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Sri Lanka

Renewed incidents of violence on the island nation of Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India, emphasize anew the importance of soon finding a peaceful settlement between its two warring factions, the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.

At base the struggle is between two cultural identities, each in a different way very fearful of the other. The Tamils fear what they consider continued discrimination in education and employment, plus continued indiscriminate violence against innocent Tamils by the ill-trained Sri Lankan Army. They are concerned lest resentment by the Sinhalese again spill over into street riots like those of July 1983, when hundreds were slain.

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For their part, the Sinhalese are particularly concerned that Sri Lanka's Tamils will join with India's 50 million Tamils to overwhelm, possibly even by force, the 11 million Sinhalese.

The most difficult question is how to meet the requirements of each without incurring the enmity of the other.

Some means has to be found for the government to accede to legitimate demands of the Tamils and share more power with them, yet without provoking wholesale condemnation by the Sinhalese. The government also has to be able to check the terrorism of a minority of Tamils.

Power sharing through regional councils of some sort might be accepted by most Tamils. This is likely worth a try if the government can gain Sinhalese tolerance for the idea. In addition, President Junius Jayewardene has proposed establishing a second chamber of Parliament as a partial means toward the same end.

The situation is greatly complicated by population distribution. It would be relatively simple to give greater autonomy to those Tamils concentrated in the north. But two-thirds of the Tamils live sprinkled among Sinhalese in the rest of the nation; how to give them more autonomy is difficult to fathom.

In addition, there is the old question of whether providing more autonomy would satisfy a minority's requests, or merely whet its demands for power.

The conflict has parallels to that in Northern Ireland, and it is reminiscent of the 1960s struggle to bring race relations in the United States past the Jim Crow stage. Each side in Sri Lanka fears the other has, or has had, unfair advantages; trying to right what Sinhalese see as the inequities of the past through the use of what in the US is called affirmative action has produced a backlash.

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Finally, as the stalemate continues both sides are being radicalized, with a small minority of Tamils becoming terrorists - financed and armed, it is charged , by contributions from other nations. Clearly, the time to reach moderate solutions is growing short.

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