Lankan Tamil party drops separatist demand

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s main ethnic Tamil party said yesterday it is ready to accept regional self-rule instead of total independence, which it had previously demanded.

The Tamil National Alliance, which backed the now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels, says in its platform for April 8 parliamentary elections that it is ready to accept a “federal structure” in the north and east provinces with key powers including over land, law and order, and finance. The platform was released yesterday.

Since its inception in 2001, the alliance has acted as a proxy for the separatist Tamil Tigers until their military defeat by government forces last year in a 25-year civil war for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the fighting.

Tamils have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the island’s majority Sinhalese, but Sri Lankan authorities have rejected any self-rule for them, saying it would be a prelude to secession.

The alliance has 22 members in the outgoing 225-seat Parliament. It has previously supported the separatist goal of the Tigers, whose organisation disintegrated after their battlefield defeat.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa called the April parliamentary vote after winning re-election in January - in a presidential vote called two years ahead of schedule - in an apparent attempt to consolidate his political dominance. The opposition leader, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, has been detained on sedition allegations.

The Tamil alliance, which supported Fonseka in the presidential election but plans to contest the parliamentary vote on an independent platform, also demanded resettlement, housing and livelihood programmes for the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians displaced in the last stages of the civil war, about 100,000 of whom are still in refugee camps.

Some of the displaced civilians live with relatives and friends while others have been sent back to their villages without proper shelter or means to make a living.

The alliance also asked the government to permit the return of nearly 1 million Tamils who fled to Europe and India as refugees over the years. It further wants the government to demilitarise former rebel-held areas and dismantle high security zones where troops occupy thousands of acres of private land and houses.