NEW DELHI — A spokesman for the Indian government, which is acting as an intermediary between government forces and Tamil rebels in the island nation of Sri Lanka, on Friday described new peace proposals by Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene as "the most positive step yet" toward resolving the bitter ethnic conflict that has resulted in 4,000 deaths since 1983.
Indian officials met here with Tamil leaders Thursday and Friday to discuss proposals made by Jayewardene on Wednesday that would grant a degree of regional autonomy to Tamil areas. For the past three years, Sri Lanka, a nation of 15 million off the southern tip of India, has been the scene of an increasingly violent civil conflict between Tamil militants and the government, controlled by the majority Sinhalese.
India, which suffers from similar ethnic conflicts within its own borders, has been pushing for a settlement since July, 1983, when 500 Tamils were killed by Sinhalese mobs in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Last July, India managed to convene a meeting in Bhutan between the Sri Lankan government and leaders of Tamil groups. However, peace efforts broke down as violence intensified month by month. Tamil terrorist attacks reached a new height last month; more than 200 civilians were killed in a series of bombings, including the May 3 bombing of a Sri Lankan airliner at Colombo airport that killed 17, some of them European tourists.
After a government offensive against the rebels stalled earlier this month, President Jayewardene called a meeting of all Sri Lankan political parties to announce new proposals for decentralizing the government and granting greater autonomy to the country's nine provinces.
Regional autonomy has long been a major demand of moderate Tamil leaders, although more militant leaders of the five major Tamil fighting groups have demanded independence and a new Tamil homeland to be called Eelam. The Tamils, about 18% of the population, are mainly Hindu, while the Sinhalese, about 74% of the population, are predominantly Buddhist.
At a similar "all-party conference " in 1984, Jayewardene announced limited reforms, including the creation of provincial councils to govern the local territories. However, the Sri Lankan president went much further Wednesday when he proposed expanded regional powers.
Local Tax, Police Powers
Under the new proposals, the provincial councils would have powers to tax, educate and police their populations.
One of the provinces would have an overwhelmingly Tamil majority, while another would be equally divided among Tamil, Sinhalese and Moor (Muslim) populations.
Jayewardene announced that he would present his new proposals in August to the Sri Lankan Parliament, where his United National Party holds 140 of the 168 seats.
The most significant new element of the proposals, according to a spokesman for Indian Foreign Minister P. Shiv Shankar, involves expanded police powers granted to the provinces. Under the proposal, the provincial council's chief minister would appoint the province's police superintendent.
Previously, the Sri Lankan government had insisted that all police officials above the rank of assistant superintendent be appointed by the central government.
Tamil Leaders Summoned
The change in the Sri Lankan government position was enough for Shankar to summon Tamil leaders to New Delhi to discuss the latest proposal.
"What they had given was a distinct movement forward," the spokesman said Friday. "We decided that the time had come to show them (the proposals) to the Tamil groups and show them that this is something that should be seriously considered. We are keeping our fingers crossed."
Shankar met Thursday with Appapillai Amirthalingam, secretary general of the Tamil United Liberation Front, the largest moderate Tamil political group. Sources here said Indian officials met Friday with representatives of some of the more militant Tamil organizations, most of which maintain offices in Madras, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which faces Sri Lanka and whose population is heavily Tamil.
Pleased at Response
A Sri Lankan diplomat here said he was pleased with the Indian government's positive response to the new proposals.
"Earlier, the foreign minister (Shankar) had said be would not pass on any more proposals to the Tamil leaders unless they were satisfactory and salable," said the Sri Lankan diplomat. "Now I think that half the battle has been won if we have satisfied the Indians."
Throughout the conflict, the government of India has consistently urged peace, but it has also permitted the Tamils to use Indian territory as a base for striking across the narrow Palk Strait at Sri Lanka.