August 15, 2007 / 11:51 AM / 12 years ago

INTERVIEW - Sri Lanka reaches broad consensus on devolution

COLOMBO (Reuters) - A raft of Sri Lankan political parties has reached broad consensus on a cross-party devolution proposal aimed at ending the island’s civil war, the minister drawing it together said on Wednesday.

Tissa Vitharana, minister of science and technology and chairman of the All Party Representative Committee, said he aimed to complete a draft and hand it over to President Mahinda Rajapaksa by the end of next week.

However, while the international community has high hopes the cross-party initiative could help revive a peace process that has collapsed into renewed war, the separatist Tamil Tigers have already dismissed it.

“We have reached a broad consensus on a proposal for devolution,” Vitharana told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“We have reached consensus on the unit of devolution to be the province, and within the province, we have agreed that the district would be a major administrative unit,” he added.

He said President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which had earlier wanted to devolve power to the island’s minority Tamils at a district rather than higher level to the anger of his Tamil Tiger foes, had compromised.

“By and large we agreed that we should come back to a Westminster type of government, a parliamentary government, to take effect from the end of the present President’s term of office,” Vitharana said.

Rajapaksa was elected in late 2005, and his current term is due to expire in 2011.

“There are one or two thorny problems that have to be sorted out,” he added. “The other major problems have been settled.”

He said the issue of whether to refer to Sri Lanka as “unitary” under the devolution proposal, which the government wants, had yet to be resolved.

“They all agree they’re not too bothered provided the safeguards are there to ensure that separatism is not, as it were, encouraged by the constitution,” Vitharana said.

“By and large everyone seems to be happy with the structures we are setting up. Now it has come down to the question of terminology.”

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demand an independent state in the north and east of the island, which Rajapaksa flatly rules out.

The Tigers were not immediately available for comment. But last month rebel political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan told Reuters the Tigers had no faith in the cross-party devolution process and peace was not possible with Rajapaksa.

Many analysts and politicians alike question whether the rebels — widely listed as a banned terrorist organisation — will ever ultimately settle for anything less than separatism.

The pro-rebel Tamil National Alliance has boycotted the devolution consensus drive.

The rebels and the military have been locked in near daily land and sea battles, ambushes and bombings for months, with an estimated 4,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed since last year.

A 2002 truce is now dead on the ground, Sri Lanka’s military has vowed to wipe out the Tigers militarily, the Tigers have vowed to cripple the economy with guerrilla attacks, and the near 70,000 death toll since 1983 is rising daily.

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