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Sri Lanka Saw Promise of Peace in 2002

The year brought a promise of peace to Sri Lanka, the tiny Indian Ocean island where rebels have waged a fierce guerrilla struggle for a separate homeland for the country's minority Tamil community. There is widespread hope of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict that has devastated the nation for more that two-decades.

The guns fell silent early in the year in Sri Lanka when Tamil rebels and the government turned a temporary truce into a permanent cease-fire agreement.

The February peace deal was mediated by Norway. It was more than just a measure to end the fighting. The landmark cease-fire agreement was to pave the way for a political dialogue to end the civil war that has devastated the nation since 1983. A guarded optimism soon grew in the war-weary country about the possibility of finding peace.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesignhe's government took power last December on a mandate of ending a conflict that had killed 6,400 people, displaced nearly a million others and ruined the nation's economy. The Tamil rebels said they were waging the separatist war to overcome discrimination by the country's Sinhala majority.

Political analysts say the international crackdown on terrorism that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States helped push Tamil rebels to the negotiating table.

"Nine-eleven had such a huge impact on the LTTE, and on its capacity to continue to work, and in particular, to raise funds abroad," said Sunila Abeyesekera, head of INFORM, a human-rights monitoring group that closely tracks the civil conflict in Sri Lanka. "I think the government also realized this was an opportunity. I think you can say on both sides September 11 acted as a kind of catalyst to galvanize both sides to take one step further down that road to a dialogue."

In April, the reclusive Tamil-rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran emerged briefly from his jungle hideout for a news conference, where he expressed his commitment to peace. The unusual media appearance was seen as a signal that a man known for fighting a seemingly unending civil war was willing to join a political process.

Five-months later the Tamil rebels and the government met for their first face-to-face talks in seven years. The talks were held after intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations by Norwegian mediators, and after the government lifted a ban on the Tamil rebel group.

Progress came faster than expected. At the first round of talks held in September in Bangkok, rebel negotiators announced that they were willing to give up their demand for a separate state.

The second round of talks set the basis for a political dialogue. In a radio address to his group in November, Mr. Prabhakaran said he was ready to accept regional autonomy in the Tamil dominated north and east of the country.

The announcement boosted the peace process. When the rebels and the government met for the third time in Norway in early December, they made a significant breakthrough. Both sides agreed to consider a federal constitution as the basis for a final political settlement.

But political analysts warn that stumbling blocks remain, and much hard work lies ahead to consolidate the peace process. "I think we are heading in the right direction, but there are still a number of challenges that have to be surmounted before we arrive at that destination," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of Colombo's independent Center for Policy Alternatives.

Among the principal challenges is a hostile political opposition that views the rebels with suspicion and criticizes the government for giving in to the guerrillas.

Mr. Sarvanamuttu says it is critical for the government to reach a consensus with opposition groups before it hammers out a political settlement with the rebels.

"It is absolutely vital, because ultimately it has to be a constitutional settlement," he said. "Under our proportional representation system you have to have a two-thirds majority. Without the opposition's cooperation you can not get it through."

Despite the challenges, the sense of optimism in the island nation is stronger than ever before. It is the first full year in more than two decades that has witnessed virtually no fighting. Encouraged by the peace, tens-of-thousands of refugees are returning home.

The search for a political solution appears genuine. The international community has backed the peace process, and efforts to rebuild the war-ravaged country are underway.

Part of VOA's series of yearend reports.