Conflicting Sri Lankan sides meet in Switzerland

Micheline Calmy-Rey (centre) proposed Swiss federalism as a model for peace Keystone

Representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have attended discussions in Bern.

This content was published on September 9, 2003 - 19:28

It was the first time the two sides had met since peace talks stalled in April.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting for a separate state in the Tamil-dominated north-east of the island for nearly two decades. Around 65,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Representatives of both sides were part of a panel attending a conference entitled “Power-sharing and decentralisation: the federal system as a solution for Sri Lanka?”.

Switzerland’s federal system was proposed as a model for a peaceful Sri Lanka as part of a peace plan brokered by Norway in February 2002.

The system was suggested because it unites the different cultural and linguistic groups that make up Switzerland.

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said she believed a federal system like Switzerland's could satisfy Tamil demands for autonomy.

“But this does not mean praising our federal system as a universal panacea,” she said.

“Peace cannot be exported or decreed, but we do try on the basis of our experience to bring the advantages of our tried and tested system to bear on individual peace processes.”


Both the rebels and the government described the discussions as useful and expressed an interest in Switzerland’s federal system.

“It is in the interests of everybody to focus on a federal system, although we are not in the position at this moment to decide what specific model we should use,” said Bernard Goontilleke, a representative of the Sri Lankan government.

During the meeting, the two sides stressed their commitment to the peace plan.

But although Switzerland hopes to help in moving both sides towards an agreement, Peter Maurer, an official at the foreign ministry, said Tuesday’s discussions were not an attempt to revive peace talks.

“We are of course very happy that both parties agreed to attend this conference and also to meet in public,” he told swissinfo.

“This doesn’t mean, though, that negotiations resume or that we want to appropriate ourselves as negotiator: this is clearly the task of the Norwegians.”

But, he added, the fact that both sides met in a friendly atmosphere perhaps signalled there was a chance talks could resume.

Switzerland has strong ties with Sri Lanka, with some 38,000 Sri Lankans living here. Given Switzerland’s overall population, this means that it has one of the highest concentrations of people from the Asian country in the world.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin and Joanne Shields

Key facts

Fighting between Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government broke out in 1984.
About 65,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
A peace plan, brokered by Norway, was signed in February 2002.
Peace talks stalled in February.
The Tamil Tigers are demanding an autonomous state in the northeast of the country.

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