An Outbreak of Peace in Sri Lanka?

The astonishing outbreak of peace in Sri Lanka’s vicious intercommunal conflict moved a stage further yesterday when the Tamil Tigers reached an agreement with the island’s Muslims, a minority they victimised as ruthlessly as the Tamils claimed the Sinhalese majority persecuted them.

Twelve years ago the Tigers forced 100,000 Muslims out of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the areas it claimed for an independent Tamil homeland. A few days ago the movement apologised for doing so; yesterday it promised the Muslims, who make up some 8 per cent of the island’s population, would be allowed to return.

The events of 11 September have fathered many children, but none more unexpected than the sudden new mood of optimism in this former British colony at the southern tip of India. Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tigers, is a cold-blooded monster of aggression, the fanatical brain behind 150 suicide bomb attacks including the one that killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He has ruthlessly eliminated all rivals for leadership. He and his followers have been described as terrorists in Sri Lanka, in India, in Britain and in the US. He is not by any stretch of the meaning of the words a democratic politician.

But a Tiger ceasefire has held for four months now. Last week, for the first time in 10 years, squeezed by the immense pressure on all those identified as terrorists following the attacks on America, Mr Prabhakaran spoke to the press. And for the first time in 12 years the narrow, shell-blasted, tank-mangled strip of tar called the A9, leading through the island’s biggest battlefield and into the stranded Jaffna peninsula (which is entirely populated by Tamils), was once again open to anyone tenacious enough to spend many hours weaving between potholes.

Those who did so discovered that Mr Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are the words on every lip. In the town of Chavachcheri, on Jaffna city’s outskirts, every home and shop was smashed during the bitter fighting between government troops and Tigers two years ago. Now the residents are creeping back, camping and setting up makeshift stalls in the ruins. “The LTTE are the representatives of the Tamils,” said Tharkullan Singh, a grocer, sipping sweet tea amid the market’s mangled relics. “They will lead us. Mr Prabhakaran is a good leader. He never wants to fight war again.”

“Prabhakaran is not so bad,” said J S Siphasundaram, an engineer with the construction department of Jaffna city corporation, working with volunteers on the rehabilitation of the market. “He has come down into the political world. More than 95 per cent of Tamils support LTTE. It’s possible he will follow the democratic way. Let’s wait and see.”

In the Bishop’s House next to the Catholic cathedral in Jaffna city, the Rt Rev Dr Thomas Savundaranayagam was, like millions in the island, glued to the live transmission of Mr Prabhakaran’s press conference this week. “For a long time people doubted whether Prabhakaran existed,” he said; the Tigers’ leader had vanished as thoroughly as Osama bin Laden. Now his lordship, a Tamil himself, is prepared to indulge the Tiger leader’s shortcomings.

“He has not expressed remorse, but nor has the government, and they killed 70,000 Tamils. All people here support LTTE and glorify Prabhakaran. They say we are respected today as Tamils because of one man. The Tigers gave their life blood for us.”

Four months into a peace that everyone on the island hopes will go on and on, Sri Lanka is in the embrace of sweet euphoria. This weekend, both Tamils and Sinhalese celebrate new year: they may have different religions (Hinduism and Buddhism), different languages, different cultures, but today the holiday mood unites them. The two races are not bitter enemies, despite nearly 19 years of civil war.

“It’s not like in Palestine,” said Professor P Balasundarampillai, vice-chancellor of Jaffna University. “Tamils and Sinhalese are on friendly terms.” Mr Siphasundaram, the engineer, agreed. “The Sinhalese people are good,” he said. “It is their politicians who have done bad things to us.”

Driving from Colombo to Jaffna is like crossing from West to East Berlin before the Wall came down, like stepping back 30 years. Colombo, despite economic woes, is prosperous, with its chic shops, gleaming German cars and sleek new buildings. Jaffna, by contrast, looks and feels like an upcountry Indian market town. The only cars are beautifully tended Austins and Morrises from the 1960s. Time here stopped when the war broke out.

Now the two places are itching to come together. The businessmen want it: the sea off Jaffna, for example, has immense shoals of fish. With an A9 highway fit to drive on, Jaffna’s fishmongers could massively undercut their competitors in Colombo. And the ordinary people are already doing it, bumping down the road to meet long-lost relatives.

Peace talks are due to begin in Thailand next month. So much now depends on one man: Velupillai Prabhakaran. Wanted for murder in India, condemned as a terrorist, glorified by his people ­ and never yet known to budge from his demand for an independent nation. Last week he hinted at room for compromise. If he has the stature to unbend, Sri Lanka can discover its destiny.

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