Demands of Tamil separatists give Sri Lankan leaders herculean task

The lines appear almost irrevocably drawn: Most of Sri Lanka's Tamil-Hindu minority hug the island's northern tip, while the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist control the capital, Colombo, and the nation's lush and tropical south.

This island's demographic divide, provoked by unprecedented terror at the end of July, is a tangible reflection of hardening ethnic attitudes. If there was any clear victor in Sri Lanka's mayhem, it was the extremists on both the Tamil and the Sinhalese sides.

The man in the middle is the still beleaguered President, Junius Jayewardene. His unlikely ally is Indian's seasoned special envoy, Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, who this week will make a second bid to lay the groundwork for talks aimed at redressing Tamil grievances and demands. The proposed talks between Tamil leaders and the Colombo government would also seek to guarantee the unitary status of the Sri Lankan state.

The task would appear herculean, and sources close to the Indian envoy expect no tangible progress before the end of the year. They are encouraged, however, by the Sri Lankan government's apparent acceptance that a long-term solution must be found. This is a departure from the government's earlier policies of temporizing, which appear to have alienated almost everyone.

President Jayewardene, now under continuing international criticism for his seeming inability to stop the madness of July, has come under increasing pressure from Sinhalese chauvinists within his Cabinet and party, and appears to have limited margins within which to compromise. His offer to give more power and money to district development councils, now fledgling though aimed at giving Tamils a measure of autonomy, has been dismissed by the Tamil leaders as too marginal a measure on which to even consider opening a dialogue.

Conversely, Appapillai Amirthalingam, leader of the opposition's largest parliamentary party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), now proscribed from parliament for its refusal to take a nonsuccessionist loyalty oath, is being pressured from extremists within the Tamil ranks.

Thus Mr. Parthasarathi's statement that his mission was ''difficult and delicate'' was an understatement about what lies ahead. Western diplomats say that, in the present climate, it will be a miracle if he succeeds. He did arrange a meeting, however, between the Sri Lankan leader and Mr. Amirthalingam.

According to sources close to the talks, the TULF reportedly is willing to abandon its call for a separate Tamil nation if the central government cedes it a separate state within Sri Lanka, comprising Jaffna and Trincomalee, which the Tamils would administer with full autonomy. At the same time, however, Mr. Amirthalingam insists there can be no preconditions for any government talks. The TULF, he says, will not abandon its call for separatism as a precondition to conducting a dialogue.

Meanwhile, India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi finds herself betwixt and between. The 40 million Tamils of India have demanded that she play a role. They ask that she urge a constitutional guarantee from Sri Lanka's leaders that Tamils be given equal political, economic, linguistic, and educational rights. The more extreme voices in Tamil Nadu's state capital, Madras, are demanding that the Indian Army intervene if there is a recurrence of violence against Sri Lanka's Tamils.

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