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Sri Lanka Celebrates Independence Day with Hopes of Peace - 2003-02-04


Sri Lanka has celebrated the 55th anniversary of its independence from British rule amid hopes that a solution is at hand to the bitter ethnic conflict that has raged for the past two decades. The country's president has asked the country to put the war behind it.

Independence Day celebrations were held in Colombo in a rare mood of optimism. The Sri Lankan capital was decorated and brightly lit - a stark contrast with previous years, when low-key celebrations were organized amid tight security due to fear of rebel attacks. This year, children participated in the celebrations, and a military parade was held.

This is the first Independence Day since the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels signed a cease-fire nearly a year ago. During peace talks held since then, the rebels have abandoned their long-standing demand for a separate state for the Tamil minority, and agreed to accept regional autonomy instead.

Marking the day, President Chandrika Kumaratunga called on the people to leave behind the violence that has scarred the country, and look to the future. She also asked the government to unveil its plans for a final peace deal with Tamil rebels, and cautioned that core political issues underlying the civil conflict must be addressed to ensure a lasting peace.

Ms. Kumaratunga is a staunch political opponent of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and a bitter critic of his administration's handling of the peace process.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu heads Colombo's independent Center for Policy Alternatives. He said there is widespread hope among ordinary people that a peace deal will be reached with the rebels. "There is a difference in mood in so far as people have still got expectations of the peace process culminating in a peace settlement. They are certainly enjoying the relative freedom of movement that comes as a consequence of the cease-fire. So there is hope and expectation, optimism, albeit cautious," he said.

But in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, from where the Tamil rebels fought their separatist war, there were reminders that the road to peace is still long and difficult. The National Day celebrations were boycotted in several Tamil-dominated areas. Black flags fluttered over many homes. The protests were led by several student groups, who said the minority Tamils still do not enjoy political freedom.

Mr. Saravanamuttu said the protests are a reminder that daunting work lies ahead for peace negotiators, who must address the question of how to reintegrate a country torn apart by civil conflict.

"I think we are moving into a phase where implementation and consolidation of gains is going to be very important. The further down the road that you go, the more the controversial and thorny questions have to be addressed, and addressed very carefully, and skillfully," he said.

The next round of peace talks will be held later this week in Berlin, and is expected to focus on humanitarian issues.

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