The outcome of the first round of peace talks in Thailand between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was better than anticipated. While sceptics had doubted if the parties would agree to subsequent rounds of talks, on 18 September the two sides announced three more meetings to be held in Thailand between this October and January 2003. More remarkable still was the rapid progress made at the first round of peace talks, which surprised even hopeful supporters of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process. The government-LTTE discussions indicated a meeting of minds that went beyond simply agreeing to dates and an agenda for future talks.

The positive interaction between the government's chief negotiator, professor GL Peiris, and his LTTE counterpart, Dr Anton Balasingham, at the closing media conference could not have been a better example of joint problem solving. They answered the local and international media in harmony and articulated the view that their talks had been meaningful and successful. There was no indication of either Peiris or Balasingham looking for advantage or putting the other on the spot. On the contrary, Balasingham had words of great appreciation for the government for sending men of calibre and understanding with whom it was possible to negotiate. He spoke of the congenial environment at the talks, a sentiment reciprocated by Peiris.

The best form of negotiation is one in which two parties approach issues in the spirit of problem solving. The success of these initial talks could not however have been due simply to the good rapport between the two sets of negotiators. Much groundwork was laid in the informal talks that are known to have been taking place in Wanni, Colombo and London over the past nine months of ceasefire. Among matters on which agreement was reached was the setting up of a joint committee to deal with the problem of high security zones and the resettlement of displaced people. Likewise, negotiators forged a creative agreement under which official government funds and international aid could be made accessible to the LTTE.

However, the potentially contentious issue of an interim administration for the northern and eastern provinces claimed by the LTTE as a Tamil homeland – a position opposed by majority Sinhala opinion – was left untouched at the first meeting. The talks did, however, reveal two important issues on which the LTTE showed its willingness to compromise. It did not push for the immediate establishment of an interim administration, instead expressing satisfaction with the establishment of a 'joint task force' in which it will be a partner with the government in rehabilitating the north and east. This important agreement in all likelihood will be a halfway house for the time being, until sceptical Sri Lankans see that such a partnership with the LTTE does not harm lives or the country.

Secondly, the LTTE made a major concession on the vexed issue of a separate state. The bogey of Tamil separatism is what gives strength to Sinhala nationalism, which negotiators took a meaningful step towards defusing. Balasingham clearly said that Tamil 'homelands' and self-determination only meant regional autonomy and substantial self-government within Sri Lanka, not in a separate state.

The government's acknowledgement that the LTTE would be its partner in the administration and economic reconstruction of the northern and eastern provinces was its return offer to the LTTE. The media conference was an early demonstration of the efficacy of this partnership, with Peiris and Balasingham both helping each other out with the probing questions of journalists.

Peace education

A long list of problems stretches before the two negotiating teams, including many which seem to have been untouched at this first session. The issue of a human rights framework found no mention in the communiqué, nor was there any public discussion of a role for civil society in the ongoing peace process. Both of these issues are important, and clearly the peace process needs to be founded as much on social acceptance as on political will. Sustaining the peace process will also require a knowledge base that independent think tanks have the capacity to generate.

Civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in both generating a knowledge base of possible options for conflict resolution and disseminating information. In doing so they promote social acceptance of the need for a changed social and political order. Much of the groundwork for the present peace process was laid in the peace education campaigns carried out by civic groups over the past two decades when the government and LTTE were at war with each other.

Sri Lankan civic groups, including those such as the Peace Support Group, which were present in Thailand at the time of the talks at the invitation of Thai-based Forum Asia, have called for the implementation of a human rights framework. These issues need to be taken up. In response to a journalist's question on human rights at the press conference, Peiris said that these issues would be taken up in subsequent talks. The sooner this is done the better. The international community in particular has the leverage to influence the two sides to respect human rights and ensure the participation of civil society in the peace process.

Both government and LTTE spokesmen at the media conference expressed their appreciation for Thailand's hospitality and Norway's facilitation. The two parties also intend to make a joint appeal to the international community for assistance to rebuild Sri Lanka. In the months ahead Sri Lanka will rely on international support to ensure that its peace process remains on track. The increased involvement of civil society would provide a broader foundation on which the peace process can be built.

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