Sattahip (Thailand), Sept. 16 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil Tiger rebels began talks on a positive note today to end one of the world’s longest-running wars, although remarks at an opening ceremony highlighted their historic gulf.
The talks — the first direct ones in seven years — opened with a ceremony at a Thai beach resort before the delegates were whisked away to a nearby naval base at Sattahip to try to end a war that has killed 64,000 people and flattened the tropical island’s economy.
“I think it went very well because we laid a foundation to build upon,” chief government negotiator G.L. Peiris told Reuters Television after the five hours of closed-door talks, which will be followed by further negotiations over the next two days that should set an agenda for future meetings.
“The most reassuring feature of the first day was the confidence on both sides that this can be done, if handled properly,” he said. Investors in Sri Lanka latched onto the mood of optimism, pushing the Colombo stock market up more than one per cent to its highest level in five years. The day opened with guardedly optimistic speeches.
“We are seriously and sincerely committed to peace and we will strive our utmost to ensure the success of the negotiations,” said Anton Balasingham, chief negotiator for the LTTE.
“A firm foundation has been laid for peace negotiations by the principal parties in the conflict,” he said, calling for international help to rebuild Tamil areas of the island.
In his opening speech, Peiris described the 19-year-old ethnic war as “unique in its ferocity” but said that now lay in the past.
“Together we repudiate today a legacy of rancour and hatred which has torn asunder the fabric of our nation for decades,” he added. “A sea change is necessary now the tempest has abated.”
The Tigers, who have sent hundreds of suicide bombers to their deaths and assassinated leading politicians, were hit by fallout from the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks.
A global crackdown on the financial lifelines of radical groups since then and earlier international bans have crimped the Tigers’ overseas fundraising efforts.
December elections that brought Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to power on a peace ticket also showed a majority of the island’s people hankered after real change.
Balasingham walked into the ceremony talking politely with Peiris, something unimaginable until earlier this year, when both sides signed a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire.
Officials said the talks would initially focus on aid and rebuilding war-torn areas, leaving contentious issues, such as Tiger demands for a separate state, until later rounds.
Peiris also paid tribute to what he called the foresight of the Tamil Tigers, including their reclusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, for “embarking on the transformation of their movement into a political organisation”.