Nakorn Pathom (Thailand), Jan. 6 (Reuters): The Sri Lanka government and Tamil Tiger rebels ended a first day of peace talks today by agreeing to speed up rehabilitation projects while pushing back acrimonious military negotiations.
Successful aid projects are needed for a donor conference set for Japan, but have been overshadowed by army calls for the rebels to begin disarming in response to Tiger demands that the military allow displaced Tamils to return to their homes inside security zones in the north.
The two sides agreed to discuss aid before tackling resettlement and the security concerns surrounding that tomorrow, said chief government negotiator G.L. Peiris.
“Today we discussed the development work and what is it that we could do to show more concrete results, practically as we prepare for the donor conference in Japan in late May or early June,” he said.
“We decided that in connection with the resettlement matters we will take up the security issues,” he added.
“We are going to discuss those (security issues) but not to the exclusion of all other substantive matters.”
The stance of the Sri Lanka Army had upset the LTTE, with chief negotiator Anton Balasingham saying it would hinder this round, but Peiris said the mood between the four negotiators on each side was good.
Balasingham did not meet the media after the session but said before the three hours of talks started at a resort on the edge of Bangkok that he was “glad we are starting with rehabilitation, that is the most prudent”. The latest talks come after dramatic progress was made in earlier rounds over the last four months, boosting hopes that the island of 19 million people had its best chance yet of permanently ending the separatist war that has killed 64,000.
The LTTE has been fighting since 1983 for a separate state in the north and east for Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by the island’s majority Sinhalese. But the rebels have now dropped that demand and agreed with the government to discuss setting up a federal system that would give them regional autonomy.
Peiris also said human rights would be one of the issues taken up on Wednesday before the talks end on Thursday.
“I think that is proof enough that there is nothing uncompromising or rigid about the attitude of the LTTE,” he said. Concerns that the dispute over disarming could hamper the talks led to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issuing an appeal on the eve of the talks to not let the dispute derail the peace bid. “Whatever situation may arise, we must not leave the negotiating table,” he said.
Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim said the current talks were expected to be tougher than previous rounds.