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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
Crunch Time in Colombo
Next Tuesday's election could end the civil war--and not just in Sri Lanka
By APARISIM GHOSH

December 16, 1999
Web posted at 7 a.m. Hong Kong time, 6 p.m. EDT


For years, elections in Sri Lanka have served to focus attention, domestic and international, on the country's unending civil war. Sadly, the polls are no longer required as a reminder--that role is performed by the daily reports of casualties in the Jaffna peninsula. All the same, the Dec. 21 presidential election bears careful watching. With a little luck, it might just produce an opportunity for a peaceful solution to the 16-year conflict between ethnic-Tamil separatist groups and the government.

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Make that a LOT of luck. The best peace plan proposed in those 16 years is President Chandrika Kumaratunga's devolution package. She aims to give the ethnic Tamils in northern and eastern Sri Lanka a greater degree of political and economic autonomy. Self-rule would address many of the grievances of the Tamils, who believe the island's ethnic Sinhalese majority discriminates against them. Moderate Tamils would like to give Kumaratunga's plan a try--particularly since the other option, civil war, has been pretty thoroughly exhausted.

Extremist groups, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, want nothing short of full independence. But Kumaratunga is betting that the Tigers will lose their support base (and their funding) once Tamils begin to run their own affairs. It's a gamble, but the only one that makes any sense.

And not just in Sri Lanka, either. To my mind, devolution is the only sensible way to end the civil and sectarian wars in Kashmir, Karachi and India's turbulent northeastern states. There, too, military and police crackdowns against rebellious peoples have yielded no peace. The Kumaratunga formula (suitably adapted to local conditions) holds more hope.

The trouble is, Kumaratunga doesn't have the two-thirds majority in parliament she needs to pass her devolution package. Political pundits predict that next week's election will bring her no closer to that magic figure. But there is some room for optimism. Her main rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is not a military hawk. He believes peace can be achieved through negotiation, but has doubts about devolution. A renewed mandate to rule (if not a two-thirds majority) might give Kumaratunga the political capital necessary to overcome Wickremesinghe's opposition.

If Kumaratunga can pull it off, Sri Lanka could become the cynosure of South Asian eyes for all the right reasons: as a nation that had the courage to stop shooting and the sagacity to find another way to peace. New Delhi and Islamabad should pay attention.

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