VELUPILLAI PRABAKARAN, THE leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has finally confirmed what was all along suspected: the LTTE is not interested in negotiating a federal solution to Sri Lanka's Tamil question. This is the unambiguous message of Mr. Prabakaran's November 27 "Heroes' Day" speech in which he has threatened to "advance the freedom struggle" if the Government does not begin talks with the LTTE on setting up the "Interim Self-Governing Authority" in North-East Sri Lanka, for which the group submitted proposals last year. From the beginning, the LTTE has treated the peace process as a means to gain control over the North-East, which it failed to do militarily. The February 2002 ceasefire helped the LTTE achieve this to an extent. But total administrative control, with powers such as the LTTE wants, emphasising the separateness of the North-East from Sri Lanka, would have completed the picture. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who saw through the LTTE's game plan, first insisted that talks on the ISGA must be linked to negotiations for a permanent settlement. When the LTTE rejected this condition, Ms. Kumaratunga signalled her willingness to begin talks on the ISGA alone, adding only the phrase "within a unified Sri Lanka." Were Mr. Prabakaran serious about ending the impasse, he would have accepted this condition. After all, he came into the peace process fully aware that its final destination was a settlement that would not violate the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, the message conveyed to him by the Norwegian peace envoy, Erik Solheim, at their first meeting in November 2000. But it is amply clear the LTTE was only playing a charade all along, even when it signed a commitment at Oslo in December 2002 to "explore a federal solution."

Does this mean the LTTE is about to begin another war? Mr. Prabakaran's ultimatum to the Sri Lankan Government certainly makes it sound that way but it is extremely unlikely considering that the ground situation in the North-East turned unfavourable to the LTTE after its former eastern military commander, Karuna, split the organisation. Weakened militarily by this, the LTTE no longer controls the East as it once did. Crucially, it can no longer depend on the region as a cadre recruitment ground for future military campaigns. Mr. Prabakaran's significant silence in his speech on the most serious division to have surfaced within the LTTE might have been intended to give the impression that the Karuna factor poses no problem to the organisation. It is quite obvious from the violent drama playing itself out in eastern Sri Lanka, with cadres on both sides of the divide killing each other every day, that the opposite is true. As if to drive home this point, Karuna made his own "Heroes' Day" speech on November 27 attacking his former leader.

Politically too, the LTTE is finding itself progressively on weaker ground. The Karuna-led split has questioned one of its main demands, that of the North-East as a unified homeland of the Tamils. Its political confusion is apparent in the manner Mr. Prabakaran asks President Kumaratunga to begin talks immediately on the ISGA even while dismissing her as a leader who cannot "offer either an interim administration or a permanent solution." The truth staring the LTTE in the face is this: there is no escape from returning to the table for a negotiated settlement. Of course, Mr. Prabakaran holds another option, that of striking terror anywhere in Sri Lanka through his suicide bombers. But should he fall back on this tactic, he, and the LTTE, would get completely discredited and lose every friend they have made in the last four years.

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