After more than two suspense-filled years, the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels are returning to the negotiating table in a move that hopefully would take the peace process forward — even if inch by inch. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a few days after the assassination of Foreign Minister, which has been blamed on the rebels, wrote to Norway seeking resumption of talks on ceasefire issues. The rebels, after initially hemming and hawing over the President’s offer, agreed to discuss the ceasefire.

Ever since peace talks were abruptly halted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in April 2003, residents in Sri Lanka have been in a volcano-like situation. here have been many times during this period when both sides were close to firing the first shots and breaking the ceasefire, which has been a great relief to Sri Lankans. Fortunately the ceasefire has held and much of that credit should go to Sri Lankan leaders, the military and the LTTE. It is the longest-running ceasefire and many benefits have accrued during this period, particularly to the war-ravaged Tamil population in the north.

But since the ceasefire came into force, dozens of military personnel attached to the army’s intelligence unit and many former rebels working as army informants, have been killed. Kadirgamar’s killing was the biggest violation of the ceasefire if it is proved that the rebels are responsible.

The rebels have their own share of complaints, the most serious being the emergence of the Karuna faction of the LTTE and assassinations of LTTE cadres by this group. Some top LTTE leaders including eastern commander Kaushalyan have been ambushed and killed by suspected Karuna guerrillas.

The rebels have insisted that the peace talks would deal with only ceasefire issues. The government has agreed to this but the fact that both sides have got back to the table is an encouraging sign that peace talks on bigger issues are not far off. The government and LTTE delegations have not been named but the talks are likely to be held next month.

Political analysts said the government team is likely to try to expand the discussion to set dates to discuss wider issues and a long-standing political solution. The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) for the first time will take part in the process since it has played a keen role in the ceasefire agreement. The weakness in the agreement is that the SLMM doesn’t have powers beyond urging both sides restraint when there are confrontations. Unlike in the past when the peace talks took centre stage and received wide publicity in the media, this time round it would be a different ball game.

Kumaratunga, who cannot contest a third term, wants to continue as leader of her party when she completes her presidential term sometime this year or next year. However newspapers and political analysts have speculated that Rajapakse may sideline the “lady” and take charge of the party. There have various speculative reports in the media about a possible parliamentary poll before presidential elections, none of which has been confirmed.

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo