Sri Lankan progress

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The world seems so full of strife these days that it is particularly worthy to note areas in which diplomacy and cool heads are damping down violence and tensions. One is Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India. Sri Lanka is a long way from solving all its problems, but recently it has made significant progress toward accommodation between its warring factions. For years tensions had been building between Sri Lanka's governing Sinhalese and its minority Tamils; civil rights, discrimination, and religion have been at issue. Violence by both sides had been increasing, with extremists outshouting moderates. Sri Lanka, it had appeared, might be on the verge of anarchy.

Now that has changed, in part thanks to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He took steps to prevent extremist Tamils from retaining sanctuary in nearby India, and he opposed Tamil demands for a separate state in northern Sri Lanka. He urged Sri Lankan President Jayewardene to grant the Tamils some regional autonomy and asked that Sinhalese politicians go along.

Progress has been made. The government and the Tamils agreed on a cease-fire, and they have observed it for three weeks. The government has announced plans to free some 600 Tamil guerrilla suspects. It promised to lift the curfew in the Tamils' northern area.

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The two sides have been holding peace talks, which have now been recessed until mid-August. It is important that momentum toward accommodation not be lost and that there be no backsliding toward violence.

Suspicions on both sides are deeply ingrained, and extremists may well try to prevent agreement. The Sri Lankan government says it foiled a plot last week by Tamil extremists to assassinate President Jayewardene.

But if the road toward full accommodation is rocky, the distance already traveled is encouraging.

It shows again that no problem is so intractable that solution is impossible: The effort should always be made.

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