US pressure to end conflict

by Amal Jayasinghe
BANGKOK, Sept. 19 (AFP)
- The US-led war against terror was responsible for bringing Sri Lanka’s warring parties to peace talks in Thailand where they made unexpected progress towards ending Asia’s bloodiest ethnic war, analysts and diplomats said Thursday.

Norway is officially Sri Lanka’s peace broker, but it is US pushing that is encouraging the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Colombo government to cut a political deal and end the bloodshed, diplomats said.

Sri Lanka’s politicians and diplomats see the country benefiting from the post-September 11 global environment and the US policy of zero tolerance for terrorism.

The first round of Norwegian-brokered peace talks ended at a Thai naval base Wednesday with the Tigers abandoning their core demand for a separate state and raising hopes of winding down the war.

"The US involvement in the peace process is much greater than what meets the eye," an Asian diplomat said. "The Americans have been sending some very powerful signals to the Tigers to fall in line."

The only visible US presence at the ceremonial start of peace talks at Sattahip, 180 kilometres (112 miles) southeast of here, was the presence of US ambassador to Thailand, Darryl Johnson. But, he too had a strong message for the Tigers.

Johnson said Washington would review its ban on the Tamil Tigers depending on the outcome of the Thai talks.

"We will discuss that (lifting of the ban) in the context of the outcome of the peace talks," the ambassador said. "A process has begun and we hope it will succeed."

Officially, Thailand was chosen as a venue for the Sri Lankan talks because the country was a "stable democracy" and acceptable to both parties in the Sri Lankan conflict, but Asian diplomats said it had more to do with US influence here.

Thailand is the strongest US ally in Southeast Asia and supports the war against terrorism following the September 11 events last year.

The Sri Lankan peace talks were held at the same venue Thai and US forces have opened their annual military exercises, the largest involving US troops in the Asia Pacific.

Sources close to the Sri Lankan peace process said that the LTTE was worried about the increased US involvement in Sri Lanka and the military support to the Colombo government in the wake of September 11 attacks in the US.

The US Department of Defence sent a delegation to Sri Lanka earlier this month to assess the island’s needs to modernise its military, and the US is already training Sri Lankan security personnel, including naval commando units.

"The Tigers do not like any type of pressure on them. They are not too happy," a source said. "That is why they steadfastly say they entered the peace process long before the September 11 attacks."

Political analyst K. Loganathan of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka said he believed September 11 acted as a catalyst and galvanised a dormant peace process begun in January 1997.

After September 11, the United States issued statements warning the LTTE against attacking Muslims, the island’s second largest minority after Tamils, and also hinted that any break in the Oslo-arranged truce in place since February would see the war against terrorism extended to the Tigers.

"After Sept. 11 the Muslims in Sri Lanka are being taken seriously (by the US) because they are scared that violence against Muslims could fuel fundamentalism," Loganathan said.

"The LTTE has begun to realise that the international community is cracking down hard on the financing of terrorism (after September 11)," Loganathan said.

The US interest in Sri Lanka was underscored when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited the island last month and said Washington will "push as forcefully as we can" to encourage the parties to the table.

"President Bush dares to dream of a future free of war in Sri Lanka," said Armitage who was following up on Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s meeting with President Bush at the White House in July.

The US provision of military assistance to the Colombo government is in sharp contrast to their policy of refusing to sell even helicopter spare parts to them when the ethnic conflict turned into a guerrilla war in 1983.