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Peace Process Raises Hopes of Ending Sri Lanka Conflict - 2003-01-01

In Sri Lanka, defense officials say the country plans to restructure its military if a peace process with Tamil rebels takes hold.

Defense Minister Tilak Marapane said a review committee has begun looking at ways to cut defense expenditure while maintaining security.

Defense spending has accounted for more than five percent of the country's gross domestic spending, and was one of the factors blamed for dragging down the economy in recent years.

Mr. Marapane said plans to reconstruct the security sector are being made as changes take place in what he calls the national security landscape.

The Sri Lankan army began fighting Tamil rebels in 1983, when they launched their struggle for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority community in the north and east of the country.

But a peace process that began last year has raised hopes of ending the conflict. In December both sides agreed to consider a federal form of government that would allow autonomy for Tamil dominated areas.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Austin Fernando told a news conference talks would be held with Tamil rebels to resolve a dispute that has erupted over scaling down of the military presence in the war ravaged Jaffna peninsula.

Tamil rebels last week rejected a government proposal that the guerrillas should disarm in return for allowing refugees to resettle in sprawling military camps.

The rebels want the army to vacate large areas occupied by the military in Jaffna to allow displaced civilians to return home, the government says any military de-escalation must be matched by the rebels.

The rebels have warned that the issue must be resolved quickly, saying the continued existence of army camps in Jaffna is making it impossible for displaced Tamils to return home.

The issue is expected to be discussed at the fourth round of peace talks that begin Monday in Thailand. Sri Lankan officials say the peace process is on track, and will not be jeopardized by the reluctance of the Tamil rebels to disarm.