Sri Lanka peace process at delicate point. Talks raise hopes for solution, but final accord must include militants
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Prospects for peace in this war-torn island hang in the balance following the latest round of peace talks that ended without a conclusive agreement. In the balmy capital of Colombo, where the talks wound up Saturday night, the mood is one of general hopefulness that a political solution to the island's ethnic strife may be reached in the near future. Expectations have been running high here and in India for a positive outcome from negotiations have gone on intermittently since last July between the Sri Lankan government and the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front.Skip to next paragraph
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However, sources close to the negotiations say, the talks cannot produce a final agreement without the involvement of militant Tamil groups that are waging a secessionist war in the north and east. The latest talks were described as useful, but left a number of vital issues unsettled.
Discussions on less contentious issues of government proposals to grant greater autonomy to the Tamil minority appear to have made limited progress. But no final decision has been reached on the Tamils' fundamental demand for a merger of the island's Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces.
The moderate Tamils are expected to consult with the Indian government and Tamil rebel leaders this week before another round of talks resumes later this month, possibly in New Delhi.
Sri Lanka's minority Tamils are seeking a power-sharing arrangement that would allow them to assert authority in regions where Tamils are concentrated. Both the government, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese, and the moderate Tamils want a compromise that would shift some federal powers to nine provincial councils, without fundamentally altering Sri Lanka's Constitution.
Since 1983, when a spate of communal riots left at least 2,000 Tamils dead, fighting has taken a heavy toll in lives (Tamils claim more than 5,000 have died in the conflict) and on the economy.
India, which has a 50-million-strong Tamil population in its southern Tamil Nadu State, has played a key role in bringing about the peace talks. Tamil Nadu serves as an unofficial base of operations for Sri Lanka's Tamil guerrilla groups, although the Indian government does not like to admit this.
Since the collapse of talks last year and the subsequent resurgence of violence, pressure from India and other countries for the Sri Lankan government to resume negotiations has mounted. India's Foreign Ministry has helped Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayewardene work out proposals for granting greater autonomy to the Sri Lankan Tamils.
``Previously, only a framework was presented. Now, there are actual constitutional proposals that spell out very clearly defined provisions on key issues,'' says an Indian government spokesman in New Delhi.
This is the first time President Jayewardene's government has actually presented a complete package for granting more power to the Tamils through provincial councils, analysts say. The councils are patterned after the Indian federal system -- with each council having a president-appointed governor and a chief minister chosen by an elected provincial council that has legislative, financial, and executive powers.
The councils would also control the distribution of land -- another key issue in Sri Lanka's communal conflict. But the central government will still have the power to use the lands it requires. One major Tamil grievance involves the government's policy of settling Sinhalese people in the predominantly Tamil regions to reflect the national population ratio of 74 percent Sinhalese to 26 percent minorities.
Tensions are particularly acute in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts in the east, where ethnic Tamils have a plurality relative to Muslims and Sinhalese. Although the northern province is under Tamil control, the eastern province continues to be a battlefield.