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Sri Lanka on verge of aid billions

From CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji

The Tamil Tigers have refused to attend the Tokyo conference.
The Tamil Tigers have refused to attend the Tokyo conference.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) - Sri Lanka stands on the verge of receiving billions of dollars of aid to be used in ending more than two decades of civil war.

Senior officials from dozens of countries and multilateral agencies will meet this week to consider the money.

The conference in Tokyo on Monday and Tuesday will be opened by Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and attended by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesingha and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, among others.

The conference sessions will be chaired by the United States, the European Union, Japan -- which has taken a keen interest in the peace efforts in the fellow Buddhist country -- and Norway, which is brokering the the peace process.

Conspicuous in their absence will be the partners to the Sri Lankan peace process, the rebels of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, or the LTTE.

The rebels broke off peace talks with the government seven weeks ago describing them as "a waste of time." They said many of the decisions taken during the six rounds of talks that would immediately improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of war-affected people in the north and the east of the country, have not been implemented.

The rebels have decided to stay away from the Tokyo conference also to show the international community, the underwriters of the peace process, their dismay at the lack of progress on the ground where poverty is endemic, and dividends of nearly 18 months of ceasefire are hard to come by.

The rebels' view is shared by a government minister who after visiting the areas of the north told his cabinet colleagues last week he was "shocked" to see the degree of depravation.

"These people are living horribly in unhygienic conditions ... have no proper drinking water, no roofing, no proper place to sleep," he was reported as saying in local newspapers.

In the past few weeks, many senior diplomats traveled to the rebel-held territory in northern Sri Lanka to urge the rebels to attend the conference.

"[The LTTE's] absence from these important proceedings will represent a lost opportunity, and will send the wrong signal to the international community," said Frederick Schieck, a senior official of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who has just visited the northern Sri Lanka.

"The Tokyo conference is an opportunity for (the LTTE) to help its people, and it will be a lost opportunity if it misses out," said Yasushi Akashi, the veteran peace maker who is now Japan's special envoy to Sri Lanka and the man who has been organizing the conference.

Public support

The questions on the minds of the participants at the conference is whether the peace process is still viable and worth investing in.

The answer of the Sri Lankan government is an unequivocal "yes" to both questions. Before leaving for Tokyo, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesingha told journalists that peace talks with the LTTE will resume soon.

"I don't see such a large gap between us," he said.

According to a recent survey, an overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans back the peace talks to end the war, and 62 percent believe there will be peace soon.

The government will argue that this is a turning point. It will argue it will need the money to bring peace dividends to the people and to cross the point where the peace process will be irreversible.

But there are still formidable hurdles in the road to peace. The rebels want the government to hand over the administration of the north and the east to them as a condition for their return to the negotiating table.

Sri Lankans are again hoping the country does not lurch into a renewal of civil war.
Sri Lankans are again hoping the country does not lurch into a renewal of civil war.

It's an almost impossible demand, say many observers. To grant the rebels an interim administration, the government needs to change the constitution, which in turn requires a two-thirds majority in parliament -- a majority the government does not enjoy.

There are also the opposition parties who are accusing the government of trying to divide the country by giving too many concessions to the rebels.

In their endeavors to make life as difficult as possible for the government, the opposition parties also have the backing of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Kumaratunga, who is in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with Prime Minister Wickremesingha, has refused to send a video-taped message of support to the Tokyo conference.

There are constant rumors in Colombo that she may decide to use her wide powers as president to unseat the government -- a move, many observers believe will kill the peace process in its tracks.

There is also the problem of human rights violations by the rebels which will make the handover of the administration of the north and the east of the country to the them a difficult proposition to sell. There are continued reports of child recruitment and of the killings of former informants.

Donors may decide to make aid conditional on improvements in overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

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