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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Symbolic step towards peace
A soldier guards a Vavuniya street
Many hope this signals an end to the civil war

The decision by the Sri Lankan Government to lift the ban on the Tamil Tiger rebels marks a key stage in the island's embryonic peace process.

It is a step the government had to take if it wanted to move that process forward.

The rebels insisted they had to be recognised as the legitimate representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils at the first formal talks between the two sides, due to start in Thailand later this month.

Otherwise, they said they wouldn't come.


We would like to show our trust and confidence to the Tamil Tigers

Jayaleth Jayawardana,
government minister
But it has been a controversial step.

Some people in the south feel outraged that a group responsible for so many suicide bombings on civilian targets and political assassinations could be legalised.

Minister for Rehabilitation Jayaleth Jayawardana explains why the government decided to concede this point.

"We are trying our level best to find a negotiated political settlement which will be acceptable to all the Sri Lankans, so we would like to show our trust and confidence to the Tamil Tigers for them to be more comfortable, to come and sit with us for a negotiated settlement," he says.

"That is why we are lifting this ban..."

Symbolic move

For the Tigers, who have been fighting for a separate state for nearly two decades, the lifting of the ban is hugely symbolic.

In Tamil Tiger-controlled territory here in the north of Sri Lanka, the earlier than expected announcement has taken everyone by surprise, but has been greeted with delight.

For many, there's a sense that two decades of separatist struggle is beginning to pay off and this is a sign that the government in the south is serious about a negotiated settlement, short of outright independence.

A senior member of the political wing of the Tamil Tigers, Puli Thevan, says there are now clear signs in rebel territory that they are transforming into a political organisation:

"You can't see any cadres carrying weapons, manning the checkpoints... almost all the cadres are now wearing civilian clothes."

"[The Tamil Tigers have] started to actually mobilise themselves with the society and doing projects to be able to [carry out] reconstruction work for the people," he said.

Political transformation

The hope is the Tigers will develop into a political party and eventually lay down their arms.

But all that hinges on what sort of political settlement is hammered out at the talks in Thailand.

Everyone agrees it is going to be a long and difficult process.

But they also say if both sides went back to war, the consequences would be too terrible to contemplate this time.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

03 Sep 02 | South Asia
01 Sep 02 | South Asia
30 Aug 02 | South Asia
07 Aug 02 | Crossing Continents
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