The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, told parliament on Tuesday, that the controversial issue of the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to constitute a single Tamil-majority North-Eastern Province would have to be decided "by the people" through a referendum.
The prime minister said that there were two options open to the government following the Supreme Court's judgement that the merger effected in 1987-88 had been "illegal":
• One would be to implement the judgement and separate the two provinces.
• The other would be to suitably amend the law under which the provinces were merged in the first place, and then go in for a referendum in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province to let the people there decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to be merged with the predominantly Tamil North.
Indicating that the government preferred a referendum, Wickramanayake said that the issue was a matter "to be decided by the people."
But the 22 member Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which had demanded a statement from the government, was very disappointed and angry.
N Ravi Raj MP, said that it was clear that the government intended to go in for a referendum, flouting the undertaking given to the Tamils in 1987 and 1988 by then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene that a referendum would not be held.
Accord, law and undertaking
Following the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987, the Sri Lankan government had taken legal steps to merge the North and East, which the Accord had designated as the Tamils' "place of historical habitation".
But the law under which the two provinces were merged had also provided for a referendum in the multi-ethnic East, within a specific timeframe.
Since the Tamils were wary about the outcome of the referendum, both Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene promised that it would not be held.
Indeed, it was being postponed every year since then. But come 2006, the Supreme Court said that the merger was illegal because the preconditions set by the law were not met.
The Tamil militants had not surrendered their arms as per the legal requirement.
In response, the Rajapaksa government could either carry out the de-merger as per the Court's determination or amend the law to make it possible to continue the merger.
The government could carry out an amendment because the opposition United National Party (UNP) was for the continuation of the merger and was in alliance with the government on key national issues.
But the Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which had approached the Supreme Court on this issue, was putting pressure on the Rajapaksa government to de-merge the provinces.
The government itself was for it, but could not say it openly because of the India-factor.
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister has now said that the issue of merger or de-merger will have to be decided by a referendum in the Eastern province as the matter relates to the people.