Rajapakse Won’t Sign Poll Deal With Monks

Colombo, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s prime minister will not sign an agreement with the country’s influential Buddhist monks that would have sealed their support for his presidency bid, senior officials said yesterday.

But Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the ruling party’s presidential candidate, would still accept the proposal from the monk-led National Heritage Party today, senior officials close to both Rajapakse and the monks said.

The pact links the monk’s support to a condition that as president, Rajapakse does not pursue any peace deal that would hand over more power to Tamil Tiger rebels.

The decision not to ink the deal was taken after President Chandrika Kumaratunga criticized Rajapakse for signing a similar agreement with the Marxist party, the officials said on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

In a strongly worded letter, Chandrika criticized the Buddhist party as “extremists,” and warned that any deal with them would first have to be discussed with her and the ruling party.

The officials said a ceremony in one of Buddhism’s important temples, the Temple of the Tooth, in central Sri Lanka will take place as scheduled today but Rajapakse will not sign the document as initially planned.

The National Heritage Party said last week that Rajapakse had given assurances that the government would rework the fundamentals of the peace process and retain control over Tiger-held areas. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have demanded greater autonomy in the areas in the north and east — parts of which they control — as a condition for resuming peace talks stalled since 2003.

Rajapakse is the ruling party’s candidate in presidential elections due before Nov. 22. Chandrika has served two terms and is constitutionally barred from another.

Chandrika has long been pushing a plan to share power with the Tigers in a bid to permanently end Sri Lanka’s two-decade civil war.

Although the National Heritage Party only has seven lawmakers in the 225-member Parliament, the monks wield tremendous influence in this Buddhist-majority country and oppose giving any concessions to the rebels.

The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for minority ethnic Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

The conflict killed nearly 65,000 people before February 2002, when the government and rebels signed a cease-fire, which is coming under increased strain due to scattered outbreaks of violence and the assassination last month of Sri Lanka’s foreign minister.

A government-rebel deal to share aid for the Dec. 26 tsunami has been viewed as a possible chance for progress toward ending the stalemate.

The monks and the Marxists have vehemently criticized the Norwegian-brokered peace process, the aid-sharing deal and opposed unconditional peace talks with the rebels.