Four months after violence ripped this island nation apart, the first steps have begun to bridge the wide ethnic and religious divide between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.
But you would not know it by the looks of the Tamils waiting for the 6:30 a.m. bus from Kandy to Jaffna last week.
Gathered in front of a Hindu temple in the ancient capital of Kandy, they glance anxiously at their wristwatches. They are eager to reach the Tamil-dominated area in the north of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). Most of them clutch small children and a few belongings.
At the appointed hour, the aging bus draws up to the curb and, predictably, there is chaos. There are clearly more passengers than seats. But the people are determined to board, even if it means standing for a grueling eight-hour drive. The bus becomes a solid mass of pressed bodies and parcels. After a jump-start by some youths, it pulls out with everyone aboard.
''There's no other way for them to get to Jaffna, unless they take a direct train from Colombo,'' the bus driver explains. ''How can we refuse them?''
Except for the snail-like pace of erratically scheduled public buses, this daily private coach is the only means of transport. It no longer travels after nightfall, its owners fearing random attacks by violent gangs and undisciplined members of the Army.
Since the bloody communal riots of July, fear and tension are still commonplace. For the Tamil minority, in particular, fear and alienation have become a way of life.
There is little conversation among the passengers, and one senses a collective tension. A strapping former police officer named C. Balasubramaniam says he fears for the safety of his wife and three daughters. He does not look like a man who scares easily. Yet after the July violence, he moved his family to Jaffna, near his wife's parents. He works at an entertainment company in the Sinhalese-dominated capital of Colombo and commutes some 12 hours to see his family as often as his job permits.
''I'm only supposed to stay in Jaffna for two days, until Thursday, and then return to work,'' he says. ''But I know my daughters will want me to stay through the weekend, so I probably will.''
Suddenly a puppy sticks its head out of a box he is holding. ''A present for my daughters to keep them company,'' he smiles shyly.
When the bus arrives in Vavuniya, a largely Tamil city, the people alight to pray at a roadside Hindu temple.
Now in a Tamil region, there is an unmistakable change in mood as we continue north. Passengers chat amiably amid the noise of a Hindi song on a stereo. However, a few miles past Vavuniya, the conversation stops abruptly as we approach a refugee camp, housing Tamils displaced by the July riots.
About 22,000 still languish in 39 state-run camps and an equal number of unofficial shelters scattered throughout the island. Six women and 10 children climb down from the bus at a makeshift welfare center. There are sad stares from fellow passengers as the coach pulls away.
At Elephant Pass, the bus submits to an uneventful Army checkpoint. ''Look, we're coming into Jaffna now,'' says Mr. Balasubramaniam, obviously pleased.
While in Jaffna, this reporter met with the only remaining Tamil member of the Sri Lanka Parliament, A. M. Alaalasunderam, who represents Kopay in the Jaffna district. He is a present-day anomaly to his party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). Like his colleagues, he has been boycotting parliamentary sessions to protest a new constitutional amendment that proscribes any party advocating a separate Tamil state.
Unlike most TULF members, who automatically lost their seats Oct. 21 after a three-month consecutive absence, Mr. Alaalasunderam remains in office until Dec. 21. Due to a sick leave he obtained last summer, he has a grace period of two more months. But he quickly explains, ''I'm as good as out now.''
With their parliamentary seats vacated - and, so too, their role as leaders of the opposition - some fear that a temperate political voice representing the Tamil minority has been lost.
Recently, however, top TULF leaders, including the vocal Secretary General Appapillai Amirthalingam, have come under fire from Jaffna and Colombo for their self-imposed exile in India. Critics charge them with abandoning their brethren, who live in a climate of uncertainty. However, many TULF members credit their leaders for having sought a compromise even prior to the July violence, opting for local autonomy instead of a new Tamil state.
''On principle,'' Mr. Alaalasunderam asserts, ''we wouldn't reject a federalist solution out of hand. Despite our mandate (for a separate state), the implementation of regional laws and self-governing could be an acceptable formula.''
In 1980, there was cautious optimism when President Junius R. Jayewardene established District Development Councils (DDC) with the avowed intention of devolving power to a local level. But none of these measures were effectively implemented, frustrating the Tamils.
''The result was a glorified local body symbolizing highly centralized paternalistic rule from Colombo,'' Mr. Alaalasunderam charged. ''The government simply doesn't want to delegate power, it wants a monopoly. It will be a long time before the Sinhalese consider federalism.''
Perhaps not. The government, which maintained a virtual three-month vigil of silence, came under attack by both Tamils and Sinhalese for its impotence. Amid mounting national concern, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's special envoy, Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, arrived in Colombo Nov. 6 for a second round of extensive talks with Jayewardene and government leaders, to help ease ethnic tensions.
Sensitive to local fears that India - which has a large Tamil population of its own - might intervene in Sri Lanka's internal affairs, Mr. Parthasarathi explained that he was serving as a diplomatic buffer between Jayewardene's government and the TULF leadership in exile in India.
Late last month, the news broke. ''Proposals to end ethnic conflict: devolution within a unitary state,'' the government newspaper proclaimed.
Indeed, the proposals drawn up by the officials is the first hopeful sign of a settlement. Addressing the inherent short-comings of the present DDC system, the plan seeks to expand the scope of local bodies, thus strengthening the positions of Tamilsuffeajump,15pSRI LANKASRI LANKAufmrk,31l
in the northern and eastern districts. Dividing the country into nine provinces, locally elected legislative assemblies would regulate a wide range of areas, such as employment, primary and higher education, agriculture, and industrial development, within a unitary state. The plan has one condition: that the TULF demand for a separate state be abandoned.
Now the real work begins. The Indian envoy will talk with TULF leaders to gain acceptance of the plan. Jayewardene, who returned from a 10-day Commonwealth summit after talking to Mrs. Gandhi, will present the plan to Sinhalese-dominated parties in the government. If a consensus is reached, he proposes to hold a general referendum on the package.
The pitfalls are many.
Jayewardene may face the biggest political challenge within his own party. The TULF must cooperate with a pledge made by Mr. Parthasarathi, on behalf of India, to curb terrorist activities by northern separatists. But the TULF will undoubtedly demand assurances by the government that the safety of its people is guaranteed.
Says Mr. Alaalasunderam: ''Our first priority is security. As things are now, we fear another holocaust.''