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Sri Lanka Plans to Work with Tamil Tigers Thwarted by Politics

16 May 2005

International donors are meeting in Sri Lanka to assess reconstruction efforts since December's deadly tsunami. Many people believed the destruction would help bring the government and the rebel Tamil Tiger guerrilla group back to the negotiating table, after two years of stalemate. But analysts say both reconstruction and resumption of peace efforts have been held up by one of the parties in the ruling coalition.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga says December's tsunami could be a golden opportunity to overcome decades of mistrust between the government and the Tamil Tigers. In her speech to open the donors conference, she said the separatists' willingness to work with the government is a signal they are prepared to recognize Sri Lanka as a single, united country.

Ms. Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tigers have both said they want to create a "joint mechanism" to ensure that tsunami assistance and reconstruction reach all parts of Sri Lanka, including those areas under the Tamil Tigers' control.

That joint mechanism would be a group consisting of government officials, rebel leaders and international mediators to oversee the distribution of aid. Analysts say it could be the push the government and the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, need to restart a peace process since it stalled in 2003.

Jehan Perera, the director of the advocacy group, the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, says, "I think that the real importance of this joint mechanism is that it will open the door, it will pave the way for the government and the LTTE to engage with one another after a break of two years."

But analysts say the formation of the joint mechanism has so far been thwarted by the People's Liberation Front, or JVP, one of the parties in the coalition government Ms. Kumaratunga heads. The JVP says the joint mechanism gives the Tamil Tigers too much legitimacy, and the party fears the Tamil Tigers will continue to push for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority, the dispute that led to 20 years of conflict.

The JVP has threatened to walk out of the government, which would lead to its collapse. But some observers say the JVP wants to stay in the government, and President Kumaratunga should call its bluff.

"The feeling is that, if the president summons up her own courage, is willing to take a risk, and actually signs the Joint Mechanism with the LTTE, maybe the JVP will not pull out in a way that causes the government to collapse, because the government collapsing would also be bad for the JVP," said Mr. Perera of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.

The two-day donors conference in Sri Lanka's central city of Kandy brings together about 125 governments, international aid agencies and lending institutions to assess progress in aid distribution.

Sri Lanka has already received pledges of $1.5 billion in assistance, to be spent over the next three to four years. But some observers say the government may use the conference as an opportunity to ask for more assistance for devastated communities.

The December 26 tsunami killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka, and destroyed scores of coastal towns and villages, along with infrastructure such as road and powerlines.

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