Lost Opportunity 1985

From the archive, 9 April 1985: Sri Lankan government to make new offer to Tamils

Colombo reported to be planning a series of initiatives to bring the Tamil minority back to the negotiating table

A Tamil Tiger fighter patrols the coastline near Jaffna, Sri Lanka, February 1986.
A Tamil Tiger fighter patrols the coastline near Jaffna, Sri Lanka, February 1986. Photograph: Michel Philippot/Sygma/Corbis

The Sri Lankan Government was reported yesterday to be planning a series of initiatives to bring the disaffected Tamil minority back to the negotiating table, and to reduce the level of violence in the northern and eastern provinces.

The Island newspaper, which has often been used to test opinion by President Jayewardene, said that the package would include a broad amnesty, the release of detainees, and confinement of the army to barracks in the Tamil-speaking areas.

The contentious Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which required all MPs, public servants, and members of professions to renounce secessionism, would be revised, the paper added. This amendment, adopted by Parliament in August, 1983, was resisted by the 17 MPs of the main minority party, the Tamil United Liberation Front, who were consequently barred from the House.

According to the Island, the Government is also ready to implement its proposal for district councils, with the possibility of provincial councils in the future. Significantly, the offer would be made to the Tamil militants, as well as to the relatively moderate Tulf.

At the same time, the pro-government newspaper, the Sun, quoted the Fisheries Minister, Mr Festus Perera, as saying that fishing restrictions in the “prohibited zone” along Sri Lanka’s northern coastline would soon be relaxed. These restrictions have cost thousands of Tamil fishermen their livelihood and prompted many families to take refuge in South India.

The Government’s quid pro quo was reported to be a willingness by the Tulf to contest elections in Tamil areas, a moratorium on violence by the young militants, and the resumption of negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the ethnic conflict.

The new policy seems to be a response to the mixture of stick and carrot offered by India since Mr Rajiv Gandhi came to power last winter and Delhi’s preference for quiet persuasion.

Sri Lankan diplomats here have been impressed, two recent incidents in which India intercepted shiploads of arms apparently on their way to the Tiger terrorists in northern Sri Lanka. The message has not been lost on the exiled extremists and their supporters in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

India has always denied having anything to do with training, sheltering, or supplying the Tigers.

Despite his huge parliamentary majority, Mr Gandhi could not, however, persist with his conciliatory approach unless he had something to show for it. The point was made to some effect by the permanent head of the Indian Foreign Ministry, Mr Romesh Bhandari, during a visit to Colombo last month.

The concessions now being dangled before the Tamils go much, further than those offered before the situation deteriorated in the second half of last year. The Tulf rejected the district councils scheme as too weak a form of regional autonomy, but at that time would have welcomed provincial councils.

The question now is whether the Tamils can turn back the clock after the atrocities committed against them by the army in the past 12 months.

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