BOTH sides in Sri Lanka's longstanding ethnic conflict will have to bend to fit together peacefully. The result should be well worth that extra effort. A smaller independent state for the Hindu minority Tamils, who represent less than 20 percent of the island's 15 million people, is no solution. Intermittent negotiations have been under way since 1983. From the start, militant Tamils have insisted that the Northern Province in which Tamils predominate and the Eastern Province, where Tamils used to outnumber other ethnic groups but now account for only one-third of the population, must be treated as one unit. The Buddhist Sinhalese government's latest offer, rejected a few months ago by the Tamils and by the Buddhist clergy on the government's right, is on the table again; it would give the north and part of the Eastern Province power over their own land distribution, police forces, and education through provincial councils.
The government should weigh other concessions, taking a firmer stand against pressures from the Buddhist clergy on the right. Still, the current Sinhalese proposal goes a good distance toward meeting past Tamil concerns about lack of control over their own affairs. Moderate Tamils are largely amenable to the proposal; militant Tamils, representing fewer than 7,000 of the island's 3 million Tamils, are not. Moderates must find a way to keep Tamil militants from calling the shots.
The Sinhalese government has often taken inexcusably harsh measures against Tamils and villagers suspected of aiding the militants. To pressure the militants into more concessions, the Sinhalese for some weeks have blockaded fuel and aluminum going into Jaffna, the militants' northern stronghold. Government officials recently said they hope to relax the blockade; they should follow up on that pledge and move cautiously in any effort to retake the northern peninsula.
It is unfortunate that India, with its large Tamil population and special ability to act as a mediator in Sri Lanka's troubles, has pulled back as a broker in the talks. Indian officials, disturbed by the failure of moderates in both groups to temper extremes, feel their best efforts have been spurned. India says its reinvolvement hinges on removal of the government's economic blockade against the north and a halt in government military operations. Colombo should try to accommodate those concerns; India's role in the talks is vital.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's economic problems remain considerable. Unemployment is 22 percent; foreign debt repayment accounts for one-fourth of the national budget. Moderate Tamils in the United States urge Washington to use its aid, which has dropped 50 percent in the last three years, as a lever to encourage a settlement. The US correctly resists: Tamil militants would likely feel little of any such pressure.
Continued internal pressure and compromise within Sri Lanka, however, will likely play a key role in helping the Tamils and Sinhalese to find a way to live together in one nation.