Sri Lankan Leader Seems to Reject Greater Autonomy for Tamils
NEW DELHI — The president of Sri Lanka appeared to rule out greater political autonomy for the country’s Tamil ethnic minority on Monday, despite promising for years to support the idea in the wake of a bloody civil war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa traveled to Trincomalee, a city on Sri Lanka’s east coast that was once claimed by Tamil separatists, and delivered an Independence Day speech that both rejected new power for Tamil-dominated provincial councils and warned foreign governments not to interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
“When the people live together in unity, there are no racial or religious differences,” Mr. Rajapaksa said in the speech. “Therefore, it is not practical for this country to have different administrations based on ethnicity. The solution is to live together in this country with equal rights for all communities.”
The statement ran counter to promises Mr. Rajapaksa had made to Tamil groups and to foreign governments that he would devolve considerable authority to the country’s provinces, including those with Tamil majorities in the north and east. Indeed, the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution requires such a devolution of authority, and Mr. Rajapaksa had promised to “build on” that amendment.
In a joint statement with the secretary general of the United Nations in 2009, for instance, Mr. Rajapaksa “expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.”
And as recently as a year ago, the external affairs minister of India, S. M. Krishna, said that Mr. Rajapaksa had, in a meeting, “assured me that he stands by his commitment to pursuing the 13th Amendment-plus approach.”
Two weeks later, though, Mr. Rajapaksa denied giving any such assurances, and his government has sent clear signals in recent months that it had no intention of building on the 13th Amendment and may move to repeal it.
When the Sri Lankan Supreme Court struck down a law in September 2012 because it violated the amendment, the ruling infuriated the president and soon led to impeachment proceedings against the chief justice. In October, his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, called for the amendment’s repeal.
“This speech makes even more clear that the Rajapaksas don’t have any interest in sharing power,” said Alan Keenan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The United States has expressed concerns about the impeachment of the chief justice, and the United Nations Human Rights Council is expected in March to ask Sri Lanka about its progress on measures meant to heal the conflict with the Tamils, including investigation of alleged human rights violations during the civil war and greater autonomy for Tamil areas. About 18 percent of Sri Lankans are Tamils; most of the rest are Sinhalese. Tamils also account for a major part of the population of southeastern India.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s speech came nearly four years after his government defeated the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels after decades of bloody struggle. The United Nations has estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the war; other estimates put the number higher.
The Tamil National Alliance, the main ethnic Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, said in a statement that the United Nations Human Rights Council must take “stern action” against the Sri Lankan government, which it said had not investigated abuses in good faith, The Associated Press reported.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice released a joint statement on Monday calling on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations to “recognize the continuing deterioration of democracy, human rights and rule of law in its totality” in Sri Lanka.