One step may be a giant leap. What was true of man’s first step on the moon may apply, even if with qualifications, to the agreement reached by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Oslo last week. After 19 years of a devastating civil war, the end of the tunnel seems to be in sight, although much more will have to be achieved politically and pragmatically before the people of Sri Lanka are actually out of it. The core of possible concord is now in place: both sides have agreed to work out regional autonomy for Tamil-dominated areas within the federal system. However dramatic the announcement may seem, a lot of hard work and gradual changes in attitude have preceded it. The uncertain February ceasefire in Sri Lanka had not failed totally, the A-9 highway was unblocked and opened to safe passage of civilian traffic in April, the Norwegian mediators never gave up, the new prime minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed determined to fulfil his electoral promise of an end to the war and the LTTE chief, Mr V. Prabhakaran, seemed really willing to negotiate.
These are the most salient features in the build-up to the peace agreement. But the most important factor is the change in attitude. The terms of peace earlier offered by the president, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga, including devolution of powers to the minority within a federal structure, had been unsuccessful. But now Mr Prabhakaran has made clear that the LTTE is no longer talking of all or nothing, power-sharing in a federal structure is acceptable in lieu of a separate “homeland”. This is a striking change on the LTTE’s part. Apart from the terrible attrition of a continued war against the state, there is also tremendous pressure exerted upon it, materially and ideologically, by global anti-terrorist opinion since September 11, 2001. At the same time, the Sri Lankan government has come round to the view that without substantial political concessions, there would be no headway. The cost of the civil war in human life was terrible, and the long-term damage to the economy and to development could soon have become irreversible. The decisions the government took were not easy. By talking to the LTTE, the government indicated it had accepted the rebel outfit as representatives of the Tamil minority.
The hard work ahead cannot be underestimated. Mr Wickremesinghe will have to sell the idea of power-sharing to the Sinhalese majority. A powerful Buddhist group has already put in its objections. The only hope is the people’s desperate longing for peace. Constitutional amendments will have to be passed in the parliament by a two-thirds majority, a strength the prime minister’s party does not have. It is a relief that the president’s party, opposed to the prime minister’s, has initially welcomed the agreement. As important is choosing the modalities of federal rule and chalking out boundaries. An enormous breakthrough has been made: perhaps this itself will ensure that the hard road ahead will also be successfully traversed.