Talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels to end one of the world's longest-running wars began on a positive note yesterday, although the gulf between them was highlighted in the opening speeches.
The negotiations – the first direct ones in seven years – opened with a ceremony at a beach resort in Thailand before the delegates were taken to a nearby naval base at Sattahip.
The chief government negotiator, G L Peiris, said after five hours of talks behind closed doors: "I think it went very well because we laid a foundation to build upon." Further negotiations over the next two days should set an agenda for future meetings to try to end a war that has killed 64,000 people and flattened the island's economy.
Mr Peiris said: "The most reassuring feature of the first day was the confidence on both sides that this can be done, if handled properly."
Investors in Sri Lanka latched on to the upbeat mood, pushing up the Colombo stock market more than 1 per cent to its highest level in five years. The day opened with guardedly optimistic speeches. Anton Balasingham, chief negotiator for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), said: "We are seriously and sincerely committed to peace and we will strive our utmost to ensure the success of the negotiations.
"A firm foundation has been laid for peace negotiations by the principal parties in the conflict." He called for international help to rebuild Tamil areas of the island.
In his opening speech, Mr Peiris described the 19-year-old ethnic war as "unique in its ferocity" but said that now lay in the past. "Together we repudiate today a legacy of rancour and hatred which has torn asunder the fabric of our nation for decades," he said. "A sea change is necessary now the tempest has abated."
The Tigers, who have sent hundreds of suicide bombers to their deaths and assassinated leading politicians, were hit by the fallout from the 11 September attacks. A global crackdown on the financial lifelines of radical groups since then and earlier international bans have restricted the Tigers' overseas fund-raising efforts. Elections that brought the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to power last December on a peace ticket also showed a majority of the island's people wanted genuine change.
Mr Balasingham walked into the ceremony talking politely with Mr Peiris, something unimaginable until earlier this year, when both sides signed a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire.
No government or LTTE flags were on display, an issue in previous failed talks.
Officials said the talks would initially focus on aid and rebuilding war-torn areas, leaving contentious issues, such as the Tigers' demands for a separate state in the north-east of the island, until later meetings.
Mr Peiris also paid tribute to the Tamil Tigers, including their reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, for "embarking on the transformation of their movement into a political organisation". But he said any Tamil aspirations "must necessarily be effected within the framework of a state whose unity and territorial integrity is ensured in fact and in law".
Mr Balasingham said Tamils wanted "a permanent peace in which our people enjoy their right to self-determination and to co-exist with others".
Since the war started in 1983, the fighting has destroyed vast areas of the north and east of Sri Lanka and discouraged tourists and investors.