Exhausted by war, Sri Lanka ponders peace

The government will meet with a rebel group Monday, for the first time in seven years.

After seven years of stony silence, Sri Lanka's rival factions are ready to talk. The Sri Lankan government will begin peace talks Monday with the Tamil Tigers, an ethnic guerrilla force that has waged a separatist war on the island for almost two decades.

While past efforts at peace have failed, this time, both sides are approaching talks tired and weakened by one of Southeast Asia's bloodiest conflicts. As a result, diplomats and analysts say this initiative has a better chance of succeeding.

More than 64,000 people have died since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland. Tamils, who make up 18 percent of Sri Lanka's population and are mostly Hindu, complain of discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist.

Support from Norway, the US, and other countries, as well as less interference from India, which is resented for sending troops into Sri Lanka in the 1980s, has played a role in the push for peace. But domestic factors best explain the effort, say analysts.

The government is grappling with the economic impact of fighting. For the first time since independence in 1948, the nation's economy shrank last year as tourism and trade tumbled.

"There's evidence of a real change of heart among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka to find a settlement," says Christopher Candland, assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College and a South Asia specialist. "This really is a different kind of peace initiative."

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan officials and other observers say the post-Sept. 11 crackdown on terror groups has severely undercut foreign funding for the Tigers and helped force them to the negotiating table.

"After Sept. 11 [the Tamils] had no choice ... they don't have anywhere to run their international operations," says K.T. Rajasingham, an exiled Tamil journalist familiar with the LTTE leadership.

Momentum for peace talks has been building since last December, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected on a peacemaker ticket. Upon election, Mr. Wickremesinghe signaled that he might compromise on the issue of Tamil self-rule.

Responding to this olive branch, the LTTE's reclusive military leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, told reporters in April that he was ready to renounce violence if the government granted wide-ranging autonomy to the Tamil minority.

Now, the two sides are holding their first public meeting at a naval base in neutral Thailand. Three senior ministers will meet with LTTE representatives led by Anton Balasingham, an exile based in Britain.

Initially, talks will be aimed at confidence-building with a focus on reconstruction of the battered northeast, including the return of refugees and the demining of land. Diplomats hope this week to set a day for another round of talks which would define an autonomy package for a Tamil-run province in return for the LTTE dropping their demand for a separate homeland. This idea has already raised hackles among conservatives, as well as Sinhalese and Muslim minorities who live in Tamil-dominated areas and fear the rule of the Tigers.

Analysts say Wickremesinghe's conciliatory approach is popular among the electorate but could be undercut in the future by political opponents. Chief among these is the People's Liberation Front (JVP), a political party with a violent past that protested against the lifting of a largely symbolic ban on the Tigers on Sept. 4. "The JVP will gain fuel if it can convince people that the government is handing over power to the Tamils," says Professor Candland.

On the other side, the LTTE also faces cries of "sell-out" from militants schooled in the use of lethal force. The LTTE claims the dubious distinction of pioneering the modern use of suicide bombers to kill enemies and terrorize civilians. Its members, who include child soldiers as young as 13, carry cyanide capsules around their neck in case of capture.

Observers warn that transforming such an army into a civilian organization is hazardous, and note that the LTTE has reneged on past agreements.

Some doubt that its leader Prabhakaran can settle for anything less than outright separation from Sri Lanka.

"At the moment hawkish elements have been marginalized, but this doesn't mean they won't raise their heads again," says Sugeeswara Senadhira, associate director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Sri Lanka. "[Prabhakaran] is taking a bigger risk than the prime minister. He's sent scores of people with bombs strapped to their chest on suicide missions saying that separation is the only way for the Tamil people."

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