white shirt, even though they live in a sun-blasted, dusty camp in eastern Sri Lanka.

Sumeshan is five years old, born as the ceasefire between the government and the Tamil Tigers was signed.

He should have been growing up in a country at peace - instead he's a displaced person in Sri Lanka's continuing war.

Political statement

"We couldn't stay at home because of the shelling," says his mother, sitting in the long, low hut with a roof of tarpaulin donated by the United Nations that they share with dozens of others.

"We travelled by river and through the jungle for three days before we finally got here."

Tiger leader Prabhakaran
The government says rebel leader Prabhakaran is under pressure

The family is from Vakarai, a coastal hamlet that was controlled by the Tigers for more than a decade, until the security forces advanced in January. It was the last of a series of major rebel strongholds in the east to fall.

What seems to be shaping government policy now is a conviction that the Vijarajas and tens of thousands of others like them were not just fleeing the fighting, but making a political statement when they moved out of rebel territory.

"The people are leaving Prabhakaran [the leader of the Tigers] and he hates it," said Keheliya Rambukwella, a minister and government spokesman, at a recent media briefing.

He added that the rebels were holding civilians against their will to be used as human shields.

The belief that the Tamil people are losing heart with the Tigers is emboldening the government to dream of finding a solution to Sri Lanka's long-running ethnic conflict even if the rebels refuse to co-operate.

Mahinda Rajapakse
I don't want to pass this problem onto the next generation
President Mahinda Rajapakse

Ministers want to separate what they describe as "Tiger terrorism" from the desire of Tamils for a fair stake in the political process.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse recently offered the rebels talks, but only if they laid down their arms first.

And no one expects the Tigers to come to the negotiating table from a position of weakness.

So the government intends to make the Eastern Province a model of how things could be if there was peace - encouraging perceived disaffection among the people in the large areas of the north the rebels still hold.

Large scale development schemes are on the drawing board.

Fillip

And there are plans for democracy too.

Many are doubtful that the president's long-term plan to bring peace to Sri Lanka can work

Provincial elections are likely, within perhaps six months, to choose a chief minister.

"Colonel" Karuna Amman, the renegade leader of the Tigers in the east who broke away with his fighters from the main Tiger group in 2004, is being talked of in official circles as a serious candidate.

His defection was a fillip for the government, which has denied repeatedly that his men have fought alongside the security forces.

Allegations have also been dismissed that the military turned a blind eye to him recruiting children as combatants in government-held areas.

President Mahinda Rajapakse was in an upbeat mood when I had lunch with him recently at Temple Trees, his heavily-guarded office compound in the centre of Colombo.

"I don't want to pass this problem on to the next generation," he said, as he proffered a plate of seafood salad.

The president's political manoeuvrings in Colombo have also made him more secure.

Mines in Sri Lanka
Mines remain in much of the north and east

His was a minority government, but the offer of ministerial posts tempted 19 members of the opposition United National Party to join his ranks.

A nationalist party of monks, the JHU, later did the same, adding more seats.

Sri Lanka, a country of fewer than 20 million people, now has a cabinet that dwarfs that of giant neighbour India.

The defections brought tensions with Mr Rajapakse's Sri Lanka Freedom Party to a head.

Troublesome

Some ministers were disgruntled about having to give up portfolios and became loudly critical.

The president sacked three, including Anura Bandranaike, the scion of the family dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for much of the time since independence.

Mr Bandranaike later apologised and was reinstated.

Few believe he has what it takes to follow his father, mother and sister to becoming Sri Lanka's leader.

Mangala Samaraweera, the former foreign, aviation and ports minister, remains outside the fold and could be more troublesome.

But many are doubtful that the president's long-term plan to bring peace to Sri Lanka can work.

Body search in Sri Lanka
Security alerts are not expected to come to an end soon

A Western diplomat in Colombo wondered who the government would negotiate a settlement with if not with the Tigers.

And the American Ambassador, Robert Blake, publicly reiterated his belief that there can be no military solution to the conflict.

The rebels, too, remain a potent military force.

"We are not finished in the east," said Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the Tiger's military spokesman, recently. "We have gone into guerrilla mode."

And they retain control of much of the north, with well-armed cadres, artillery and even a naval wing, the Sea Tigers.

Suresh Premachandran is a member of parliament for Jaffna from the Tamil National Alliance, which some have viewed as a proxy party for the Tigers.

"We are fighting for a cause, we are fighting for the just rights of the Tamils," he said.

"That was our basic demand. But the government never addressed that question. They do have a feeling, even today they have a feeling, that they can eliminate the Tigers through violence, through military means, then the things will be over. It's not like that."

'Peace and prosperity'

And some analysts believe only a miracle can now rescue Sri Lanka from further conflict.

"Six years ago, the year before the ceasefire agreement was signed, we could not have believed that for four years we would enjoy a ceasefire of the sort we had," said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, which campaigns for a negotiated settlement.

"This is what makes me hopeful that there can be sudden changes that we cannot envisage, that will once again turn the situation round and bring peace and prosperity to our country."

Five-year-old Vijaraja Sumeshan and his family are trying to get on with their lives as best they can in the refugee camp.

They hope to be able to return to home soon.

The government says it will resettle the people of Vakarai once landmines in the area have been cleared.

But a lasting peace for all the people of Sri Lanka seems a long way off.



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