Sri Lankan leader seeks more power for Tamils

Mr Sirisena has pledged to persuade the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka to support a new Constitution that devolves the powers of the central government that they dominate. A referendum is expected later this year.
Mr Sirisena has pledged to persuade the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka to support a new Constitution that devolves the powers of the central government that they dominate. A referendum is expected later this year. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

President 'trusted by all' pushes for charter hailed as crucial to resolving ethnic strife

COLOMBO *A president elected by an unlikely coalition of moderates from Sri Lanka's two main majority- Sinhalese parties and the Tamil and Muslim minorities is trying yet again to find a political solution to the ethnic strife that has caused heartache and bloodshed for much of its nearly 70-year history since independence.

Maithripala Sirisena came to power in January last year, replacing the government that fought a 26-year civil war with Tamil separatists. Analysts say he is now at what is widely considered the most opportune moment in Sri Lanka's history, with a referendum on a new Constitution later this year.

Committee after committee has recommended that the majority Sinhalese, primarily Buddhists who immigrated from India centuries ago, relinquish some political power to the minority Tamils and Muslims, allowing them a measure of local self-governance. Yet one president after another has failed to do so.

Sri Lanka's government crushed the secessionist group leading the fight in a brutal battle in 2009, in which tens of thousands were killed, most of them civilians. That government, accused of human rights abuses then and in the ensuing years, was toppled by the coalition that brought Mr Sirisena to power.

When coalition members were deciding whom to put forward as their candidate against Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, they chose Mr Sirisena ''because of the very simplicity of the man'', Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in an interview.

SLOW BUT SURE

Sirisena's attitude is to try tobe deft instead of bold. We're waiting for him to play the fullest possible role.

MR PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo research and advocacy group, on Mr Sirisena's cautious style of government.

There were ''more efficient, more iconic persons who may have been also able to do that job, but none of them would have been able to win the trust and confidence of so many different layers of Sri Lanka's constituencies, the Tamils, the Muslims'', said Mr Samaraweera.

Mr Sirisena has pledged to persuade his Sinhalese people to support a new Constitution that devolves the powers of the central government that they dominate. A referendum is expected later this year. Convinced that a new Constitution must begin its life with unanimous support in Parliament, Mr Sirisena persuaded all sides to support a simple resolution for a Constitution to be drafted. That garnered unanimous support.

''These are little steps compared to what we expect him to do,'' said Mr M.A. Sumanthiran, a leading constitutional lawyer and Member of Parliament from the Tamil National Alliance, but ''it's giving us confidence in his methods''.

''Sirisena's attitude is to try to be deft instead of bold,'' said Mr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo research and advocacy group. ''We're waiting for him to play the fullest possible role.''

But questions abound about whether this 64-year-old son of a paddy farmer, who spent his political life shunning the limelight despite holding top ministerial posts, could be the one finally to lead this country into an era of peace.

''We will devolve power to the people as a whole,'' Mr Sirisena said in an interview last week. ''Nobody is trying to take something away from the Sinhalese to give it to the Tamils. What we are trying to do is to give something more to everyone.''

But some fear the opportunity may be slipping away. ''The ruling coalition has proven unable to generate internal consensus on key issues of public policy,'' Verite Research, a Colombo think-tank, said in a report last week, warning that the ''moderate consensus remains deeply vulnerable''.

Mr Sirisena steered clear of committing to a timeline, saying: ''I don't think the drafting of a country's Constitution should be rushed. If we rush... the extremists could exploit that situation.''

He insisted he would not only get a Constitution adopted but also lead his country through the process of truth and reconciliation that his government committed to undertake in a United Nations resolution last year.

''I know it is a difficult task, and I decided to accept the challenge anyway,'' he said.

But he urged patience. ''I am not a man who rushes into things,'' he said. ''That is my policy.''

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Sri Lankan leader seeks more power for Tamils'. Print Edition | Subscribe