Sri Lanka starts moves to grant Tamils more autonomy

PM has pledged to devolve more political powers to Tamils and reduce the military presence in the island’s north

Colombo: Sri Lanka’s parliament Tuesday launched a process to draw up a new constitution aimed at preventing a return to ethnic war by granting minority Tamils greater autonomy.

Parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya opened a constitutional assembly, seeking public views on reforming the charter, seven years after the end of the separatist war that claimed at least 100,000 lives.

“This is a historic occasion and we have an opportunity to seek the views of the public to implement the very radical political reforms needed,” Jayasuriya told parliament.

The assembly includes a 21-member steering committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to draft the new charter aimed at unifying ethnic communities and strengthening democratic institutions.

Although no time frame was given Tuesday for finalising a draft, political sources said the process could take years.

Wickremesinghe has pledged to devolve more political powers to Tamils and reduce the military presence in the former war zone in the island’s north, two key demands of the ethnic minority.

The premier has also promised action against the military and Tamil rebels for alleged war crimes committed in the final phase of the 37-year conflict that ended in 2009.

Remaking the constitution is controversial in Sri Lanka, with hardline members of the ethnic Sinhalese majority opposing a federal system that would grant more power to Tamils.

President Maithripala Sirisena, elected in January last year partly with the support of Tamil voters, has also pledged other political reforms to ensure a lasting peace.

The regime of former president Mahinda Rajapakse faced repeated UN censure over his failure to investigate allegations that at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by troops in 2009.

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