Colombo-LTTE talks focus on eastern Sri Lanka

NAKORN PATHOM (THAILAND) OCT. 31. The second round of direct talks between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which started here today, focussed on issues relating to the disturbing security situation in eastern Sri Lanka.

Indications are that there will be some hard negotiations during the next few days before the round closes on November 3. "Nothing is ready unless everything is ready,'' the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister told journalists as the day's talks concluded.

The head of the Colombo delegation, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, however, sounded optimistic. Terming the talks "constructive,'' he said "considerable progress'' had been made and the two sides "arrived at decisions.'' But the points of agreement would not be made public till the round ended. Confidence-building measures for Muslims in the east had also been discussed.

The leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauff Hakeem, seated opposite the LTTE's eastern military commander, Karuna, said he had discussed the issues relating to the safety of Muslims in the east with the rebel military leader. Confirming that some agreements had been reached, Mr. Hakeem said the talks with Col. Karuna also included violations of the understanding reached with the LTTE leader, V. Prabakaran, earlier this year.

It was suggested that the SLMC and the LTTE discuss the issue in more detail. Indications were that the SLMC would nominate a person to carry forward the process and ensure that there was no further decline in the situation.

Behind the eastern troubles in Sri Lanka lies decades of hostility between the Tamils and the Muslims, calling for a large presence of the Special Task Force to maintain law and order. The specific agreements that have been arrived at today have given a sense of confidence that the issues would be sorted out through negotiations, rather than strife and bloodshed. However, as Mr. Hakeem put it, the assurances would have to pass the test of ground-level implementation.

Another issue to be taken up during the talks was the formation of a joint task force (JTF) for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the northeast and the resettlement of the internally-displaced. No proposal has been officially announced yet, but indications are that there are three mechanisms under discussion. One is to place the JTF under the Prime Minister's Office. Another is to bring it under the budgetary mechanism, and therefore, under parliamentary control. The third possible structure is to create a JTF Fund, which would be used for rehabilitation.

The JTF gains importance because the immediate compulsion facing the negotiators is to get the much-needed international financial backing for the peace process. Both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE are in need of funds as years of civil strife have wreaked havoc on their finances, especially with the escalation of the conflict to an artillery-based warfare. As joint pledging conferences for international donors have also been planned for later this year and early next year in Oslo and Japan, it is important for negotiators to show results at the end of this round.

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