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Deep Scars From Bitter Ethnic Fight : Sri Lanka's Peace Hopes Hinge on Autonomy Offer

July 12, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

KANDY, Sri Lanka — In this part of Sri Lanka, a tranquil place with green peaks jutting through the mists, a serene lake and old colonial buildings, it is difficult to believe that this island nation is racked by a bloody civil war.

Yet for a decade Sri Lanka, positioned like a teardrop off the southern tip of India, has been involved in an ethnic conflict between a government dominated by the majority Sinhalese population and the minority Tamils.

The northern and eastern provinces, where the Tamils are concentrated, are scarred by the war that elements of the Tamil community touched off in 1983 in pursuit of their goal of creating an independent state. Roads are pocked with bomb craters, and where villages once stood, there is only charred ground. Soldiers and policemen peer out at visitors through narrow slots in sandbag barriers.

Even in Colombo, the capital on the west coast of the island, the war is evident. In May, the city was struck by a series of terrorist bombs. One of them, at the airport, killed a dozen foreign tourists.

Since then, roadblocks have been thrown up at key installations in Colombo. Guards check the contents of parcels at the entrances to most buildings.

Stripped of plastic explosives and modern weaponry, the Sri Lanka conflict could easily fit into some ancient Asian epic. Since a state of emergency was declared in 1983, more than 4,000 people have been killed in the fighting, which seems to consist of a one massacre after another.

"A vicious circle of retaliation and counterretaliation," Robert N. Kearney, a political scientist at Syracuse University, has called it.

But Kandy, along with the rest of the Sinhalese heartland in the south, has been spared for the most part. And since Sri Lanka's political life is dominated by the Sinhalese majority, this presents a problem for President Junius R. Jayewardene and other leaders seeking a solution to the conflict.

Jayewardene's recent peace proposal, which would grant greater autonomy to the minority Tamils by establishing provincial governing councils, has been greeted enthusiastically by some moderate Tamil leaders.

'Significant Advance'

"These proposals are qualitatively different than the type of language they were using last year," Tamil attorney Neelan Tiruchelvam, a spokesman for the Tamil United Liberation Front, said in Colombo. "In my view, the proposals represent a significant advance."

Diplomats and foreign businessmen here have reacted even more positively. "I am impressed by the proposals in their flexible and imaginative qualities," U.S. Ambassador James W. Spain said.

The representative of a foreign bank said: "It is about as far as this government can go and still maintain a unitary state. I hope it flies."

Tamil United Liberation Front leaders in Madras, across the Palk Strait in India, have agreed to meet with Jayewardene in Colombo on Tuesday. Although there has been no such offer from more militant groups, none of them has publicly rejected the proposal so far, even after Sri Lanka military forces claimed to have killed more rebels near Trincomalee this week.

Must Convince Sinhalese

But if the president's bold peace initiative is to succeed, he must first sell it to his Sinhalese constituency, and in the past the majority has been unwilling to grant concessions to the Tamil minority.

Sri Lanka has a population estimated at 16 million. Sinhalese, predominantly Buddhist, account for about 12 million, and Tamils, mostly Hindu and Christian, about 3 million. The rest are largely Muslim Moors and Christian Burghers.

Last week 71 Jayewardene delivered his peace proposal to important Buddhist priests in the Sinhalese areas for their consideration. In August, he plans to present it to Parliament, which is dominated by his United National Party.

The proposal goes much further than any previous government offer. For the first time since the beginning of the conflict a decade ago, Jayewardene talks of "sharing power" with the Tamils. The role of the provincial councils would be greatly expanded to include some tax and police powers.

Provincial Cooperation

Additionally, the proposal calls for some governmental cooperation between provinces with mutual interests, such as the critical northern and eastern provinces with their large Tamil populations. Tamil demands have consistently called for the consolidation of the two provinces into one state, to be called Eelam, with a majority Tamil population.

But support from Sinhalese interest groups, particularly the powerful Sinhalese organizations in the south, is by no means certain.

"We have two questions," Tiruchelvam, the Tamil spokesman, said. "First, is the government willing to settle? And, secondly, are the Sinhalese people willing to settle?"

Even with the new proposal, the prospects for peace on this troubled island are remote.

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