| Chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers Anton Balasingham (left) with his Sri Lankan government counterpart G.L. Peiris in Oslo on Thursday. (Reuters)
Oslo, Dec. 5 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil Tiger rebels agreed today to work out regional autonomy within a federal system in a major breakthrough towards ending a 19-year separatist war in the tropical Indian Ocean island.
“Both parties have made an unprecedented historic decision,” rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham said after four days of Norwegian-brokered peace talks in an Oslo hotel with chief government negotiator G.L. Peiris.
The accord on a federal model with limited self-rule for Tamil areas is a big step towards ending the conflict in the island nation in which 64,000 people have died. The rebels last week dropped a key demand for independence for the north and east of the island.
“This federal model will be within a united Sri Lanka,” Balasingham said. The two sides agreed to a truce in February and have held three rounds of peace talks in Norway and Thailand. Peiris said the parties would aim for “extensive power sharing within the framework of one country”, evaluating different federal models for the future Sri Lanka.
“There is not going to be a war. I am certain of that,” Peiris said, adding, however, that a final settlement was still far off.
“It’s a difficult journey, it’s a long journey,” he said.
The two sides have examined federal models such as that in Canada, where the Francophone province of Quebec sits alongside the English-speaking majority, to help peace and rebuild the shattered Sri Lankan economy.
“What we intend to do is to seek out the essential elements that are crucial to our situation,” Balasingham said. Other models for integration of minorities include Australia, Germany, Switzerland and India.
“The parties have decided to explore a political solution founded on internal self-determination based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka,” said Norwegian deputy foreign minister Vidar Helgesen, who hosted the talks.
“The parties acknowledged that the solution had to be acceptable to all communities,” he said.
Reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran paved the way for talks on core political issues in Oslo when he conceded last week that Tamil aspirations could be met by self-rule and regional autonomy rather than a separate state.
The next two rounds of talks in Thailand in January and February will aim to map out details of a system of “power sharing between the centre and the region and also the power sharing within the centre,” Helgesen said.
The LTTE, who allege discrimination by the Sinhalese majority, also agreed not to expand their regional courts and police forces beyond areas dominated by the LTTE.
The LTTE would also seek to draw up a plan with the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) to help about 700,000 children affected by the war.
Sri Lanka marked today the first anniversary of the election of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose rule has given the island its best chance of securing peace.