Sri Lanka's Process of Repair

The economy is good, and promised political reforms may satisfy the country's rebellious Tamil minority

SRI Lanka seems to be rebounding after 10 years of political and ethnic turmoil. The economy is robust, and political reforms promise to bring peace to the island's north and east, torn by decades of bloody conflict between government forces and Tamil guerrillas fighting for independence.

But diplomats and analysts say the reforms are still inchoate and may be too weak to satisfy the Tamil ethnic minority. In addition, President Ranasinghe Premadasa will probably delay the reforms until after the next presidential election, which may not be held until December 1994.

"The situation will not be altered politically or militarily until after the next presidential election," says Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political scientist here. After that, analysts say, the government could pass a political package that will satisfy Tamil calls for autonomy in their areas in the north and east. "A lot of that radical feeling ... has died. People are just worn out," a Western diplomat says. The majority Sinhalese "are sick of having their boys come home in body bags."

Sri Lanka has come a long way since 1990, when Indian troops still held blanket control in one third of Sri Lanka's territory in the north and east in an unsuccessful attempt to vanquish a separatist guerrilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Indian troops have left, but Sri Lankan soldiers continue the fight against the seemingly unconquerable LTTE. Most analysts consider the war a stalemate.

The country has moved to satisfy international pressures - prompted by reports of grievous human rights abuses - by passing or amending legislation to prevent future abuses.

Mr. Premadasa survived a rebellion within his United National Party last year, narrowly evading impeachment, and is now actively concentrating on the economy - and his reelection.

Elections for Sri Lanka's nine provincial councils, to be held from April to June, hold the country's future. The key issue is how the winners will deal with the Tamil rebels. Depending on the results of those elections, Premadasa will decide whether to advance the presidential election or wait until the end of 1994. Parliamentary elections also must be held in early 1995.

Premadasa's main rival for the presidency is Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the ailing leader of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). Mrs. Bandaranaike has been made prime minister - and subsequently ejected from power - twice in the past. She narrowly lost the 1988 presidential election to Premadasa. If she runs for the presidency, analysts say, Premadasa will probably win reelection. Even so, it is hard to gauge Premadasa's standing. Average Sri Lankans speak critically of him and his government. "He enjoys co nsiderable unpopularity," says a European diplomat. Sri Lankans are generally fearful about their government and are terrified of criticizing it publicly, especially since the Army, with government backing, killed more than 1,000 people in 1989.

"Premadasa is unpopular, there's no doubt about it," says Thilak Karunaratne, an SLFP member of parliament. "But we're not making any use of it." An SLFP pact with the fledgling Democratic United National Party, established by politicians who tried to impeach Premadasa last year, could change the equation - particularly if a presidential candidate other than Bandaranaike is chosen.

Premadasa is a skilled politician and a tireless propagandist. He knows how to sell his policies to the people and unabashedly uses the timid local media to attack political rivals.

Whoever takes control of the government will have to decide how to deal with the Tamil problem. The LTTE has taken some knocks recently: It no longer gets the safe haven in southern India and elsewhere in the world, the Tigers' reputation as freedom fighters has lapsed, particularly after the 1991 killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, attributed to the Tamils.

The Tigers have recently said they would agree to peace negotiations after a cease-fire. But Premadasa is wary after the LTTE used a 1989 cease-fire to regroup and rearm.

The war against the LTTE is going nowhere, analysts say. More than 1,000 soldiers died in the conflict last year.

"It's being run pathetically, incompetently," says a diplomat in Colombo. "The progress is slow - too slow to win the war this year or next." Most hopes are pinned on political reforms to help woo moderate Tamils. A parliamentary committee has been asked to formulate a package of reforms to devolve power from the central government to the provinces. Its announcement has been delayed but the outlines would give provincial governments police powers and control of government land. It would also allow the pr ovinces to dictate the ethnic configuration of their populations, reversing the forced immigrations of the past, which changed the makeup of some provinces.

But the package would also call for splitting the northern and eastern provinces, which were merged in 1987 to satisfy the Tamils. It would fall short of genuine federalism, analysts say, which was the hope of many Tamils.

"Barring some magic card," a diplomat says, "the parliamentary select committee does not seem to offer the way forward to lasting peace."

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