|When Velu says Peace , that means War..
The lauging stock of foreign correspondents.
What will it take to bring peace to tiny, tortured Sri Lanka, now in the 19th year of a conflict that has taken 65,000 lives? More than anything, the cooperation of one man, Velupillai Prabhakaran, supremo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the most enduring and deadly rebel groups in the world. Prabhakaran emerged from the jungles of northern Sri Lanka last week to hold his first press conference in 12 years and talk some very uncharacteristic talk: of peace. If the right deal is offered, he announced, he will call off the rebellion, collect the cyanide capsules from around his fighters' necks and disband what, with 217 attacks to date, is the world's most prolific suicide-bomb squad. 'We are sincerely committed to peace,' he said.
Prabhakaran's actions are far less convincing than his words. Time has learned that since a cease-fire between the government and the Tigers was announced on Dec. 24, the Tigers have been rearming, regrouping and recruiting more fighters?which has been their practice during each of the previous truces since 1987. The Tigers have a well-oiled gunrunning network, which uses a fleet of 16 ships and is centered mainly in Cambodia and Thailand. In late February in Thailand's Ranong province, police seized a cache of explosives including tnt and C4 they believe was destined for Sri Lanka. 'Acquisitions are still continuing,' says one diplomat referring to intelligence reports. Adds Rohan Gunaratna of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland: 'Looking at their procurement picture, by monitoring their shipping and banking networks and their buying officers, we are seeing no change in their clandestine activities.' From Cambodia in particular, says Gunaratna, the Tigers have bought and shipped 'a large quantity' of artillery shells and weapons in the past three months. 'It clearly demonstrates that in terms of their long-term mission of building capability, there has been no change.' Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe concurs: 'From the intelligence we have, their network is functioning,' he says. 'That doesn't surprise me at all.' Prabhakaran insisted last week that the LTTE were no longer recruiting child soldiers, but Time has seen internal LTTE documents, which record the names of at least six 'recently recruited' fighters under age 15. And one LTTE soldier told Time last week that even today, the price of quitting the Tigers is execution?hardly the policy of a group intending to lay down arms.
The U.S. branded the LTTE a terrorist organization in 1997, and President George W. Bush would have ample justification to expand his war on terror to Sri Lanka, or at least threaten to. The Tigers have well-documented links to terror groups in the Middle East?many veterans were trained by Yasser Arafat's p.l.o.?and they operate an armament delivery service for other militants around the world. According to Indian intelligence, who deeply resent Prabhakaran and the Tigers for the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a Tiger vessel has been used to transport weapons from al-Qaeda to the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and to Turkey to supply rebels in Chechnya. 'They have the best terrorist shipping network in the world,' says Gunaratna. But while the U.S. is trying to portray itself as 'bad cop' and 'a menacing hard-ass,' according to one Western diplomat in Colombo, Prabhakaran last week publicly called their bluff. 'We do not think America would intervene,' he said dismissively. 'We are not Muslims.'
Nevertheless, with a four month cease-fire observed with unprecedented strictness by both sides, diplomats are expressing a wary optimism that this time the peace process might work. They argue that Colombo has been pushed to the negotiating table by a military stalemate and an economy groaning under the cost of war: $40 billion to date. Wickremesinghe has brought a new frankness and sincerity to talks since taking office in December. 'I think we can get there,' he tells Time, 'but it's going to be a very difficult journey.' The Tigers are already feeling a post-Sept. 11 pinch. The group is now banned in all their main overseas bases: the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada. Bank accounts have been frozen. But the pressure may be overstated. According to Gunaratna, the LTTE continue to raise funds from the Tamil diaspora around the world, although any explicit coercion has been replaced by implicit threats. The majority of the 500,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil community abroad backs peace. But some?among them generous donors?oppose it, fearing a settlement would threaten their ability to win permission to settle abroad as embattled refugees from a war-torn land. 'There are many who arrived in recent years and their applications for citizenship are still pending,' says Charles Antonidaz, a British Tamil who has lived in London for 10 years, adding he knows some new arrivals who are 'terrified' by the prospect of an end to war.
To some extent this applies to Prabhakaran himself. The paranoia of a man who for 12 years has secreted himself away from the world, building up a cult of godlike reverence that prevents Tigers from even referring to him by name, cannot be overstated. He emerged from hiding last week dressed in a suit that could only be described as North Korean chic, flanked by a trio of mustachioed goons in sunglasses and a host of cameramen whose apparent task was to record the faces and questions of every reporter. Whatever the intended message, the impression was clear: as a politician, Prabhakaran would make an excellent military dictator. Asked if he still stood by a long-standing vow that his men should kill him if he ever gave up his goal of an independent state for the country's Tamils, who make up 18% of Sri Lanka's population, the 47-year-old Prabhakaran said: 'That statement still holds.'
Ashley Wills, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, suspects Prabhakaran may find it impossible to leave behind his days as a guerrilla despot, always on the run, always planning the next military ambush or presiding over yet another farewell dinner for a cadre being sent off on a suicide bombing mission, one of Prabhakaran's signature rituals. 'There's nothing I'd like more than for him to prove me wrong,' says Wills, 'but I have my doubts.' Prabhakaran's supporters, however, have none. Vasantha, 21, says: 'Our leader knows best. We will agree to whatever he decides.' Even if that is a suicide mission? 'Of course,' he grins. 'That way I will die for my homeland.' Pause. 'And I will get to have dinner with the leader.'
?With reporting by Anthony Davis/Phnom Penh, Meenakshi Ganguly/Kilinochchi, Helen Gibson/ London and Bhagwan Singh/Madras
Edited By - tributesla - 27 Jul 2007 13:58:28 GMT