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11/9/02 - SRI LANKA MOVES TOWARDS PEACE - 2002-11-12

Since 1983, Sri Lanka has been torn by conflict initiated by the separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers have used child soldiers in their attacks against Sri Lankan forces. Since the insurgency began, several hundred thousand Sri Lankans have fled the country. Many live as refugees in India. The majority of Sri Lankans -- nearly seventy-five percent -- are Sinhalese. The Tamils comprise approximately eighteen percent.

The original goal of the Tamil Tigers was independence for the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, where most of the minority Tamils live. There are signs that position has changed. On November 2nd, Anton Balasingham, chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers, said that it is now his group’s aim “to enter the political mainstream.” He said this at the second round of peace talks between the government and the Tamil Tigers, held last week in Thailand under Norwegian auspices.

Christina Rocca, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, said that, “After almost two decades of ethnic conflict, costing well over sixty-thousand lives, a serious peace process is now underway with Norway’s help and the support of the U.S. and other countries.” But as Ms. Rocca said, “the path will not be smooth and this is just the first step.” The U.S. fully supports the peace process and praises Norway’s efforts to help the people of Sri Lanka resolve their differences and make their country secure again.

Last month, a U.S.-sponsored team completed a project to remove landmines in Sri Lanka. The team cleared mines near the city of Jaffna, in the northern part of Sri Lanka. Early next year, after the northeast monsoon season, the U.S. will establish a mine-clearance training program so that Sri Lankans can continue the work themselves.

E. Ashley Wills, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, said that the removal of mines is an “important step of rehabilitation and reconstruction, which, in turn, will reinforce the peace process...for the benefit of all Sri Lankans.”