The Supreme Court's order to de-merge the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces is expected to be a burning issue at the talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in Geneva on October 28 and 29.
The government would rather not discuss the issue because it is now caught in a cleft stick. On the one hand, its main political constituency, the Sinhala majority community, is thrilled with the judgement and would brook no compromise with the Tamil minority. But on the other, it is under international pressure not to de-merge.
The US has openly expressed its opposition to de-merger. The international community feels that de-merger will only widen the ethnic divide and sharpen the conflict.
The LTTE, on the other hand, would raise the issue vehemently because the de-merger buttresses its long standing argument that the Tamils will never get their cherished Homeland or even a Tamil province for that matter, within a united Sri Lanka.
Such a dream can be realised only by separation through an armed struggle, will be the LTTE's argument.
While the government is likely to be defensive and apologetic at the talks, the LTTE will go to the government with all its propaganda guns blazing, and that, in full view of the world press.
In a sense, the government will have asked for it.
Initially, the talks were to be only on the nitty gritty of the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and other humanitarian issues like the re-opening of the A9 highway.
But in a bid to corner the LTTE and divert attention from the heavily breached CFA, the government recently said that it was determined to go beyond the CFA and demand a discussion of the "core issues" of the ethnic conflict.
And the issue of the merger and de-merger of the North and East are among the "core issues" of the ethnic conflict.
The government will be hard put to it to face this core issue.
There is time for correctives
However, there is time to minimise the damage. The government has time until November 16 to take legal steps to keep the North and East merged.
The Supreme Court had struck the merger down on legal and not political grounds. The merger had been done disregarding some clauses of the Provincial Councils Act No: 42 of 1987, the court had said.
The law could be changed and the merger would stand.
The latest deadline for holding the mandatory referendum on the merger in the ethnically mixed Eastern Province is November 16. Government could change the Provincial Councils Act No: 42 of 1987 before that date to make the merger legal and avoid an immediate referendum.
Opposition ready to help
The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) has pledged support to the government on this issue. Therefore, if the government wants it can change the law.
But it would still have to manage the political follow out in the majority Sinhala community, which is increasingly coming under the ideological umbrella of the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).
Through full-page press ads, the JVP has been portraying itself as the only party safeguarding the unity of Sri Lanka against minority ethnic separatists. The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), apart from the UNP, is being shown as the divider of the nation.
The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has asked the government to announce by November 7, appropritate steps to retain the merger. Parliament is to meet on November 7.
But the talks with the LTTE would have been held before that. If the government remains silent from now till October 28, the LTTE is sure to haul it over the coals at Geneva.