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Sri Lanka president vows to regain progress lost in war

[Reuters, Sunday, 7 February 2010 09:44 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s newly re-elected president vowed on Thursday to regain the progress lost in a quarter-century war with the Tamil Tigers separatists by boosting the country’s economy and unifying its people.

Speaking at Sri Lanka’s first independence day since the end of the civil war last year, Mahinda Rajapaksa also signalled that he would not accept any outside solutions imposed to solve the ethnic strife that sparked the war.

Rajapaksa has won two major victories in the last year, the first coming in May when he led the nation to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and end one of Asia’s longest-running wars and then a tough election race last week.

The president, 64, won with a landslide 18 percent margin over opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka, his ally-turned-bitter-rival who alleges the incumbent stole the election. [ID:nSGE6120A2]

"I will use the fresh mandate as an endorsement to bring back all the lost benefits in the 30-year war," he said in his speech from the historic Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the highlands city of Kandy, the last independent capital of Sri Lanka.

"I have a responsibility of uniting the hearts of all ethnicities after uniting the divided land."

The Indian Ocean island nation won independence from Britain in 1948, after more than 400 years under colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British. It then spent nearly half the post-independence period in an ethnic civil war.

"We will ensure equality and equity among all the ethnicities," Rajapaksa said in Tamil. "I believe the solution should be given to them after discussing it with them."

ECONOMIC REFORM VOWS

Tamils, who are about 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, say they have been consistently discriminated against since independence by governments led by the Sinhalese majority.

Those grievances fuelled several armed groups including the LTTE, which eliminated its rivals and then raged a ruthless war.

Many Sinhalese say that Tamils enjoyed a major advantage in public-sector jobs and access to schools at independence, given they were favoured by the British colonial government.

Rajapaksa has made economic development of the entire island, including the economic reintegration of the formerly Tiger-held areas in the north and east, a priority of his administration.

"There is no point in having just peace, we need to be efficient and have fast growth," he said. "We have to build an efficient and productive country."

Since the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s stock market has been one of the world’s best performing with a 125 percent gain in 2009, and billions in aid and financing from India and China have poured in but private foreign investment has not been robust.

"The private sector has a huge responsibility to develop the nation," Rajapaksa said. "The public service will be revised into a people-friendly service. We have to remove administrative obstacles to achieving economic prosperity."

Analysts say the high cost of doing business and concerns over Sri Lanka’s periodic bouts of high inflation and heavy debt burden, primarily due to a bloated public sector, have kept investors wary. [ID:nSGE612027]

Under terms of a $2.6-billion International Monetary Fund loan, Sri Lanka was due to rein in its budget deficit from around 9 percent to 7 percent in 2009 and to 6 percent in 2010.

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