Monks, Marxists and militants romp home in Sri Lanka polls

Monks, Marxists and Tamil militants have made unprecedented gains in Sri Lanka's elections, turning the island's new parliament into one of its most polarised on ethnic and religious lines, analysts said.

The polls were called early by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to end a power struggle with the rival prime minister over peace talks with the Tamil Tigers, but observers noted they have merely served to usher in an assembly filled with extremists.

For the first time, Sri Lanka's parliament will have an all-clergy party taking nine seats in the 225-member assembly. The saffron-robed Buddhist monks are already challenging the etiquette in an assembly based on Westminster traditions.

"For starters, we are looking at a new way to have our seats," said monk legislator-elect Athuraliya Ratana. "We don't have to be in the opposition or in the government side. We may ask for a separate seating arrangement for us."

But while the monks -- who represent the majority, mainly Buddhist Sinhalese community -- say they want to establish a "righteous state" and oppose the use of violence, they are also preaching a radical brand of Sinhalese nationalism and say they will oppose any concessions to the Tiger rebels.

"What we have in this country is not an ethnic problem," said Omalpe Sobitha, another monk who was elected to parliament following Friday's vote. "It is terrorism. That has to be addressed."

Sharing the red-carpeted parliamentary chamber with the monks will be 21 legislators from the Tamil minority who are proxy candidates of the Tamil Tigers.

And competing with both monks and the Tamils are legislators representing the Marxist JVP, a party that led two insurgencies put down by the then governments in 1971 and 1987 at a total cost of 80,000 lives.

"I don't think you could ask for a more militant parliament in Sri Lanka than this," said an Asian diplomat. "Looks like we are losing the middle ground here. It would be a challenge to get anything done in this new House."

The JVP is likely to end up with over 40 seats out of the 108 won by their Freedom Alliance led by President Kumaratunga, according to initial results.

While Kumaratunga's group will have the top number of seats in the hung parliament, her own Sri Lanka Freedom Party within the Freedom Alliance will have just over 60 seats, down from 77 in the outgoing parliament.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's right-wing United National Party also did badly to end up with about 82 seats, down from the 109 it had in the last assembly.

"This election has seen the rejection of mainstream parties," said Jayadeva Uyangoda, the head of the political science department of the Colombo university.

"The new voters seem to have gone to the JVP, the monks and the Tamil Alliance."

The monks of the National Heritage Party said they will neither support nor help bring down a minority administration.

"People have voted for us not to align ourselves with any of the two main parties," said Ratana.

Both the monks and the JVP are like-minded when it comes to the country's drawn-out Tamil separatist conflict, which has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972.

They both oppose unconditional peace talks with the Tigers and are against the concept of a federal solution that has been accepted by the president, the prime minister and the Tigers.

The Tiger proxies, on the other hand, will not hear of anything other than what the Tigers want them to say -- an interim self-governing authority for war-torn areas and recognition of the Tigers as sole representatives of Tamils.

Western diplomats said the Tigers to a great extent had resolved the issue of recognition by taking part in the election, even through proxies.

"What is important is to see what kind of life expectancy the next parliament will have," a Western diplomat said. "It is important for Sri Lankan politicians to ensure that the crisis does not degenerate into chaos."