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Elusive peace in Sri Lanka

AMONG those absent at this week's meeting of Commonwealth heads of government is Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, who faces more pressing business at home. Regrettably, the four-year-old civil war in his island nation rages on with a tragic loss of life; it does so despite the signing last July of a long-sought peace agreement and efforts by Indian peacekeeping troops, acting as a buffer, to persuade reluctant Tamil militants to lay down arms in exchange for increased political power in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The Buddhist Sinhalese majority controls Sri Lanka's government and Army. President Jayewardene courageously stood up to considerable pressure on the right in signing the accord with India; he is correct now in insisting he made no mistake.

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The militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest and oldest guerrilla group, signed an agreement with India to accept the plan only Sept. 28; these extremists speak only for a small if vocal Tamil minority in their push for complete independence. The moderate majority among Tamils should make its support for the accord heard and its opposition unmistakably clear to such practices as the killing of Sinhalese civilians and their forced evacuation from areas where Tamils want to consolidate political power.

All sides could do better.

The involvement of India, while difficult for many Indians to accept, is vital to the success of any Sri Lankan peace plan. India vowed that its peacekeeping troops would remain neutral despite the presence of 50 million Tamils within its own boundaries. Yet if refugee reports are true that some Indian troops stood by as Sinhalese homes were burned and occupants forced to flee, such bias is reprehensible.

The Sri Lankan government - in whose custody several Tamils committed suicide, spurring much of the recent violence - must also exercise caution.

The reluctant militants must be persuaded to lay down their arms; the Tamils are unlikely ever to get a better deal. But restraint and care by Indian and Sri Lankan troops are the only means to the end which can engender the necessary trust.

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