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NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka’s 18-year-old bloody ethnic crisis between Tamils demanding an independent homeland and the government has always been marked by hope. Even during some of the darkest days of the strife a little over a decade ago, there was always a glimmer of light. Then, New Delhi interfered militarily on the island against the very Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE which India — or more specifically its southern state of Tamil Nadu — had helped arm and train.

This optimism appears to have grown new wings, especially after Britain’s recent move to ban the LTTE. Jehan Perera, who heads the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, recently told a visiting Indian journalist, “The end to the war is in sight, sooner than later. . . . People say that each conflict has a life cycle of about 20 years. Ours has been 18 years. I think it is more or less over.”

There’s good ground for Perera’s confidence. Mainly, people are clearly fed up of living in a land where danger and fear lurk in very corner, hampering their livelihood.

The minority Tamils — once the victims of brutality in the hands of the majority Sinhalese — have realized that they would never get an autonomous state. World opinion — spearheaded by India — will not allow that, and the Tamils can, at best, only hope to wangle from Colombo greater legislative and administrative powers.

This can be worked out without shedding any more blood. The Tamils in the northern and eastern provinces — where the LTTE wields absolute control — are clearly unwilling to sacrifice their children. Hundreds of thousands of them — some barely as old as 10, and girls as well — were forced by the LTTE to join its ranks to fight government forces. Such sadistic recruitment still continues.

But Velupillai Prabhakaran, LTTE supremo, knows that the tide is turning against him, and swiftly. There has been tremendous pressure on him from the Tamils to lay down arms and go in for a politically negotiated settlement with Colombo.

Prabhakaran’s initial announcement of a unilateral ceasefire some weeks ago, and the latest extension of it, indicate that the rebel has realized that the armed struggle can take him only this much, and no further.

In fact, London’s decision must have come as the last nail on the coffin of LTTE’s aspiration to prolong the feud. The Tigers made every effort to talk the British government out of taking the step, even threatening to disengage itself from a Norwegian-backed peace process. Obviously, the warning was a hollow one.

His ceasefire announcement demonstrated the LTTE’s helplessness in the face of Sri Lanka’s mature approach and tacit perseverance.

The U.K. ban did not produce joy and revelry in Colombo. On the contrary, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party ignored persistent calls from rightwing Sinhalese for stepping up operations against the LTTE.

If the welcome gesture suggested a certain mellowing down on the part of Kumaratunga, one cannot forget that she too has her own compelling reasons. Her country’s economy is a shambles today. Last week’s budget revealed a whopping 75 million rupees ($938,000) for defense.

The mood, thus, is for a halt to bullets, and New Delhi seems to be playing an understanding elder statesman by supporting the Oslo initiative. The Norwegian special envoy, Erik Solheim, has been traveling to Colombo, London and Oslo constantly trying to design an arrangement agreeable to everybody.

There is every chance that peace will descend on the “emerald island,” unless of course Prabhakaran decides to pump fire into the air once again.

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