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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — International public opinion seems focused almost exclusively on the issue of Iraq these days while other important regional developments are relegated to the back burner. Among the developments that deserve greater attention are the moves toward peace in Sri Lanka.

The background to the tragic conflict on this island is well known, but it is useful to recall the image of Sri Lanka that was held in Asia and the West in the early ’70s: that of a wonderful tourist destination, a peaceful tropical paradise with pristine landscapes and beaches. This image was shattered by the ruthless internecine strife that erupted in 1983 and continued for nearly two decades. Finally, both parties, exhausted from so many years of suffering, opted for a frail ceasefire earlier this year.

It seems of paramount importance to try to sustain this unique moment and build foundations for a brighter future upon it. But first we must clear the air of some misconceptions that are persistently brought forward by the international media. The roots of the conflict should not be portrayed as essentially religious, even though the Sinhalese majority is Buddhist and the Tamil Tigers Hindus. The dispute, at its core, has been fought over privileges and resources, as in so many other secessionist movements. This point has been made on many occasions, most recently at a symposium on “Buddhism and Conflict Transformation” organized by the Rissho Kosei-kai Japanese lay Buddhist association in New York. If early grievances had been immediately addressed, the subsequent tragedy might have been averted. But as past deeds or omissions cannot be undone, there is still wisdom in correcting course at a later stage, and this is what appears to be happening now.

At the same time, it is immensely important that the Tigers seem to have renounced their maximalist demand for a fully independent state and opted instead for the more realistic recognition of a Tamil homeland and self-government. I recall a personal encounter many years ago, in Colombo, with one of the thousands of victims and martyrs of the conflict, Neelam Tiruchelvam. Neelam was a lawyer, a member of Parliament and a moderate Tamil activist who was finally assassinated in 1999, because at the time his moderate line was considered to be a betrayal of the cause. Today, his stance is finally vindicated, as both antagonists realize the value of a truce leading to a final settlement, with parallel efforts to address the legitimate demands of a neglected community on one side, and to abandon tactics such as suicide bombing on the other.

At this stage of the drama, both parties have to be encouraged by the international community to stay the new course. They must also be materially assisted in order to rebuild their ravaged country. The government in Colombo had shown even a few years ago a willingness to pursue a “special Asian orientation” in its foreign policy, with interest in a regionalism covering both the areas of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as well as of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This tendency should be sustained for the benefit not only of Sri Lanka, but also that of the whole region.

Finally, apart from the main protagonists, some other players who have contributed behind the scenes to the present guarded euphoria are entitled to congratulations: Norway, for its long and efficient role in facilitating the rapprochement, and most recently Thailand, for discreetly hosting the crucial first face-to-face talks at its naval base of Sattahip. It is doubtful whether the two rivals could have come so far without the mediation of these two neutral facilitators. From another angle, it is more than certain that the former will still need the services of the latter during the forthcoming new rounds of talks, as the next issues on the agenda will be more delicate and more difficult to tackle.

The road to restoring the emerald island to its previous image as a serene tropical paradise may still be long and treacherous, but is it utopian to wish for similar rays of hope from other hot spots in Asia and beyond?

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