Population plunge in Sri Lanka’s Tamil base

Policemen stand guard over a group of ethnic Sri Lankan Tamil residents from the northern Jaffna peninsula (AFP/File, Ishara S. Kodikara) Sri Lanka’s first national census in 30 years has shown a dramatic 20 percent drop in the population of the Jaffna peninsula, the long-time base of Tamil rebels during the island’s ethnic conflict.

According to a preliminary census report released Wednesday, the population in Jaffna, which the rebels once ran as a de facto separate state in the northeast, had fallen from 734,000 in 1981 to 583,000.

Work on the census began last year.

The report offered no analysis, but a Tamil legislator in the national parliament said it reflected an exodus during the fighting between Tamil rebels and government forces from 1972 to 2011 that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.

"Our estimate is that out of the one million Tamils who fled the fighting and are living abroad, at least 80 percent were from Jaffna," said Suresh Premachandran.

"If not for the war, the population in Jaffna would have been over 1.4 million," he added.

One likely consequence of the new census figures will be a reduction in ethnic Tamil minority representation in the national parliament, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority.

Seats in the 225-member parliament are allocated on the basis of a region’s population. Nine seats are currently allocated for Jaffna, but Premachandran said that would now drop to six.

The census put the national population at 20.27 million, about 600,000 down on estimates based on a sample survey carried out in 2001.

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