Wednesday, 30 July 2003  
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Eastern residents say negotiations the way forward

by Lindsay Beck

BATTICALOA, Tuesday (Reuters) - Guesthouse owner K. Luxman says it has been 15 years at least since the fish in Batticaloa's famous lagoon came out to sing.

"It is because of the heavy artillery fire, the fish are not coming," he said, blaming Sri Lanka's 20-year-old civil war for the silence of the fish, who used to make sounds like a distant orchestra playing.

Nearly 17 months have passed since the island's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government signed a truce, silencing the guns after 20 years of civil war, but residents in the ethnically mixed East say their lives are little changed.

"There is a lot of fear," said long-time resident Amara Hapuarachchi.

Locals say the Tigers have exploited the new freedoms allowed under the truce to tighten their grip over the Tamil-majority population.

"There are no checkpoints now, no ID cards, no sudden roundups," said Hapuarachchi of the area still dotted with sandbagged police posts and military security zones.

But the Tigers' recruitment of underage soldiers has not abated, she added: "Immediately after the ceasefire agreement the child conscriptions picked up." Others in the community were less equivocal.

"We were better off before the peace process," said Father Harry Miller, a Jesuit priest who is involved in a local "peace committee" that acts as both watchdog and lobby group.

"That doesn't mean I would want the peace process to stop. We only hope that once the peace process is complete, then we'll be better off than we were," he said. Nordic monitors overseeing the truce can do little to keep the Tigers in check, he said.

"Anything which is brought to the monitoring mission will be declared by name. And the LTTE has many ways of getting even," Miller said.

With its mix of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and unclear lines between government and rebel-held areas, the region has been a flashpoint in the war.

"There are no problems in the area now. We don't pay tax [to the LTTE] - not since the riots," said Lajweb, 36, a Valaichchenai restaurant owner. The Tigers suspended negotiations in April, saying not enough was being done to rebuild war-hit areas of the Tamil-majority North and East, but to residents here the impression is of the North reaping a comparative windfall of aid and attention. The Tigers' headquarters in the northern town of Kilinochchi is a regular stop for international visitors and since the reconstruction of the A9 highway the island's main North-South artery is again flowing with people and goods.

"It's not like Kilinochchi. So much more is happening there," said one foreign aid worker.

But despite their feelings of marginalisation, residents say the only way forward is to continue negotiations and most are confident the Tigers are not about to start another war. "If there is another war, the LTTE will lose the support of their own people," said Lajweb, the Muslim restaurateur.

"They are having a luxury life now. They don't want to destroy that," he said. Still, Luxman thinks it may be a while before the calm of peace lures back the legendary singing fish - which he says is caused by the vibrating gills of thousands of fish, but sceptics say is just the noise of water flowing past coral holes.

"If there is peace they may come back, but it will take time," he said.

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