THE Sri Lankan government's courageous new effort to end its costly and destructive civil war deserves support both within that island nation and internationally. The agreement signed this week by Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi offers a more generous olive branch to Sri Lanka's restive Tamil minority than did any previous government proposal.
The Hindu Tamils have long complained of discriminatory treatment at the hands of the government, controlled by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, in everything from language to individual rights. The new agreement would create one autonomous administrative unit for both the nation's Northern Province, where Tamils are a strong majority, and for the Eastern Province, where Tamils account for about half the population. Voters in the Eastern Province would accordingly vote next year on whether or not to keep that link with the north. The new agreement would also give official status to the Tamil language.
In politics, middle-ground proposals, satisfying neither the far right nor the far left, tend to be attacked by both; the proposer often then assumes he must have been doing something right. The analogy holds for President Jayewardene, whose accord has been vehemently protested by both Tamil and Sinhalese hard-liners. Buddhist monks term the agreement a sellout; warn of a possible takeover by neighboring India, which has a strong Tamil minority; and urge protection of their nation against division. Militant Tamils, a noisy minority within a minority, want nothing less than full autonomy; they disdain both the accord's call for a referendum and for a laying down of their weapons, which they see as crucial to their security.
Though Mr. Gandhi has often lost patience with the peace process in recent months, he is in a unique position to wield influence with the Tamils and has played a vital mediating role. The peacekeeping forces he dispatched this week to Sri Lanka at its request will have to walk a careful line, reassuring the Tamils that they can lay down their weapons without reprisal while assuring the Sinhalese that their mission is strictly limited.
Mr. Jayewardene, who has shown considerable courage in taking the stand he has, would do well at least to tone down his vow to campaign against the proposed provincial merger.
An atmosphere of moderation and confidence that the accord will succeed is crucial. Ethnic harmony in a nation where tension has increasingly turned violent will not be easy to come by. But Sri Lanka, which has already lost 6,000 of its people in civil war over the last four years, can settle for nothing less.