Even as the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled that the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was illegal and invalid, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the issue of the East's merger with the North should be decided by a referendum in the East.
The state-owned Daily News quoted Rajapaksa as saying: "The Executive, Judiciary or Legislature or any other power cannot change the future of the in the East. Their destiny can only be decided by themselves."
He was speaking to Government side MPs here on Monday.
"According to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, the future of the Eastern population has to be decided by a referendum," Rajapaksa pointed out.
Provincial Councils were set up in Sri Lanka following the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, the 13the Amendment of the Constitution of 1987 and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987.
The law had said that after a set period of merger, there should be a referendum in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province to decide finally, if the East should remain merged with the predominantly Tamil North.
The India-Sri Lanka Accord had stipulated a merger of the North and East in view of the long standing Tamil demand for a "Traditional Homeland" for the Tamil-speaking people and had identified the North-East as the homeland.
The India-Lanka Accord had described the North-East as the place of the Tamils' "historical habitation".
But the Sinhalese and the Muslims, who were significant communities in the Eastern Province, opposed the merger saying that in a unified North-East, their proportion would come down drastically vis-à-vis the Tamils.
However, the referendum was never held on the plea that the security situation was not conducive for holding it.
There has been a militant Tamil movement led by the LTTE and war in that area, continuously since 1987.
The Tamils also argued that due to the disturbed conditions, many Tamil residents of the East had to flee to other countries.
The Tamils said that a referendum held in a situation such as this, would not be fair.
In 1987, India had unofficially assured the Tamils that there would be no referendum and that the merger was as good as being final.
The then Sri Lankan President, JR Jayewardene, was party to this, but again, unofficially.
However, the Sinhalas and a section of the Muslims have been arguing that the referendum is mandatory.
They also point out that parliamentary and local bodies elections are being held regularly despite the unfavourable security situation.
"If parliamentary and local bodies elections can be held, why can't a referendum be?" they ask.
This is the context in which President Rajapaksa said on Monday that the future of the East was best decided by the people of the East through a referendum.
Opinion divided on court ruling
The minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalas have taken opposite positions on the Supreme Court's ruling against the merger of the North and East.
Welcoming the ruling, Wimal Weerawansa of the radical Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) said that the merger had to go because a merged North-East was the "bedrock of an independent Tamil Eelam".
The JVP MP, Vijitha Herath, said that the ruling was a "blow to India" which had brought about the merger.
Daily Mirror quoted the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, MK Sivajilingam, as saying that the situation would compel the Tamils "to secede and form a separate state in the greater interest of their community".
The moderate and pro-government Tamil leader, V Anandasangaree, said that the present situation in the country was "helping to strengthen the hands of the LTTE".
D Siddhrathan of the pro-government Peoples' Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) said that de-merger would hamper the task of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict.
Having helped bring about the merger of the North and the East through the 1987 Accord, India should take "credible" steps to see that the merger continued, Siddharthan said.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) President Rauff Hakeem said that the party would have to study the implications of the ruling before making a comment.
The Muslims are hemmed in by the Tamils and the Sinhalas in Eastern Sri Lanka, and have to tread warily.
"We had never asked for a merger or de-merger. The SLMC will continue to guide the community (Muslims) promoting co-existence of all three communities," Hakeem said in a cautious response.
"Ill-timed" say Govt ministers
However, there are important mainstream political leaders, even on the government side, who think that the judgment will do more harm to the cause of peace and understanding, than good.
According to Daily Mirror the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera, the Minister for Finance, Sarath Amunugama, and the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, have said that the court ruling was "ill-timed" and that it would "aggravate the ethnic crisis."
They made these remarks in a government parliamentary group meeting here on Monday.
Media divided ethnically
The Sri Lankan media is divided on this issue on ethnic lines, with the Sinhala-dominated press hailing the judgment, and the Tamil press lambasting it.
A front page editorial entitled "Merger most foul" in The Island said that the "real tragedy" was not so much the "India-made merger", which President JR Jayewardene carried out "under duress" but that it had been taken for granted for so long in spite of the public knowledge that it was illegal.
The merger had become a "holy cow" which no one would touch.
The Island said that there was only one way of deciding the issue - that is, ensuring the surrender of arms by the LTTE as required by the Provincial Councils Act of 1987, and holding a referendum in the East as provided by the law.
"That is the democratic path. There can be no short cuts," it stressed.
Daily Mirror said in its editorial that whatever the political implications of the Supreme Court's judgment, it should be welcomed because it was given on a legal basis.
"This decision will, no doubt, satisfy the vast majority of people in the country who have always regarded the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces as an act committed at the behest of a foreign nation, namely, India."
"However, the present decision comes at a crucial time when the government and the LTTE are poised to have discussions to find a lasting solution to the national problem," the paper said.
Taking into account the opposition to the de-merger from the Tamil parties across the political spectrum, Daily Mirror asked the political leadership of Sri Lanka to "study the implications of this decision and take appropriate action on this matter."
The Tamil daily Sudar Oli in its editorial said that the court's ruling was "expected".
Pointing out how the same court had struck down a joint government-LTTE structure to administer reconstruction in the North-East after the December 2004 tsunami, and how the Sri Lankan parliament had been the handmaiden of Sinhala majoritarian interests right from the beginning, the paper said that the judgment only strengthened the feeling among the Sri Lankan Tamils that they would never get a fair deal.
The judgment had gone against last month's stipulation by the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors' Conference that there should be no change in the "special arrangements" made in the North-East. It had gone against the Indo-Lanka Accord also.
Sudar Oli predicted that the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa would now begin to say that it could do nothing to uphold the merger as the matter had been decided in court.
"What will India and the Co-Chairs who seem determined to find a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict say now, when in the name of law, the Tamil Homeland is being torn asunder?
The Tamils are eager and have a right to get an answer to this question, " the paper said.
Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi told Hindustan Times that the judgment was "unfortunate".
But since the court had given the ruling on legal grounds, there was nothing that India could do about it.
It was for the Sri Lankan government to look at remedies if it was interested in continuing the merger.
The sources, however, said that there were indications that the Rajapaksa government was exploring the legal and constitutional route in this regard.
Perhaps, the government could secure the help of the opposition United National Party (UNP) to make suitable legal provisions to continue the merger.
The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP are now on the verge of signing a MOU for cooperation on matters of national interest.
Moreover, it was an UNP government, which had brought about the merger in the first place, it is pointed out.