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Taming the Tigers

July 03, 2006

SINCE APRIL, SRI LANKA has experienced rising violence between the government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group, effectively gutting a 4-year-old cease-fire. But amid the carnage, leaders of both sides have been making unexpected conciliatory gestures, spurring hope that with the help of international monitors, full-scale war can be avoided.

The decades-old conflict between the Tamil rebels, who control portions of the country and want separate rule, and the Sri Lankan government has claimed more than 60,000 lives. More than 800 people have been killed since the November election of President Mahinda Rajapakse, a hard-liner who rode to victory on the heels of a Tamil boycott and with the support of ardent Sri Lankan nationalist groups.

Cease-fire monitoring by Norway and other countries broke down in early June when the European Union declared the Tigers a terrorist group, causing the Tigers to reject them as biased. Soon afterward, more than 60 people were killed in an explosion on a bus, and on June 26, a suicide bomber killed Sri Lanka's third-highest-ranking general. The Tigers have denied responsibility, and the government has wisely avoided retaliation.

Also in June, the so-called Sea Tigers attempted a large-scale raid on a ship carrying Sri Lankan soldiers. The navy thwarted the attack, but it demonstrated that the rebels' sea capabilities remain fairly strong, making an all-out war a real possibility.

Aiming to avoid that, Rajapakse recently offered to negotiate directly with the Tigers and rein in a paramilitary group run by a former Tiger who now attacks his one-time associates. The Tigers are considering the offer. Both sides also have made overtures to India, a significant move for the Tigers because they are believed responsible for the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. A senior Tiger officer expressed "regret" over Gandhi's death, the closest the group has come to admitting guilt.

The Sri Lankan government has requested Indian assistance in monitoring the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka to head off further attacks by the Tamil navy, but India hasn't indicated that it will change its largely hands-off policy.

A peaceful Sri Lanka is very much in India's interest; war could bring a stream of refugees and instability to India, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu. India should start to take a more active role, while the EU must work for a return to the bargaining table. It isn't too late to head off a full-scale war.

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