Tamil Tigers step back into talks
Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
Hopes for a negotiated end to Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war have been revived, with Tamil Tiger rebels submitting their first-ever detailed proposals for Tamil self-rule in a united country.
The Government and Tamil separatist rebels are expected to resume direct negotiations soon after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam signalled their return to the peace process on Friday by submitting their blueprint to Norwegian mediators.
In response, the Government's chief negotiator, G. L. Pieris, said he would seek an early resumption of direct talks suspended by the Tigers in April. Negotiations are expected to resume early in the new year.
The rebel plan is in response to government proposals put forward in July for an interim administration in the Tamil-majority north-east.
Professor Pieris said the Government hoped direct talks could find common ground in the two sides' "significantly divergent positions".
Norway's deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesen, will visit Sri Lanka this week to move the process forward.
Despite the progress, the rebels' proposals have already triggered a hostile reaction from hardline elements in the majority Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist community.
The Tigers want total control of Sri Lanka's north-east and the adjacent maritime areas for five years pending a final settlement of the conflict. Defence, taxation, law and order and economic management would all be run by an Interim Self-Governing Authority in eight districts, including strategically important Trincomalee, Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa.
Government representatives and Muslim minority leaders would get seats on the council, but the Tigers would hold the majority. Elections would be held after five years.
The plan calls for Sri Lankan armed forces to immediately vacate privately owned land occupied during the war, and to compensate the owners for their dispossession.
Nationalists fear the 20 per cent Tamil minority will use any agreement to entrench their power in the north-east, paving the way for the creation of an independent Tamil homeland known as Eelam.
"We expected them to ask for everything," said Thilak Karunaratne, leader of a hardline Sinhalese nationalist group the Sihala Urumaya.
The Tigers have sought to allay such concerns. "This is not a step forward to Eelam or secession," the head of the Tigers' political wing, S. P. Thamilselvan, said in the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi on Saturday. "This is an immediate need in the process for a viable and alternative solution to the ethnic question."
More worrying for the United National Party government of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, are signs that President Chandrika Kumaratunga is moving to scuttle the peace process. Her Sri Lanka Freedom Party is expected to join forces with Sinhalese nationalist groups for a series of protest rallies to demand that the Government not cave in to the rebels.
A Colombo-based Western diplomat said: "The opposition always opposes government peace initiatives purely for opportunistic political reasons. It's a tragedy for the country."
In many respects, the Tigers' proposal merely formalises their existing control over large areas of Sri Lanka's north and east, while pointing to a more durable political settlement.
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