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Swiss Tamils hope for peace in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan chief negotiator GL Peiris (right) shakes hands with his Tamil Tigers counterpart, Anton Balasingham Keystone

Swiss Tamils are awaiting the outcome of talks in Thailand aimed at finding a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka's 19-year civil war.

Since 1983, 64,000 people have died in the bloody conflict between the government and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

The negotiations – scheduled to last for three days – are taking place on neutral ground in the Thai city of Sattahip, near Bangkok.

The talks are the result of a Norwegian initiative and follow a largely successful ceasefire brokered by Norway, which has been in force since February.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east of the country, and the government says it is now prepared to grant them the right to extensive self-government.

The Sattahip talks – the first official negotiations between the two sides in seven years – are not expected to produce a concrete agrement but to pave the way for future discussions.

The Swiss foreign ministry said on Monday that it welcomed the moves being taken to try to reach a peaceful settlement.

The government, which has supported humanitarian and development programmes in Sri Lanka for several years, added that it was prepared to offer more money to fund demining projects.

Tamils in Switzerland

The conflict has seen thousands of Tamils flee Sri Lanka, many of whom came to Switzerland, one of the most important host countries after Canada, Germany and Britain.

About 35,000 Tamils are recorded as living in Switzerland – 27,000 of them have residency or a Swiss passport, nearly 8,000 are asylum seekers and 1,000 are classed as refugees.

“The first Tamils who came to Switzerland in the 80s had a difficult time,” Anton Ponrajah, President of the Swiss Tamil Organisation, told swissinfo.

“But there is hardly any aggressiveness now. The integration process has gone extraordinarily well,” he said.

However, Urs von Arb, a senior official in the Federal Refugee Office, argues that while integration has been successful in the workplace, outside work the Tamils tend to remain in their own communities.

Return home?

Even if the talks in Sattahip are successful, it is not at all clear whether the Swiss Tamils will return to their homeland.

The Swiss Refugee Office believes the peace process could see some Tamils returning to Sri Lanka “voluntarily”.

But Ponrajah is less confident. He says people are, of course, extremely pleased about the talks, but he believes it is not yet the right time to return home.

“To do this, a political peace is needed, which guarantees safety. Moreover, most of the Swiss Tamils are very well integrated and have children who go to school here.”

swissinfo, Felix Münger, translated by Isobel Johnson

Switzerland is a major host country to Sri Lankan Tamils.
About 35,000 Tamils live in Switzerland.
Since 1983, the conflict in Sri Lanka has killed 64,000 people.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR