The Sri Lankan government signed a peace pact with Sinhalese extremists yesterday in a surprise move aimed at ending ethnic strife between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils on the island nation. Under the pact, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Sinhalese Marxist group which has violently opposed last year's peace accord between India and Sri Lanka, must turn over its weapons by May 29. In exchange, the government will lift a five-year ban on the organization.
The new pact could revitalize the peace process, which has been buffeted by spiraling violence in Sri Lanka. ``We signed the agreement today because we want peace,'' K.C. Senanayake, a lawyer and JVP member, said at a press conference in Colombo.
Last summer, Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an agreement to end the five-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists, with whom India sympathizes because of its own large Tamil population.
However, the Tamil Tiger militants, who are demanding their own homeland in the northern and eastern provinces, refused to lay down their arms and have been battling an Indian peacekeeping force stationed in Sri Lanka under the accord.
Also opposing the Indian-Sri Lankan peace accord, the JVP unleashed a wave of violence that has killed more than 250 people in the last eight months. The group made an unsuccessful bid last year to assassinate Mr. Jayewardene in an attack at the Sri Lankan Parliament.
The organization, which launched an abortive coup against the government in 1971, was blamed for anti-Tamil rioting in 1983 and was banned by the government.
However, Jayewardene's government has been under growing pressure to bring the JVP into the political mainstream as opposition to the peace accord and the presence of Indian troops has mounted among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese.
At the same time, the JVP has been weakened in recent months by a security crackdown by the Sri Lankan military, Western analysts say.
``With the possibility of fresh general elections this year, Jayewardene and officials in his government saw the need to placate the Sinhalese who were outraged over the Indian peace accord,'' said an Asian diplomat in New Delhi.
The pact with the JVP likely will make it easier for the Sri Lankan government to hold provincial elections in areas strongly influenced by the Sinhalese extremists. The provincial balloting, a key provision of the peace accord between India and Sri Lanka, began last month in three of nine provinces, despite pledges by the JVP to disrupt the voting.
Still, the accord with the JVP could make it more difficult to reach a settlement with the Tamil Tigers, Indian analysts say. The Sinhalese group has opposed a deal with the Tiger militants, who are expected to gain control of the north and east provinces in Sri Lanka.
Periodic talks have been under way between the Indian government and Tamil militants to negotiate a cease-fire. Recent reports in the Indian press say the two sides are close to an agreement.
An end to the JVP's terrorist campaign also could renew calls for Sri Lankan troops to be deployed against Tamil militants. Under the Indian and Sri Lankan accord, the Sri Lankan army has been barred from fighting the Tamil extremists in the north and east.
The agreement with the JVP also could heighten pressure for Indian troops to be withdrawn from Sri Lanka, diplomatic observers in New Delhi said.
``Indian opponents will say this accord shows that Sri Lanka can settle its own affairs without outside interference,'' says a senior New Delhi diplomat.