Sri Lanka to proceed with the first provincial polls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:45pm

Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse pledged on Sunday to proceed with the first-ever provincial polls in the island’s former war zone but his government said the powers of the elected council will be clipped.

The ruling coalition had promised to share limited power with Tamils, pointing to elections to local councils, after the military crushed separatist Tamil rebels in May 2009 and ended 37 years of ethnic bloodshed.

Rajapakse on Saturday visited the northern district of Kilinochchi, the political capital of the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels, and promised to hold elections as scheduled in September, his office said.

“President Rajapakse, who was in Kilinochchi, said elections to the Northern Provincial Council will take place as planned,” his office said in a statement.

However, government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the council’s powers will be curtailed.

“A bill will be brought to parliament on Tuesday to take away the powers of a council to unite with another and create a bigger territorial unit,” Rambukwella told reporters.

He said the government was also appointing a parliament committee this week to suggest trimming of more powers of the provincial councils established in 1987 to grant a degree of autonomy to Tamils in exchange for ethnic peace.

Rambukwella said the ground reality had changed after the military crushed separatist Tamil rebels in 2009.

Sri Lanka adopted a de facto federal system in 1987 but never held elections in the Tamil-dominated north, which continued to be ruled directly by the president. Councils have, however, been functioning in Sinhalese-majority areas that Rajapakse’s party controls.

The councils were established in line with an agreement with neighbouring India, which promised to rein in Tamil separatists on its soil provided Colombo shared political power with the Tamil minority.

Sri Lanka is under international pressure to promote ethnic reconciliation and investigate allegations of war crimes by its forces in the final stages of crushing Tamil Tiger rebels.

It has denied allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed during the bloody finale to the conflict.