New Sri Lankan government reopens door to Tamil autonomy

Sri Lankan executive says powers could be devolved under a unitary system · Main Tamil party wants federal agreement, shared sovereignty · Government promises to return most of army-held Tamil lands to their owners

Last month's Sri Lankan election opened a new opportunity for an agreement between the government and the main Tamil party that could lead to an autonomous system for the island's north and east, where Tamils are concentrated. Several signs point in this direction, the most significant of them the promise by new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to implement a constitutional amendment granting limited self-government to the Tamil areas.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who until January was the Sri Lankan President, lost the presidential election to opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who received massive support from the Tamil majority regions. Main Tamil party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) asked its community to lend support to Sirisena in order to defeat Rajapaksa. Shortly after the election, the TNA recalled that Tamils -who make up 15% of the Sri Lankan population- now expect better treatment by the government.

In a first gesture towards the Tamil community, Sirisena has replaced Northern Province former military governor with a civilian. The decision might be a first step in the demilitarization of the area, six years after a war between the Sri Lankan army and the pro-independence Tamil Tiger guerrilla came to an end. Since then, much of the Tamil lands in the north and east have remained in the hands of the military. Last week, the government of Sri Lanka promised that the majority of these lands will be returned to their owners, and that hundreds of Tamil detainees will be released.

Federalism or autonomy under a unitary system

In another important announcement, the government also pledged to transfer powers to the Tamil majority provinces. However, the government said this will only be done under the "unitary state" principle, as recognized by the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

It is not the first time that the government of Sri Lanka has promised autonomy to the Tamils. Rajapaksa himself had suggested that possibility some years ago, but he never implemented it.

The TNA agrees that the Tamil issue will be resolved within a united Sri Lanka, but not under the unitary state proposal. The TNA rather wants Sri Lanka to become a federal country with shared sovereignty. The party also asks that the two provinces where the Tamil population is concentrated -Northern and Eastern- can merge.