Peace dividend from tsunami?

Norwegian team hopes to end a standoff between Sri Lanka government and Tamil rebels.

A high-level peace- negotiating team from Norway arrives in Sri Lanka Thursday for a four-day visit to assess tsunami damage - and to try to break a deadlock between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north.

Talks stalled last year between the two sides, which have observed a tenuous cease-fire for three years. But the tsunami may have changed the reality on the ground, encouraging cooperation on reconstruction and opening a window for compromise in a civil war that has racked the small island nation over the past two decades.

"Hopefully, the rebuilding of confidence will translate into some sort of power- sharing agreement which is urgently needed now," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives Studies in Colombo. "The two sides have to work together on the ground to rehabilitate the people and quickly build the institutions to do this."

The tsunami may provide an opening for peace initiatives elsewhere as well. Indonesia's foreign minister, Hassan Wirayuda, said Wednesday he hoped to start talks this month with rebels in Aceh - the first since May 2003.

Last year, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) put forward a proposal for a five-year interim self-governing authority, or ISGA. But the government balked, charging that such an agreement would lay the groundwork for an independent Tamil state in the Tamil majority north and east. The government is interested in discussing the ISGA only in the context of a final accord - something the LTTE has rejected so far.

Before the tsunami struck, growing tensions between the government and the rebels, who control two-thirds of the northeast, had raised concerns about renewed fighting.

"The LTTE were reportedly getting stronger every day," says Jehan Perera the director of the independent National Peace Council, in Colombo, adding that the rebels felt they had gained little from the cease-fire.

"However," he says, "it is believed that the military capability of the LTTE has been badly hurt by the wave, and thousands of their people have been affected. There is the added situation of having foreign troops on the ground, including US troops, which will make them think twice about war."

In an interview at the group's political headquarters in Kilinochchi, about 180 miles north of Colombo, the political head of the LTTE insisted that the government should agree to the five-year period stipulated in the ISGA proposal, adding that he would "not rule out" extending it because tsunami destruction might cause more delays to the reconstruction of the LTTE-held areas.

"We are right now concerned with humanitarian issues and giving immediate relief to make the people stand up on their feet again, and any extensions of the time frame will have to be reconsidered after this is over," says S.P. Thamilselvam, an authoritative, youthful figure who walks with a stick from an injury sustained in the conflict.

About 120,000 people in the Tamil-held areas have been displaced by the tsunami, adding to the burden of the thousands displaced during the war itself.

Government sources say that it would be unfortunate if the LTTE used the tsunami as an excuse to buy more time. "Since the cease-fire, people have been able to buy most goods and travel from the north to the south freely and cheaply by road," says K. Ganesh, the government agent in Jaffna district in the north, where both government forces and the LTTE operate. "The fishermen can go further than [the half-mile limit imposed by the government] from the shore to fish in deeper waters. They want a permanent solution."

But independent analysts say that in private discussions with the government, the LTTE has indicated that it might be willing to negotiate on the terms of the ISGA.

Norway sponsored and facilitated the 2002 peace talks in Sri Lanka between the LTTE and the government. The delegation arriving Thursday, which includes Foreign Minister Jan Petersen and International Development Minister Hilde Johnson, will focus first on working through international agencies, local NGOs, and Norwegian organizations to meet the urgent needs of the displaced, as well as on a rebuilding strategy.

The team is expected to travel to the south and to visit the devastated north, including Mullaitivu, where the Tamil minority suffered greatly, and which is also the base for the rebel group's fledgling navy.

"The aim of the visit will be to rebuild confidence between the two sides, which has been shattered due to allegations by the Tamils of poor tsunami relief arrangements for the Tamil majority areas, by the government," says Mr. Saravanamuttu.

The peace team from Norway is also expected to try to facilitate the release of $4.5 billion for general reconstruction, promised from donor countries before the tsunami.

"This new arrangement might involve an international component, which will monitor how the funds are used and will also reassure both sides," says Mr. Perera. "The LTTE will be assured that the government won't drag its feet, and the government will be reassured that the LTTE won't use the funds to rebuild its navy, which was damaged in the tsunami."

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