Sattahip (Thailand), Sept. 15 (Reuters): The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels sit down tomorrow for their first peace talks in seven years to end a two-decade civil war that has driven tourists and investors from the island.
The two sides will spend over 12 hours around the negotiating table, dine together and live in the same housing compound in a bid to find a solution to one of Asia’s longest running wars.
The three days of talks in neutral Thailand will seek to agree a development strategy for the poor north and set an agenda for further discussions that are likely to last months, if not years. “We are coming in with open minds,” said G.L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s constitutional affairs minister who heads the government’s negotiating team.
The LTTE have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state in the island’s north and east for Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese.
The conflict has killed 64,000 people, displaced one million and held back the island’s growth and economic development.
The government and rebels have tried peace talks several times, most recently in 1995, but they have always ended in renewed violence.
“Expectations are not high. Sri Lankans have been through too much suffering and despair and too many initiatives and failures, too much rancour and deceit on all sides, to have any illusions about the difficulty of making peace,” the government-run Sunday Observer said in an editorial in Colombo.
But Sri Lankan minister G.L. Peiris was confident today during a walkabout at the hotel where an opening ceremony for the talks will take place tomorrow.
“Certainly, there is determination on both sides, there is a plan, a strategy,” he said. “Of course, there are tremendous difficulties, we must not underestimate them.”
The talks at a naval base in Sattahip, 260 km southeast of Bangkok, are expected to focus on immediate rehabilitation needs in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka and to set an agenda for future meetings.
The war has cost the government up to $1 billion a year in defence spending — equal to more than five percent of gross domestic product in recent years — with billions more lost because tourists and investors have shunned the island.
The LTTE’s chief negotiator is Anton Balasingham, the London-based spokesman for the group. The changed world since September 11 has helped put increased pressure on the Tigers to seek a negotiated settlement.