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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 15:28 GMT
Analysis: Sri Lanka's federal surprise
Sea Tiger chief lights a lamp to remember war dead near Mullaittivu 27 Nov 2002
An end in sight for Sri Lanka's 19 year conflict?

It used to be known as the "F word" of Sri Lankan politics - but these days news that the Tamil Tigers are willing to settle for a federal system is being welcomed by peace activists.


There is a huge legacy of bitterness and distrust to overcome but this is the first time both sides have made so much progress

One went so far as to say it was "absolutely fantastic" because even many liberals had thought the rebels would settle for nothing short of a confederal system.

It's only the framework for a political solution and may still get bogged down in details and politicking, but it's a good beginning.

A confederal system would mean two parliaments and two prime ministers and two armies - something difficult to sell to sceptics of the peace process who fear the Tigers have not given up their hopes of a separate state despite protestations to the contrary.

And experts say confederal systems are often inherently unstable - with a tendency to break up into two countries.

But a federal system within a united Sri Lanka will be much easier to sell to the majority Sinhala community.

Early agreement

This is especially so, since the main opposition party, the People's Alliance led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, has proposed a federal solution in the past.

A senior presidential aide responded to the news of the breakthrough in Norway by saying the party supported devolution and a federal structure as proposed in the August 2000 constitution presented by the president herself.

Tamil Tiger and Sri Lankan negotiators with Norwegian mediators
The talks have made unexpectedly rapid progress
The question then arises: Why did the Tamil Tigers agree to a federal system so quickly?

This is only the third round of peace talks between the government and the Tigers and initial discussions focused on humanitarian, not political, issues.

Some analysts believe the Tigers are concerned about the political stability of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe's government in Colombo as well as the health of their chief negotiator who has kidney, diabetes and heart problems.

A key Muslim party allied to the prime minister has been in a state of crisis which came to a head this week as one half of its MPs tried to suspend the other and vice-versa.

And in the year since Sri Lanka's government of cohabitation was elected it has been clear that relations between the prime minister and the president, who come from rival parties, have been deteriorating.

Sign of the times

Post-11 September 2001 it has also been difficult for the Tigers to conduct major military offensives while banned in many countries as terrorists.

A new government in Colombo which came to power a year ago has brought fresh faces to the negotiating table and a more conciliatory approach.

Opinion polls show ordinary people want peace now more than ever before.

And politicians know that an end to the war is the only way to revive the country's economy, especially after a rebel attack on the island's airport inflicted huge damage last year.

After two decades of war and more than 60,000 dead there is a huge legacy of bitterness and distrust to overcome but this is the first time both sides have made so much progress.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

04 Dec 02 | South Asia
03 Dec 02 | South Asia
28 Nov 02 | South Asia
26 Nov 02 | South Asia
03 Nov 02 | South Asia
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