Sri Lankan talks a welcome step for weary observers

Under intense international pressure, government officials and the Tamil Tigers met this weekend for the first time in months.

For the first time in eight months, members of the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came together this weekend, meeting behind closed doors in Geneva.

After a recent uptick in violence, the parties' willingness to return to the negotiating table – albeit under intense international pressure – is a welcome step for this South Asian nation.

Mediated by Norwegian officials, the talks were an effort to revive the fragile 2002 peace agreement. But analysts say that at best, the two sides will agree to meet for comprehensive talks in the future. At worst, failure of this round of talks could spark all-out war.

"I would call this meeting a success if the two sides decide on more fruitful interactions in the near future," says P. Saravanamuttu, the director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. "A long-standing ethnic conflict cannot be resolved in one meeting."

More than 65,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka since hostilities between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities broke out in 1983. In the past year alone, nearly 3,000 people are believed to have been killed, and over 400 ethnic Tamil youths have been abducted.

In addition, civilians in Sri Lanka's restive north and east have been severely affected. UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, estimates that 201,835 civilians have been internally displaced since the upsurge in violence earlier this year.

After the recent bloodshed, analysts say, international pressure has brought the two Sri Lankan protagonists back to the negotiating table.

The Tigers risk international isolation. This year they were banned as a terrorist organization by the European Union and Canada. And this August, their efforts to procure arms were severely impeded in North America after arrests of some Tiger agents by the FBI.

On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government has benn under pressure to spruce up its image in the international community since it was accused of brutal killings of foreign aid workers in eastern Sri Lanka in August. The concern is that aid from donor countries – namely the European Union, Japan, and Norway – will freeze if progress isn't seen on the peace front.

In addition, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged both sides to provide "conflict free sanctuaries" to civilians. While both sides are expected to discuss civilian safety during the talks, neither side has committed itself to this cause.

In fact, analysts have expressed doubt about both sides' commitment to the talks. Past experiences point out that as talks bring a lull in fighting, the downtime is used by the two sides to regroup and gather military strength for the next round of fighting.

One of the key obstacles in this weekend's talks was disagreement over the A-9 highway, the thoroughfare that connects the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula with the rest of Sri Lanka.

The Tigers said the talks wouldn't progress if the A-9, closed since August after an upsurge in violence, isn't reopened. The government, however, maintains that the highway had to be shut after increasing Tiger hostilities.

In mid-October, the Tigers dealt a major blow to the attacking Sri Lankan Army on the Jaffna peninsula, killing about 130 soldiers and destroying four T-55 tanks and eight armored vehicles in the two-hour battle.

Five days later, a suicide truck bomber attacked a convoy of 24 buses at a transit hub used by the military in the northeastern Sri Lankan town of Habarana, killing at least 90 Sri Lankan naval personnel.

"Both sides need to demonstrate the political will and commitment to resolve this issue rather than pretend they're interested in negotiations while in fact playing for time," says Mr. P. Saravanamuttu.

Last week, in a significant political move that analysts see as a boost for the Geneva talks, Sri Lanka's two biggest political parties – the ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), and the opposition United National Party (UNP) signed a memorandum of understanding.

With this support from the main opposition, analysts say, the Sri Lankan government is less likely to give into pressure from its hard-line political allies, who favor a military solution to the ethnic conflict.

"This is a step in the right direction," says Rohini Hensman, a Sri Lankan political analyst. "This way both sides could rapidly move towards a democratic devolution package that satisfies the majority of Tamils."

But to ensure that both sides refrain from fighting, a new peace agreement is necessary, says Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, head of the political science department at Colombo University.

"The peace process in its current form is hard to revive," he says.

Ms. Hensman adds that "a viable peace agreement must include strong human rights guarantees, and credible machinery for investigating and redressing violations of those rights in LTTE-controlled as well as government-controlled areas."

In intense fighting since the beginning of this year, both sides have suffered severe blows and humiliating losses on the battle field.

And for the first time in many years, the government captured Tiger-held territory in early September.

"Now the scores are even," Ameen Izzadeen, a prominent Sri Lankan columnist recently wrote in a national daily. "That should be good for peace. Now neither side is in a position to dictate terms."

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