News / Asia

    Sri Lankan President Woos Tamils

    The Sri Lankan president is promising to speed up reconstruction of Tamil-dominated areas of the country, which have been devastated by civil war. The pledge comes as the country heads into the January 26 presidential election, in which the minority Tamil community could play a key role in deciding the winner.

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    Anjana Pasricha

    President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Tuesday that the government will spend billions of dollars this year to rebuild infrastructure in the war-shattered north and east.

    He also is offering to consider political demands of the minority Tamil community, such as power sharing-arrangements in parliament and greater autonomy in Tamil dominated areas.   

    The promise comes just days after the president visited Jaffna in the north -- the heartland of the Tamils. 

    The government has taken other steps, in recent weeks, to improve conditions for Tamil civilians, who were affected by the military campaign which ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers last May.  Tens of thousands of Tamils have been released from detention camps and restrictions on travel in Tamil-dominated areas have been eased.

    Political analysts say President Rajapakse is wooing Tamils, to get their support in the presidential elections being held in two weeks. 

    The president called the elections two years ahead of schedule, confident of winning them with the support of the majority Sinhalese community, which widely supported the war against the rebels.

    But the unexpected entry of former General Sarath Fonseka, who crafted the military victory against the rebels, into the election fray is expected to split the Sinhalese vote.

    As a result, all eyes are on the Tamil community, according to Jehan Perera, the head of Colombo's National Peace Council.

    "Because the general who led the army is opposing the president, he cannot any longer monopolize the war victory, the credit for it, and this has meant that the Sinhalese vote has split on traditional party lines," he explained.  "And, since that is a somewhat even split, it makes the ethnic minority vote very important. That is why the Tamil vote comes into play, because the Sri Lanka Tamils are the largest single minority group."

    General Fonseka, who is the president's main opponent, is also actively courting the Tamil community.  He has succeeded in getting the backing of the dominant Tamil political party in the country, the Tamil National Alliance. 

    On the other hand, analysts say that President Rajapakse is struggling to win strong support from Tamils.

    The attention on Tamils, who make up 12.5 percent of the country's 20 million people, marks a key departure from previous elections. It is also the first time in nearly three decades that the Tamils will be able to vote without the Tamil Tiger guerrillas dictating their choice.

    The separatist campaign waged by the Tamil Tigers was triggered by complaints of discrimination against the Tamil community by the majority Sinhalese.

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