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Sri Lanka Constitution Vote Delayed

August 8, 2000

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Wracked by political infighting and threats, the government on Tuesday postponed a parliamentary vote on a new constitution that some hoped would end the 17-year civil war.

The government said the vote was put on hold indefinitely because 10 opposition members who favored the new constitution were missing.

``There is no conducive atmosphere for the vote, so we have decided to postpone it indefinitely,″ Labor Minister John Seneviratne said after the two-day debate was halted following a meeting of all party leaders.

He did not provide any other details.

The government was seen to be about 12 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the new constitution, which would have given the Tamil minority greater autonomy in the north and east where they mostly live. A vote had been expected by Wednesday.

By giving Tamils more freedom, the government thought it could sap support away the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who have waged a separatist war for an independent homeland. More than 62,000 people have died in the fighting.

On Tuesday, more than 5,000 demonstrators, including dozens of Buddhist monks, protested against the proposed constitution.

Nationalist Sinhalese groups and senior Buddhist monks say the document gives too much to Tamils.

The majority Sinhalese are mostly Buddhists, and monks have great influence in Sri Lanka. The government mandates the teaching of Buddhism in schools and subsidizes temples.

``We want this new constitution to be thrown in the sea. We don’t need this, as we feel this will see the beginning of our small country’s division,″ said Gamini Wijeratne, one of the protesters.

The constitution was introduced to Parliament last Thursday.

Kumaratunga needed 150 votes in the 225-member Parliament and her party now has only 114 members. The opposition has accused her of trying to buy votes, which her alliance has denied.

A Buddhist monk said Monday night he would fast until death to protest the new constitution.

``Rather than living in a divided land, I prefer to sacrifice my life,″ Hendigalle Wimalasara said in a statement.

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