The Mahinda Rajapaksa government will have to decide before November 16, what to do about the Sri Lankan Supreme Court's ruling that the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces brought about in 1988, was "illegal" and should be annulled.
A referendum on the merger, which was to be held in those two provinces as per the Provincial Councils Act 42 of 1987 before December 31, 1988, was being postponed from year to year for pressing political and security reasons.
In the case of the ethnically mixed and politically volatile Eastern Province, in the current year, the referendum will have to be held before November 16, unless postponed again.
Need to amend law
But postponement cannot be done now in view of the Supreme Court's ruling, unless, of course, the law itself is amended.
And that has to be done soon.
The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has demanded that the Rajapaksa government take a decision before November 7, when parliament is due to meet.
The official stand of the President is that the court's ruling has to be studied in detail and from all angles. Formally, he has neither accepted nor rejected the ruling.
This is because merger and de-merger are issues, which sharply divide the majority Sinhalas from the minority Tamils. It is an emotive issue for both.
Threat of violence from LTTE
A united North Eastern Province is a cardinal demand of the LTTE, which is leading an armed struggle.
The armed struggle has already claimed 70,000 lives, and displaced one million minority Tamils since 1983.
The LTTE has apparently told the Norwegian peace brokers that it will make de-merger an issue in the talks with the Sri Lankan government to be held in Geneva on October 28 and 29.
The LTTE's political wing leader SP Tamilselvan has said in an interview that his organisation is not bothered about the Supreme Court's verdict for two reasons:
• A merged North Eastern Province is an inalienable right of the Tamil-speaking people
• The LTTE does not recognise the jurisdiction of the Sri Lankan Constitution and its organs including the Supreme Court.
This means that the LTTE will forcibly prevent the merger or make it unworkable by violent means.
Role of India and Co-chairs
The government is moving cautiously in the matter also because it involves India, which had brought about the merger through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.
The Co-chairs of the Tokyo Donors' Conference, namely the US, EU, Japan and Norway, had also told the government that it should not alter the existing institutional arrangements in the North East.
The Co-chairs were alluding to the bid to de-merge the North and East.
Internal opposition to de-merger
Amending the law suitably is possible because the main opposition party, United National Party (UNP), and several heavy weights in the government itself, feel that a de-merger at this time will be politically disastrous.
Some top-rung members of the cabinet like Mangala Samaraweera (Foreign Affairs), Sarath Amunugama (Public Administration), Nimal Sripala de Silva (Heath) and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle (Consumer Affairs) had described the Supreme Court's ruling as "ill-timed".
The UNP has said that if the government brings in an amendment to continue the merger, it will support it.
It was an UNP government, which had brought about the merger in the first place in 1987.
If the UNP supports, any amendment, even a constitutional amendment, can be passed.