Cease-fire in Sri Lanka raises hope for settlement between government and Tamils

Prospects for a political settlement between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatist guerrillas are improving. And it appears that the Indian government is playing a key role in pushing forward such a settlement.

Earlier this month Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene met with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi. About a week later, there was a significant lull in fighting in Sri Lanka's northern peninsula.

The two leaders had agreed that an ``abatement of violence'' would create ``a proper climate'' for a political settlement, according to reports of their meeting. The implication was that New Delhi would quietly crack down on guerrillas based in India, while Colombo would control its Army's counterinsurgency operations.

On Tuesday, a Sri Lankan government official announced that five major Tamil separatist groups had agreed to a ``cessation of hostile activity.'' He indicated this is the first step toward negotiating an end to the violence between the island's Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority.

Although the Indian government has not issued any comment on ending the hostilities, the cease-fire was reportedly arranged after the Indians persuaded Tamil militants, many of whom are based in Tamil Nadu, to suspend fighting.

The battle for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka, began in 1974 and has become increasingly violent in the past two years. By official count, more than 240 people have been killed in rebel attacks and riots against the Tamils since mid-May.

About 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 15 million people are Hindu Tamils; Buddhist Sinhalese constitute about 74 percent of the population. The Tamils claim the northern and eastern areas of the island as their ``traditional homelands'' and want a regional council linking the two provinces. Many Sinhalese consider this concept untenable and dangerous, and regard such a merger as nonnegotiable.

In the past, New Delhi has flatly rejected Sri Lanka's contention that the main breeding ground of sectarian violence is in Tamil Nadu.

Rajiv Gandhi, however, has brought a change of approach. Sri Lanka seems to be the first beneficiary of India's new ``good neighbor'' policy.

An impetus to Gandhi's policy is the presence in Tamil Nadu of 80,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, including some armed militant groups. The potentially disruptive effects of such a presence has caused some disquiet in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka's part of the bargain includes increasing government efforts to control its Army's anti-guerrilla activities. The government says that more than 300 servicemen have been dismissed for acts of indiscipline during the separatist conflict.

There still are several stumbling blocks to finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict. Life in the eastern and northern provinces is hampered by curfews and a variety of other restrictions.

Some here see the final resolution coming from a political settlement with the Tamils, granting them some measure of regional autonomy.

In December 1984, after more than a year's discussion, Mr. Jayewardene's Cabinet decided against a proposal to transfer some power to regional authorities. The opposition Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) rejected the offer to redress Tamil demands as too little, and the Buddhist clergy protested the draft conceded too much.

If the government produces a new proposal, can it persuade moderate and militant Tamils to accept it, perhaps with Indian help? Can it convince the Sinhalese opposition to approve the plan?

These questions will dominate events in the next few months, providing the cease-fire holds.

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