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Analysts Fear Momentum Toward Sri Lankan Peace Flagging - 2003-09-16


A year ago, the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels began peace talks, raising hopes of putting an end to the island nation's devastating two decade-long civil conflict. But, the peace process has faltered, and optimism has given way to doubts.

When the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels met for their first round of talks last year in Bangkok, the handshakes were warm and hopes were high.

Negotiators warned of difficult days, but both sides seemed determined to solve a civil conflict that erupted in 1983, when the rebels began their armed struggle for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east.

Peace appeared a step closer when rebels agreed to settle for autonomy, and give up their separatist agenda in December last year. The international community held out promises of aid to rebuild the war-shattered island. It seemed the time had come to stop a war that had cost the country more than 60,000 lives and shattered its economy.

But today, the momentum toward peace has flagged. For the past six months, the rebels and the government have not met. In April, the rebels walked away from the negotiating table, complaining that the government had failed to meet pledges to rebuild war-shattered areas, and demanding an interim administration in the north and east.

Political analyst Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council says the rebels want the legitimacy of such an administration at home and with the international community. "The Tigers were really feeling very uneasy with the process, because they saw that the government was getting ahead of them in terms of international sympathy and support and they were getting marginalized," he said.

The rebels are currently studying a power-sharing offer by the government, and are expected to make a counter proposal by the end of the month.

As the country waits for the rebels to take the next step, political analysts say peace seems fragile.

But Mr. Perera points out that the country has witnessed virtually no fighting in the past year and a half. It is the longest pause in the war. "The improvement in the overall situation is such - the fact that for over a year there has been no killings, no bombings etc. - it is so positive," he said.

The truce has opened the door to foreign investors, brought in tourists, and revived the stock markets.

But doubts about the peace process include fears that rebels may demand much more than the government is willing to give. The government plan offers the rebels powers over rebuilding and resettlement of refugees, but does not hand over security to the rebels.

Meanwhile, the international community is also trying to nudge the rebels back to the negotiating table, warning that billions of dollars in aid are at risk if the peace process does not get back on track.

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