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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 18:27 GMT
What chance peace in Sri Lanka?

tamil tiger with gun
The conflict in Sri Lanka has claimed thousands of lives

By Susannah Price in Colombo

The Norwegian Foreign Minister, Knut Vollebaek, who spent a day in Colombo last week, came away with no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead.

Conflict in Sri Lanka
  • An unwinnable war?
  • Timeline of conflict
  • Leading the Tigers
  • The ethnic divide
  • He stated that finding a solution would "require courage and sacrifices and the necessary political will from the parties."

    Norway's role is to bring the two sides together for a dialogue - a task which has been compared to that of a marriage broker.

    In fact, its offer to help the peace process has been on the table for several years - but it was far more recently that diplomats actually began working behind the scenes.

    A solution will require courage, sacrifices and political will
    Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek
    While Norway might have preferred the work to remain secret, President Chandrika Kumaratunga gave the new peace initiative full publicity during an interview with the BBC in December.

    Analysts believe that President Kumaratunga, who had just survived a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomb attack, was keen to show the world she was sincere in talking about a peace process.

    president kumaratunga The president survived a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide attack
    This meant that the visit by the senior official in Norway's Foreign Ministry, Leiv Lunde, to Colombo in January received front page coverage.

    But it was only after Mr Vollebaek's trip last Wednesday that the Norwegians officially confirmed they had taken up the task of bringing the parties together.

    It was known by then that Mr Vollebaek had also held talks in London with the senior Tiger representative, Anton Balasingham, who had taken part in talks on three previous occasions.

    Norwegian track record

    The Norwegians, who began the Middle East peace process more than seven years ago, know how long these efforts can take.

    It is unclear whether the two sides have yet put forward their suggestions for a time and place to meet and it seems unlikely at this stage that there have been any pre-conditions.

    knut vollebaek Knut Vollebaek visited Colombo on a peace mission
    One Sunday newspaper suggested that Oslo would be the most likely venue for talks.

    There is also much debate in Sri Lanka about how far any third party should become involved and whether they would actually assist at any talks becoming a mediator rather than a facilitator.

    Long peace process

    The last peace process fell apart in April 1995 after the Tigers, who accused the government of dragging its feet, attacked two naval gunboats, breaking a three-month truce.

    This followed four rounds of talks but negotiations on a political settlement never began.

    The first face-to-face meetings between the two sides came at Thimpu in Bhutan, brokered by India in 1985 but broke down after two rounds.

    The Tamil groups, who included the Tigers, put forward four demands which included the acknowledgement of Tamil as a language, the recognition of a Tamil homeland and the right of self-determination.

    President Jayawardene's government rejected these as unacceptable, but it is assumed that these are still the Tigers' basic demands.

    Draft constitution

    However, the government is hoping to use its draft constitution, which includes provisions for devolution to the regions, as a basis for talks with the Tigers.

    ranil wickremesinghe Mr Wickremesinghe postponed a meeting on draft constitution
    The United National Party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, postponed his meeting on Tuesday with President Kumaratunga to discuss the draft saying he had not been given enough time.

    But the government says it believes the opposition is still committed to helping draw up the new constitution.

    It is seen as crucial that all political parties agree on the basis for dialogue with the Tigers.

    The fear is that with the general election due by August, some politicians may be tempted to score political points rather than work towards a consensus.

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    See also:
    21 Feb 00 |  South Asia
    Sri Lanka peace meeting hits snag
    15 Feb 00 |  South Asia
    Fighting overshadows peace mission
    22 Dec 99 |  South Asia
    Analysis: War likely to continue
    01 Jan 00 |  South Asia
    Fighting escalates in Sri Lanka
    22 Dec 99 |  South Asia
    Kumaratunga promises end to hatred
    18 Dec 99 |  South Asia
    Analysis: Fifteen years of bloodshed

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