Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

SRI LANKA: Second Phase of Peace Talks a Development Round

Marwaan Macan-Markar

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand, Oct 31 2002 (IPS) - The second round of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, which began here Thursday, is being billed as a development round.

Negotiators began to give shape to the body – whose creation was agreed upon in the first round of talks in September – that will handle the foreign funds expected to come in to rebuild the country’s war-ravaged areas after 19 years of ethnic conflict.

The cost of reconstruction has been estimated at more than 500 million U.S. dollars.

”The JTF (Joint Task Force) is important. The challenge is to inspire the confidence of the donor community and to translate that confidence into financial resources,” Gamini Lakshman Peiris, Colombo’s chief negotiator, said Thursday.

”A proper framework is required,” he said at the end of the first session of talks at a riverside resort here, 32 kilometres west of Bangkok.

”Both parties will have to work out the structure and the functional shape of the JTF, since it has not been done after the first round,” added a Sri Lankan government official close to Colombo’s four-member negotiating team.

”There is no agenda on how to come up with a blueprint, and it will evolve during the discussions,” he said. ”But there are priorities that they will have to take up.”

Some issues related to the reconstruction task force are expected to be an early challenge to this nascent peace process, following the goodwill and bonhomie that emerged after the first round of face-to-face talks at the Thai naval base in Sattahip, south-east of Bangkok.

Already, there are issues being pressed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the rebels fighting for minority Tamils are officially known, that Colombo is not warm to, say diplomatic sources. The mandate of the Joint Task Force, to be composed of representatives from the government and the rebels, is among them.

”The LTTE want the JTF to have a policy-making role and be independent,” they add, pointing that Colombo wants it to be an agency that reports to the prime minister’s office.

The negotiators’ capacity for compromise will also be tested when the talks touch on how the Joint Task Force will disburse foreign aid, as well as how to maintain transparency and accountability in it.

The four days of talks are also expected to touch on two other pressing issues. These are the withdrawal of army camps where civilians used to live in Sri Lanka’s north, called high security zones, and growing fears among the Muslim minority in the eastern province about intimidation by Tamil Tigers.

Concern about this grew after clashes broke out Wednesday between mobs of Sinhalese, the majority group in Sri Lanka, and Muslims on the eve of the current talks.

In anticipation of the tough talks ahead, the Tigers have made significant changes in the composition of their negotiating team for the current round.

Given the front seats this time were S P Tamilselvam, leader of the LTTE’s political wing, and V Karuna, a key LTTE military commander, in addition to Tiger chief negotiator Anton Balasingham and Adele Balasingham.

Moved to the back were Jay Mahesweran, a rehabilitation expert, and Viswanathan Rudrakumaran, a lawyer, who were part of the LTTE’s main negotiators in the first round of talks.

Colombo retained the same team from the first round, including chief negotiator Peiris, cabinet ministers Milinda Moragoda and Rauff Hakeem, and the head of the government’s peace secretariat Bernard Gunetilleke. Lending weight as an advisor was Shantha Kottegoda, a senior military commander.

The talks’ focus on development comes ahead of two donor meetings for Sri Lanka, one to be held late November and another one early next year to raise funds for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The Norwegian government, playing the role of peace brokers, will host the first donors’ meeting on Nov. 25 in Oslo. Japan has pledged to hold the second one next year.

Norwegian diplomats say they hope to attract at least 19 countries, including France, Canada, the United States and Britain, to the November talks aimed at raising funds to cover reconstruction costs.

”This is a positive response to our appeal to the international community after the first round of talks,” said Erik Solheim, Norway’s peace envoy.

But some international agencies and governments are not waiting for formal aid meetings before channeling money for rehabilitation work.

The Japanese government has allocated 500,000 dollars for community development projects, including aid for a drinking water scheme, in the northern Wanni region.

The World Bank plans to spend 31 million dollars under an emergency reconstruction programme for the war-torn north-east region, to cover health care, support for internally displaced people and a water supply scheme.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the promises of rebuilding destroyed areas and the peace that has held since December last year have prompted close to 103,000 displaced people to either go back to their homes or move to safer areas.

”A lack of houses, a lack of jobs to ensure employment for returnees, destroyed roads and poor electricity and telecommunication are some of the issues the JTF will have to address,” said Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, editor of ‘Uthayan’, a Tamil-language daily newspaper published in the northern city of Jaffna.

A U.N. official agreed: ”Shelter will be a huge problem. People are moving back and finding their houses not there or occupied by other people.”

Also as talks got underway Thursday, Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran was sentenced by a Sri Lankan court to 200 years in jail in relation to an attack on the country’s central bank in 1996, in which nearly 80 people died.

Government negotiators said they did not think this would affect the talks.

 
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SRI LANKA: Second Phase of Peace Talks a Development Round

Marwaan Macan-Markar

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand, Oct 31 2002 (IPS) - The second round of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, which began here Thursday, is being billed as a development round.
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