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Former rebel party takes top posts

From Marxist insurgents to the seat of power, Sri Lanka's People's Liberation Front (JVP) takes four posts in the island's new cabinet.
PTI | By Lindsay Beck (Reuters), Colombo
PUBLISHED ON APR 28, 2004 05:53 PM IST

From Marxist insurgents to the seat of power, Sri Lanka's People's Liberation Front (JVP) completed its return to the political mainstream on Wednesday when it took four posts in the island's new cabinet.

But its new-found strength could be a roadblock to President Chandrika Kumaratunga's bid to restart peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels to end 20 years of civil war.

A hardline Sinhalese nationalist party, the JVP was one of the most vocal critics of the former government's peace efforts.

The party -- which tied up with Kumaratunga's United People's Freedom Alliance ahead of April 2 elections -- boosted its seats from 16 to 40 in the 225-seat parliament, moving from fringe party to political force.

But it opposes any devolution of power to the rebels, who have been fighting for a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils, raising fears the party's influence could derail the peace process.

"The critical governing roles secured by Sinhala ultra-nationalists does not bode well for peace," the pro-Tiger Tamil Guardian newspaper said in a recent editorial.

So far the party has not commented on the president's peace overtures, and diplomats and analysts say it has struck an informal deal to focus on economic policy.

"In the interest of survival they have all got to compromise," said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council.

"I don't think the swearing-in will have an initial impact on the (peace) initiative of the president. They've kept very quiet about is so far, although that could be difficult to continue," he said.

"TAIL WAGGING THE DOG"

JVP propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa said he would not comment on Kumaratunga's invitation last week to peace-broker Norway to resume its role in peace talks, saying the party had yet to discuss its position with the president.

The party, though, is already asserting its weight in the coalition. It haggled for weeks over portfolios, holding up the appointment of a full cabinet, before taking the agriculture, fisheries, rural industries and culture ministries.

"It could be a case of the tail wagging the dog," said one analyst.

But others say the JVP's tough stance on the Tigers will only be expressed in words, not deeds, in the interests of keeping power and because it recognises the government needs aid. That aid, worth billions of dollars, is contingent on progress in the peace process.

Before it joined politics, the JVP was at the heart of two rebellions in 1971 and 1987-9 in which more than 80,000 people died.

The group first had members elected to parliament a decade ago but it was only in the latest election that it moved beyond its traditional voter base in the poor, agricultural far south of the island to gain more widespread appeal.

"Already they are adapting their hardcore Marxism," said stock analyst Hasitha Premaratne, one of several who think the JVP's radical edge will be softened by the halls of power.

The group was also implicated in the assassination of Kumaratunga's husband Vijaya, a handsome movie star and firebrand socialist who was set to run for president before he was gunned down in 1988.

Its second insurgency was in part a reaction to Indian troops intervening to try to quell the Tiger rebellion, and the JVP has remained critical of foreign involvement, staging protests against the role of Norway in brokering the peace process.

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