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Will talks resolve ethnic issue?

world Updated: Jun 15, 2011 01:03 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

It's not the first time that the government has held talks with Tamil parties to thrash out a political solution to the festering ethnic issue. But many are hoping and praying that the current rounds of talks would be the last; or at least some sort of a beginning to the end. The six rounds of talks between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been low-key; neither side has revealed much about the exchanges.

The grand old man of Tamil politics Rajavarothiam Sampanthan himself let off a chuckle after saying it was a "historic opportunity" for the stakeholders to resolve the issue. Many in Sri Lanka revile him for the organic link that his TNA had with the now vanquished Tamil Tigers but he continues to be one of the main players in minority politics.

On a recent, muggy afternoon, we were sitting in an austere room in his office in a nondescript building close to the sea. Sampanthan was guarded about revealing too much about the talks but was willing to share the concerns that he and his colleagues raised with the government. The indifferent pace of resettling and rehabilitating the displaced was one; the lack of access to detainees was another. There were about 800 suspected LTTE cadres and sympathisers who have been in custody for between eight-to-10 years. Then there are over 4000 recent detainees whose families have no access to them. "There are sons, husbands and brothers who were seen being taken into custody at the end of the war. But not seen after that. The data on them (has) not been made available," Sampanthan said.

Later, when the TNA delegation met India's national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon and foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, the Tamil MPs not only raised the issues of detainees but also about the increasing, and obviously deliberate, militarisation of the north and east.

"We are looking at maximum possible devolution of power within a united Sri Lanka. The absence of violence has presented us an opportunity which could benefit the country and all the people," Sampanthan said.

A perennially contentious issue has been the total reluctance of successive Lankan governments to devolve land and police powers to the region. The issue could derail the process this time as well. "In India, who has the land and police powers?" Sampanthan asked.