Sri Lanka -- negotiation is essential

THE Sri Lankan government's attempt to eliminate militarily the Tamil separatist threat is causing thousands of casualties among innocent civilian, ruining the national economy, and eroding democratic rule throughout the island. The United States and other Western aid donors that have invested heavily in Sri Lanka's economic development have a duty to seek a political solution to the conflict. When President Junius Jayewardene was elected to office in 1977, Sri Lanka abandoned its previous socialist economic policies for a capitalist course, which resulted in a handsome 8.2 percent rate of growth the following year. This compact nation of 15 million people appeared set to become the Singapore of South Asia, with the added benefit of parliamentary democracy rather than authoritarian rule.

But Mr. Jayewardene and his United National Party have squandered this opportunity by their failure to redress the grievances of the island's Tamil minority. The Tamils are only 17 percent of the population, but at independence in 1948 they had a disproportionate share of the country's civil service and professional positions and businesses. A succession of Sri Lankan leaders elected by the country's Sinhalese majority concentrated on promoting the Sinhala language and career opportunities for the Sinhalese, at the Tamils' expense.

The Jayewardene government, however, alienated the Tamils even further by its apparent complicity in three outbreaks of anti-Tamil mob violence, the last of which, in 1983, claimed hundreds of Tamil lives in Colombo and sent 60,000 Tamis fleeing from the Sinhalese south to Tamil strongholds in the northern and eastern provinces. Since then, a small Tamil guerrilla movement has swelled with new recruits, becoming a 20,000-strong adversary for government troops previously accustomed to a ceremonial role.

Reprisals by the armed forces for terrorist attacks have included several massacres of Tamil civilians. In addition to human rights violations which result from the indiscipline of the soldiers, there has been indiscriminate shelling and bombing of densely populated civilian areas in an apparent attempt to terrorize the inhabitants among whom the Tamil insurgents live.

The tragedy of this mounting violence -- which is estimated to have claimed more than 2,500 civilian lives in the past year -- is that it could be averted, were the Jayewardene government to pursue a political accommodation with the Tamils. While the guerrillas are fighting for an independent state, most Tamils seem prepared to settle for less. When Mr. Jayewardene promised India last year that he would offer political autonomy to the Tamils, guerrilla representatives sat down with his envoys for peace talks in neighboring Bhutan. But the negotiations collapsed, because Sri Lanka refused to cede sufficient powers to the Tamils.

A federal system with strong provincial councils running the island's nine provinces would permit both Sinhalese and Tamils to run their own affairs with a minimum of interference from Colombo. But Jayewardene insists on retaining a unitary state structure. He fears that a significant devolution of power to satisfy the Tamils would provoke a backlash from Sinhalese nationalists in the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party and in the politically powerful Buddhist clergy.

But the attempt to defeat separatism on the battlefield is destroying the country's economic prospects and eroding one of the few democratic political systems in Asia. Spending on defense is eight times as high as it was when Jayewardene took office. The island's tourist industry has been devastated, and Finance Minister Ronnie del Mel has issued dire prophecies of economic decline, a process accelarated by falling export prices for key Sri Lankan commodities. The buildup of the armed forces from 20,000 to 35,000 men and the arming of civilian vigilantes known as Home Guards have raised fears of a militarized culture. Although Sri Lanka still has impressive freedom of expression by most third-world standards, dissent has been increasingly stifled by emergency regulations that were imposed in 1980. In Parliament, the chief opposition party, the Tamil United Liberation Front, has been excluded by a 1983 constitutional amendment that required members to disavow separatism. The JVP, a leftist Sinhalese party, was banned a year ago.

In these circumstances, Sri Lanka's benefactors in the West have a responsibility to encourage a political solution that will preserve the island's unity but satisfy the aspirations of moderate Tamils. The US should urge Pakistan and Israel, two of its allies that are providing military training for the Sri Lankan armed forces, to stay clear of the conflict. Britain and Canada, two of Sri Lanka's friends in the Commonwealth, should involve that respected body in a mediation role. Most important, these and other aid donors should stress to all Sri Lankans that they cannot continue to finance economic development in the absence of a minimal level of political harmony. Sri Lanka is the world's largest per capita recipient of Western aid. The continuation of that aid should be linked directly to the resolution of its ethnic conflict on the basis of negotiation.

Sheldon E. Gordon writes for the Globe and Mail, Toronto.

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