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Sri Lanka president offers pre-vote concessions to Tamils

world Updated: Jan 12, 2010 15:08 IST
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Sri Lanka's president on Tuesday offered concessions to ethnic Tamil demands for greater autonomy ahead of elections in which the minority community could play a decisive role.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is seeking a second term, said he was proposing power-sharing arrangements to give minority Tamils a greater say in the legislature and address long-standing demands for devolution of power.

Tamils account for 12.5 per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million population and have long pushed for regional autonomy.

The quest for an independent homeland was the main plank of a decades-long armed insurgency by Tamil Tiger separatists that only ended last year with a final military victory over the rebels.

"The end of the war does not mean the end of the conflict," Rajapakse told foreign correspondents at his tightly guarded Temple Trees residence in Colombo. "We need to politically address the needs of Tamils."

His remarks came days after the main Tamil political group, the Tamil National Alliance, pledged to support his main presidential challenger, former army chief Sarath Fonseka.

Both men are from the majority Sinhalese community. If they split the Sinhalese vote at the January 26 polls, the Tamil vote could prove the deciding factor.

Rajapakse called the election two years ahead of schedule hoping to benefit from the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers. But as the architect of the military victory, Fonseka can also lay claim to credit for ending the conflict.

Both men have toured the Tamil heartland of Jaffna in the island's north this month to woo the Tamils.

Fonseka has offered to scrap the all-powerful presidential system and revert to a parliamentary democracy, while Rajapakse is offering more representation for minority Tamils in new legislative arrangements.

"All this will require amending the constitution and seeking the approval of the people at a referendum," Rajapakse said. "The ordinary people simply want to live in peace, but there is a demand and a need for a political settlement."

The government is seeking foreign help to rebuild the island's embattled northern and eastern regions, which will require at least seven billion dollars in the next three years, Rajapakse said.

"We have already started work on highways and electricity," he said. "We are getting a lot of help, but we will need more."

He said the World Bank was spending 450 million dollars over four years to reconstruct war-damaged highways in Tamil regions.