Sri Lanka riots may hurt investment, ethnic harmony

For the second time in two months Sri Lanka's President Junius R. Jayewardene has declared a state of emergency. The clampdown, including the death penalty for looting and arson, is a bid to stop communal violence between minority Hindu Tamils and majority Buddhist Sinhalese. In the last 10 days at least seven people have been reported killed. Officials say the violence has been largely confined to areas in the Sinhalese-dominated southern part of the country. Tamils have been the main victims.

The latest outbreaks are said to be retaliation for violence in June by Tamil extremists in the main Tamil region of Jaffna in the north. In the latest violence numerous incidents of arson and looting have been reported in the Colombo area.

The clashes so far appear relatively minor in scope. But they pose a potential challenge for two of President Jayewardene's high priority policies in this island of beautiful mountains and beaches, which, at its closest point, is less than 30 miles off the coast of southest India. That may be why he has responded with a stern order giving the Army powers to search, arrest, and in some cases even shoot rioters on sight. Otherwise clashes that have so far been limited might escalate into widespread violence.

Two major policies could be affected:

* The effort to build communal cooperation between the Sinhalese, who make up some 70 percent of the population in this former British colony, and the Tamils, who constitute about 22 percent in this nation of 15 million. The Tamils, who have largely settled in northern Sri Lanka, are descended from the darker-skinned people of southern India. The Sinhalese, who are from the lighter Aryan stock of the northern India, generally have been in Sri Lanka longer.

The country's major ethnic problem has centered on discontented "Indian Tamils," whose forefathers were brought in the late 19th century to work as plantation workers in what was then Ceylon. The "Indian Tamils" were disenfranchised by legislation passed after independence in 1948. ("Ceylon Tamils," whose ancestors had lived in Ceylon for many generations, gained full voting rights.)

* The effort to attract private capital and foreign aid to what was once a highly socialist economy. Mr. Jayewardene, who became prime minister when he defeated the incumbent, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1977, and later became president, has attempted to slow down or reverse her often radical programs of social reform. His hope has been that his more "pro-Western" programs aimed at economic stability with a minimum of nationalization, together with programs aimed at ethnic harmony, would make Sri Lanka doubly attractive to foreign investment.

Thus the government quickly moved toward a return to the market economy. It dismantled decades-old import and exchange controls and cut back on government subsidies seen to be a drag on the economy. The result helped improve the country's credit standing and pleased overseas banks and aid-givers.

But the threat of communal violence has never gone away.

Shortly after Mr. Jayewardene's election in mid-1977, communal tensions burst to the forefront. Tamil speakers in the south were attacked by majority Sinhalas in a new wave of violence.

The lesson was not on Mr. Jayewardene, who gave the "Tamil problem" a high priority. He appointed two Tamils to his Cabinet. One was S. Thondaman, leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, the powerful trade union that dominates the largely "Indian Tamil" plantation sector. The other was C. Rajadurai, a senior parliamentarian who was once president of the Tamil-oriented Federal Party.

Just as important, President Jayewardene proposed and had passed the Development Councils Law -- designed to give provinces more autonomy. One result would be for Tamils, who are largely concentrated around Jaffna and the eastern part of the country, to have more power in the planning and execution of local development programs.

The leading Tamil political organization known as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) supported the President's council program. But a group of militant young Tamils rejected the TULF position and insisted that it should press more vigorously for a separate Tamil state. This alarms many Sinhalese, who are concerned that a separate Tamil state might someday press for unity with its ethnic counterparts in southern India.

In the past militant Tamils were sometimes blamed for outbreaks of communal violence. But this time President Jayewardene is reported to have said Tamil extremists were not responsible.

The minister of state for information and broadcasting said in a speech there was evidence of "a foreign hand" behind the violence -- although he did not name a country. In Sri Lanka such accusations are sometimes taken to hint at support for Tamil extremists by sympathizers in India.

In New Delhi the Indian government has declared it has no intention of intervening in Sri Lanka.

The present disturbances are reminiscent of similar outbreaks in June. The government then also imposed emergency rule and a dusk-to-dawn curfew on northern areas where it said Tamil extremists were responsible for violence. The government then said the emergency rules were necessary to keep the violence from spreading to other areas at a time of local elections. The June emergency lasted six days.

This time the violence included an incident at a political meeting presided over by former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, leader of the opposition United Freedom Party. Police said a crowd hurled missiles at the meeting, leaving 19 persons injured. Mrs. Bandaranaike was unhurt, but her automobile was damaged.

Mrs. Bandaranaike became the world's first woman prime minister in 1960. She was defeated in a 1977 election. After a lengthy government investigation she was expelled from Congress in May this year and stripped of her civil rights for seven years.

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