Even cynics will admit that the peace process in Sri Lanka is moving forward, ever so slowly. The government of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe has, against all odds and expectations, demonstrated remarkable imagination and conviction in ensuring that the process is not derailed. Peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have started in Thailand with Norwegian facilitation. The talks are being led by Mr G.L. Peris, a legal expert, on behalf of the Sri Lankan government, and Mr Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s chief strategist. There are also reports that Mr Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, will be meeting the LTTE supremo, Mr V. Prabakaran, in the near future. This suggests that Muslims of the island-state will also become part of the process. It remains to be seen, however, if the LTTE too is capable of demonstrating the courage that could bring peace to the island state after 17 years of a bloody civil war, in which more than 60,000 people have been killed.
The talks are building on the earlier indefinite ceasefire agreement signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE which was a political breakthrough of immense significance. The agreement, which is based on the implicit recognition of the LTTE and Mr Prabakaran as the “sole spokesman” of the Tamil people. While the full implementation of the ceasefire will be a huge step forward, the real challenge will be to ensure that the end of violence creates the conditions for durable peace. The dialogue that is being conducted in Thailand is an effort in this direction. Quite clearly, both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE seem to have compromised on the absolute positions that have traditionally defined their policy. The LTTE seems to have accepted that it will not be possible to achieve an independent, sovereign eelam. In turn, Colombo seems to have realized that peace cannot be achieved without making significant concessions, including substantial devolution of powers and the unification of the Tamil-majority northern and eastern parts of the island. The agreement has been widely welcomed internationally. Although it is clear that India has been working behind the scenes to secure the accord, it has resisted the temptation of an active public involvement. India’s role was, however, recognized even during the talks in Thailand. The Norwegian facilitators noted the support that India had offered to the process, and it is clear that New Delhi has not just been kept informed, but its counsel and clearance have been obtained at each stage.