Sattahip, Thailand, Sept. 18 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels said at the end of a landmark peace conference today that they would settle for autonomy rather than a separate state, the issue at the heart of two decades of war.
In the past, the Tigers have been firm in their demands for self-determination while hedging on giving up their key demand for a separate state, or eelam, the armed struggle for which has claimed countless lives, including that of Rajiv Gandhi.
The Tigers’ chief negotiator said today they were pushing for “substantial autonomy” within a homeland but that eelam was not the ultimate goal.
The switch in tone came after three days of Norwegian-sponsored talks in Thailand, where the rebels and the government expressed optimism that the latest discussions would succeed where four previous peace initiatives ended in bloodshed.
“We are now confident the peace process is going to advance and succeed,” Tiger negotiator Anton Balasingham told a news conference on Wednesday, noting it was the first time a third party was guiding events.
But he added that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would fight for a separate state “as a last resort” for minority Tamils, if their demands for self-determination and autonomy were not met.
The rebels want money to rebuild and the right to run their own affairs and have agreed for the first time to join the government in a joint taskforce on redevelopment of the battered north and east of the island.
A joint operation would have been unthinkable a year ago, with the LTTE maintaining that it alone had the right to run aid projects in rebel areas.
In Sri Lanka, political analysts were upbeat about the talks. “I think this is the first time in public the LTTE has come very close to renouncing their demand for a state of Tamil Eelam,” said Ketesh Loganathan of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
But a Marxist Sinhalese nationalist group with 16 seats in the 225-seat parliament, said accommodating the Tamil Tigers would lead to a divided country.
“A stable foundation for peace has been established and a ceasefire is holding for the last seven months,” Balasingham said, referring to a truce that was signed in February.
But he added that the LTTE would not lay down their weapons until a permanent peace was reached.
Government negotiator G.L. Peiris said the Tigers’ dreams could be achieved without breaking up the country.
“They have stated it categorically on this occasion: a separate state is not what their aspirations are about,” he said. “Their aspirations can be fulfilled within one country, if we set about it in the proper way.”
The two sides also announced they would meet again at the end of October and then in December and January for further rounds of talks to try to end a civil war that has killed 64,000 people and put a lid on Sri Lanka’s economy.
The talks at a naval base in Thailand were the first direct negotiations between the two sides in seven years and focused on ways to rebuild the war-shattered parts of the island while leaving contentious issues to later rounds.
The Norwegian government, which is overseeing the talks, said that as part of confidence-building measures, the two sides agreed to set up a joint task force for humanitarian and reconstruction activities.
“The joint task force will constitute a partnership between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE and will have responsibility for the identification, financing and monitoring of urgent humanitarian and reconstruction activities in the north and east,” Norwegian deputy foreign minister Vidar Helgesen said.
Balasingham said the Tigers wanted a “pivotal role” in the interim administration in the north and east.
Helgesen said the talks were held in a friendly manner. “We had a casual dress code and a casual tone of voice,” he said. “It actually seemed like they had a pretty good time,” he said of Peiris and Balasingham, who met for the first time.