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Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 15:08 GMT
Sri Lanka's tricky transition to peace
Tamil Tigers on a training exercise
The Tigers are accustomed to war rather than politics

The honeymoon in Sri Lanka's peace talks is over.

The overall picture may still be positive but some of the developments on the ground are worrying.

According to the international cease-fire monitors, 502 of the 556 cease-fire violations last year were committed by the Tamil Tigers.

Most serious among them were the 313 confirmed cases of child recruitment by the rebels.

The people of Jaffna have a love-hate relationship with the Tigers

Tamil intellectual
These violate the cease-fire agreement where the Tigers promised to "abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population, including such acts as torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment".

Reports of continued abduction of children fly in the face of repeated promises by the rebel leadership not to recruit under-aged fighters.

The irony is the peace process means the Tigers are discussing demobilisation of child soldiers, while recruiting more.

And there is no clear explanation - sometimes Tamil Tiger leaders deny all responsibility, while at other times they blame it on ill-disciplined junior ranks.

After a year-long cease-fire the message should surely have reached the lower ranks of the organisation.

The issue has now become a test of the Tigers' stated commitment to the peace process.

Tax issue

Then there's the issue of rebel taxation. In Jaffna, which is under government control, the local population is compelled to pay tax to the rebels.

Employees who fail to pay promptly are summoned to the Tigers' political office where they are confronted with information about their salary gleaned from informers within their workplace.

It is also made clear that the rebels are in possession of their home addresses, which they find intimidating.

Group of child soldiers in Sri Lanka
Tigers have continued to recruit child soldiers
Shopkeepers who are forced to pay large sums every month to the Tigers say they are issued with receipts describing the payments as donations.

It is not uncommon for transport companies to be ordered to lend their vehicle - along with a full fuel tank - for rebel functions or for guest house owners to be told to accommodate guests for free during cultural festivals.

Journalists are not exempt, though the approach is more subtle; generally it is a series of requests for favours and gifts that eventually borders on harassment and exploitation.

Love-hate relationship

Extortion and abduction are not ways to win the hearts and minds of the people whose rights you have been fighting for.

As one Tamil intellectual put it "the people of Jaffna have a love-hate relationship with the Tigers - they love them when they're fighting but they hate their taxes and their methods".

When the war was at its height Jaffna Tamils saw the army as their sole oppressor - now they are beginning to wonder what it will be like to live under a Tamil Tiger administration.

There is no doubt a year ago the Tigers had huge support in Jaffna but some of that has now begun to evaporate.

Tamil Tiger logo
The Tigers have lived in a militaristic culture
In fact, some Jaffna Tamils are now predicting that once the ethnic conflict is resolved there will be another struggle for Tamil rights - this time against the Tigers.

The most generous interpretation of events is that the Tigers are having trouble transforming from a military into a political organisation.

They have little experience of democratic values having lived in a militaristic culture throughout two decades of war. This is a time when tact and restraint are essential if the peace process is to succeed.

The answer might lie with the Tamil diasporas whose expertise and experience could be a huge and valuable asset now.

But in rebel territory members of the movement speak derisively of the expatriates who did not stay to defend their homeland with their lives.

Outside help

Expatriate Tamils are quick to point out it is their money that has made the war possible.

The chief rebel negotiator, Anton Balasingham, who lives in exile in Britain, is one man who could help the Tigers master the art of politics.

But poor health has prevented his return to rebel territory for some months now.

It is unlikely that rebel commanders who have risked their lives in the jungle all these years are going to recognise their limitations when it comes to politics and share responsibility with those who are better qualified.

The risk is the peace process may start to unravel if suspicion continues to build up that the Tigers are insincere, rather than just inexperienced.

Peace efforts




See also:

31 Jan 03 | South Asia
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