- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

From combined dispatches
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka After decades of ethnic bloodshed and a failure by either side to gain any advantage on the battlefield, Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tiger rebels retreat to a boardroom in neutral Thailand next week to seek a way to live together.
The government has been pouring more than a third of its revenue to fund the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but has ended up with empty coffers and a bloody nose.
For the Tamil Tigers, a war of attrition was too much to sustain despite a band of highly dedicated suicide bombers who undertook spectacular strikes and managed to keep fear alive in the island nation as they sought to create a separate state in the island's north and east for Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese.
The changed world since the terrorist attacks on the United States a year ago also helped put increased pressure on the Tigers to seek a negotiated settlement.
"We have to take advantage of the mood after September 11," Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the state-run Daily News.
By June of last year, the LTTE said it had lost 17,211 of its fighters since the first guerrilla was killed by government forces in 1982. The military has lost roughly the same number of combatants, and many more on both sides have been wounded. The toll in lives is frequently put at 64,000 killed, but as no one has been keeping track of civilian deaths, this is a "guesstimate."
U.N. agencies estimate that about 800,000 people are internally displaced by the war. Another million minority Tamils may be living abroad as refugees.
"In the last 19 years, the world has changed, but we have been left behind," Mr. Wickremesinghe told a peace rally that drew tens of thousands to central Colombo on Monday.
"We have fought a war at the cost of development," he told the government-organized rally to drum up support for the talks.
A military standstill, bankrupt treasuries on both sides and a public sick of fighting pushed the sides towards a cease-fire in February, and now to the talks that are to begin on Monday. Only a handful of soldiers or rebels have been killed this year, drastically down from more than 3,000 annual deaths of recent years.
"The military option is not an option," said Mr. Wickremesinghe, who took office in December promising peace with the Tigers. He has also promised to revive the economy, in recession since last year.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said next week's face-to-face negotiations with the LTTE were made possible by foreign support for his conservative government.
"This [peace process] would not be possible if not for the Royal Norwegian government, India, the U.S., the United Kingdom and the European Union, to mention but a few," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.
After a brief opening ceremony at a beach resort in Thailand, the delegates will move to the tightly guarded Thai naval base at Sattahip in Chonburi province, about 160 miles southeast of Bangkok, for three days of closed-door talks.
"The government and the Tigers have come to the point where they have separately realized that there is no utility in the use of military force anymore," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the capital.
The war cost the government up to $1 billion a year in defense spending and many more billions lost indirectly from decreases in tourism and investment adding up to an estimated 5 percent of gross domestic product last year.
"The first round will be basically to clear the table and decide the priority of the items on the agenda," said the government's chief negotiator, Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. The Tigers will be led by its London-based chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham.
"The two sides will agree on the matters that need to be taken up urgently," said Mr. Peiris, adding that subsequent talks could be held as often as twice a month.
"The expectations from the talks are very, very high," said Nanda Godage, a former secretary to the Foreign Ministry. "Clearing the table and agreeing on the initial matters alone will take time.
"We are set for the long haul. It is going to take a long time to get to the main issues."
The government and the Tigers are expected to sidestep contentious matters at the beginning and focus on the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the Tamil region in the island's war-ravaged northern and eastern regions.
The hard bargaining could be done elsewhere. There have been informal contacts between the two sides in London and Oslo, as well as inside rebel-held territory of northern Sri Lanka.
The Norwegians who are facilitating the talks have made it clear they will not force a solution on the parties.
The guerrillas have said they are willing to consider a substantial power-sharing arrangement within a concept of "internal self-determination," but it will have to be defined and dissected first.
Hard-liners in the Sinhalese community are opposed to any concessions to the Tamils, who over the years have complained of discrimination over language, education and jobs.
Western diplomats say the start of talks in Thailand is a powerful message of the commitment of both sides to resolve differences through dialogue rather than through the barrel of a gun.
But the prime minister has been stressing caution.
"I don't want to create euphoria. But if we have a firm foundation, the talks will not collapse," Mr. Wickremesinghe said. "A start has been made, and we must go forward."
The prime minister is trying to link the peace hopes to a business revival. Mr. Wickremesinghe heads for New York at the same time as the talks for an investment forum and to meet international aid donors.
Donors have said they want to help, but also want to see the peace process evolve further, especially as all previous peace efforts have failed.

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