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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 13:04 GMT 14:04 UK
Sri Lanka's 'historic' chance for peace
Scene of a rebel attack
The civil war has raged for nearly two decades


The Sri Lankan Government says there is now an historic opportunity to end the country's civil war with Tamil Tiger rebels.


Apart from demonstrating to the rebels their ability to make constitutional changes, the government is also in the process of strengthening its hand.

The announcement of a time frame for direct peace talks (between 12-17 September) took many by surprise.

That was because of late the peace process appeared to be bogged down by the increasingly hostile relationship between the country's president and prime minister.

Earlier the process was delayed by the rebels's insistence that the cease-fire agreement signed in February be properly implemented before talks.

As a result the government had initially said negotiations might start as early as April but month after month the time frame seemed to slip to the point that the government spokesman began complaining of a "puerile obsession with dates".

Now the government says it has been "preparing the ground unobtrusively and discreetly".

Convincing the rebels

Part of that preparation must have involved convincing the Tamil Tiger rebels that the government was strong enough to implement any peace deal agreed upon.

The rebels do not seem to have been in any hurry to start talks - if anything there was more pressure on the government to be seen to be bringing the Tigers to the negotiating table faster.

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickramsinghe
Ranil Wickramsinghe:Tough task lies ahead

It is unlikely the Tigers would want to start a lengthy process of talks with a government they thought was too weak to implement its promises.

Any devolution package to Tamil areas for example would need a constitutional amendment requiring a two thirds majority in parliament.

The United National Front government and its Muslim allies only have 114 members in the 225 seat house.

The government spokesman, GL Peiris, says "we have been assured of the numbers; a two thirds majority will be at our disposal".

That claim might seem like bravado if it were not for the fact that a vote expected next month introducing a package of constitutional amendments will be the test.

Constitutional changes

Asked by journalists how the government had convinced the Tamil Tigers it could actually implement any political solution, Professor G L Peiris said: "I told you we will change the constitution so we will do it and show them that we can do it. That is the best way of proving that one can do it".

Tamil tiger
Tamil rebels insisted on full implement of ceasefire agreement

Apart from demonstrating to the rebels their ability to make constitutional changes, the government is also in the process of strengthening its hand.

The package of reforms expected to be voted on next month will reduce the President's powers to dissolve parliament one year after elections held last December.

According to GL Peiris the prospect of "arbitrary dissolution" has been a Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the government making it difficult to move the peace process on.

The reforms would also include a provision allowing MPs to vote according to their conscience - in other words they would not loose their seat for voting against party lines.

That too will make it easier for the government to push through a peace deal in the future.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

14 Aug 02 | Crossing Continents
14 Aug 02 | South Asia
12 Aug 02 | South Asia
28 Jul 02 | South Asia
07 Aug 02 | Crossing Continents
16 Jul 02 | South Asia
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