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Sri Lanka's J. R. navigates between 'Tigers' and priests

By Mary Anne WeaverSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 1984



Colombo, Sri Lanka

Junius Richard Jayewardene is a man in the middle, pulled by two increasingly militant extremes - the 20 percent of his population which is Hindu Tamil, and the majority community, which is Buddhist Sinhalese.

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At 77, he should be as acute as any politician can be, with a clear mandate of five more years in office, and a parliamentary majority which has been extended through 1989.

But when I arrived at the home of the President of Sri Lanka - who is meeting with President Reagan in Washington today on his first state visit to the United States - he looked glum and worried.

A jeep full of police constables had been ambushed in the northern peninsula of Jaffna at dawn. Three had died in the latest of a number of ''Tamil Tiger'' guerrilla attacks.

His own 3,400-strong Army, now occupying the heart of Sri Lanka's northern Tamil country, continued its own brand of justice. In one particularly repugnant outburst two months ago, they opened fire on a crowded market, killing women and children.

''The President is hopping mad when a soldier simply shoots someone without provocation,'' one of Mr. Jayewardene's senior advisers said.

Is that why, I asked the President, he had taken the highly controversial step of inviting the Israelis back to Sri Lanka - after a break of 14 years - to train his security forces and set up an intelligence organization, which Sri Lanka currently lacks?

''No other country was prepared to help us. Not the Americans. Not the British. Not certain European countries,'' he answered.

''We've asked them all. But there's a big Tamil lobby in Europe and the States, and they've convinced the US Congress and European parliaments that 'you should not aid a country persecuting a minority.' They've cleverly submerged the Tamil terrorist issue. We're now bringing it to the top.''

Had he then lost hope of a political solution to end the Sinhalese-Tamil strife, which he himself has said could turn Sri Lanka into the ''Northern Ireland of the Indian Ocean'' in a very short time?

''No, we are going to have a political solution,'' he replied with some firmness in his voice. ''The only question is how power for the Tamils will be devolved, whether through district or regional councils. . . . I'm prepared to impose a solution, but I can't. I need to be heedful of Parliament, but I do have a plan.''

It was only 8:00 in the morning, but the temperature was already pressing toward 100 degrees F. In the drive across Colombo, block after block of shops and businesses glistened with new paint.

It was a seemingly studied effort to mute the memory of the island's bitter racial riots last year, when mobs of Sinhalese Buddhists unleashed long pent-up hate and attacked the Tamils during 10 unprecedented, bloody days.

Could the July riots be repeated, I asked the President in his quiet, suburban house?

''If the (Tamil) terrorists in the north continue their activities, there could be a thousand Julys.''

Later I asked a friend of the President, a moderate and reasoned man, if it were true that the venerable Jayewardene, rather than attempting to solve the island's ethnic problem, had become part of the problem itself, by no longer wishing to defy the popular, Sinhalese-chauvinist will.

''More than being part of the problem, he's one of its major victims,'' said his longtime friend. ''Just like Mrs. (Indira) Gandhi in the Punjab, he's temporized too long. The extremists have taken over and he is, sadly, a weakened and weakening leader, no longer really capable of delivering the goods.''