COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – More than two years ago, a cease-fire with Tamil Tiger (search) rebels brought a semblance of peace to this tropical island nation savaged by nearly two decades of civil war.
But talks broke down more than a year ago, neither side trusts the other and enduring peace remains a distant ideal. Increasingly, analysts are warning that the diplomatic deadlock and tenuous peace could stumble back into all-out war.
Last week, Norwegian peace envoys made their 16th visit to Sri Lanka (search) since they brokered the February, 2002 cease-fire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam that halted 19 years of civil war.
But the Norwegians, who were hoping to convince the rebels to return to the negotiating table, which they left in April 2003, went home without a breakthrough.
Stubbornness on both sides means there has been little chance of significant change.
"The peace process remains at a deadlock due to unwillingness of the government and the LTT to budge from their respective positions and make a deadlock-breaking concession," said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council (search), an independent think tank.
The Tigers began fighting in 1983 to create a separate state for Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils, accusing the country's 14 million Sinhalese of discrimination. The war left 65,000 people dead and 1.6 million displaced before the cease-fire took hold.
According to Perera, international efforts are about the only reason the peace process remains intact at all. The United States, India and Japan have all made it clear they want a negotiated settlement, and have pushed hard to keep the war from starting anew. But many here worry that diplomatic fatigue may worsen in if the stalemate continues.
Why are the two sides so stubborn?
The core issue is a rebel blueprint for self-rule called the Interim Self-Governing Authority, or ISGA. The October, 2003 proposal called for a largely independent territory with control over its own administration, police and legal system, unrestricted access to the sea, and the right to collect taxes and receive direct foreign aid.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who initially rejected the proposal, calling it a step toward a separate state, has been saying lately that her administration was willing to discuss it, along with government proposals on power sharing.
But the rebels — who already control their own de facto state across much of northern and eastern Sri Lanka — don't trust Kumaratunga, who they tried to kill in a 1999 assassination attempt that cost her an eye and killed 27 others. They insist that before talks begin, the government issue a pre-talk statement that the ISGA would form the basis for any discussions.
Political bickering among Kumaratunga's supporters makes that impossible. She is under pressure from extremists among the Sinhalese majority not to give any concessions.
Her government's survival depends on the support of the Marxist People's Liberation Front, a powerful member of her coalition which opposes ceding any power to the rebels.
"All Sinhalese parties are today united only in their aim of indefinitely prolonging this no-war, no-settlement situation for the sole purpose of eroding our collective will," Senathirajah Jeyanandamoorthy, a Tamil member of Parliament, was quoted as saying in the pro-rebel Web site, TamilNet.
Such cynicism can be found on both sides of Sri Lanka's ethnic divide, with hardline Sinhalese insisting the Tigers cannot be trusted until they are militarily crippled.
"An LTT believing in its military capability can never be expected to agree to a peaceful and negotiated settlement," said Piyasena Dissanayake, a Sinhalese academic.
Both sides, analysts say, must be prepared to make concessions.
Even without a return to all-out war, a lack of progress threatens to trap this beautiful island in what Perera calls "no-war, no-peace and no-progress."