New Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena began assembling a Cabinet yesterday on his first day in office, as he looks to deliver on pledges to improve the war-torn nation’s diplomatic standing and implement democratic reforms.
Sirisena, who was sworn in on Friday evening after a shock election victory over former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse, was trying to form a “national unity” Cabinet that would include members from a cross section of political parties in Sri Lanka’s parliament, an aide said.
“The main task is to choose a Cabinet and the work is already under way,” Sri Lankan government aide Nishantha Warnasinghe told reporters.
Sirisena had offered a 100-day program to carry out urgent political and economic reforms, including moves to cut back on the powers of the president that Rajapakse had handed to himself during a decade in office.
Shortly after being sworn in, Sirisena appointed as new prime minister the parliamentary opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is expected to wield considerable power.
Wickremesinghe is also seen as having significantly better relations with the West and regional powerhouse India. In a previous stint as prime minister between 2002 and 2004, he managed to secure international support for a peace process designed to end the island’s Tamil separatist conflict.
The efforts ultimately failed as Norwegian-brokered negotiations fell apart when Tamil Tiger rebels broke off talks and returned to fighting in 2006, soon after Rajapakse, a Sri Lankan nationalist, came to power.
Rajapakse came to be shunned by many Western nations, who accused him of turning a blind eye to large-scale human rights abuses. Several leaders, including the Indian and Canadian prime ministers, boycotted a Commonwealth summit hosted by Rajapakse in November 2013 over his refusal to allow an international investigation into claims of large-scale killings at the end of the war in May 2009.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among the first to congratulate Sirisena.
In an address to the nation soon after being sworn in, Sirisena promised to mend Sri Lanka’s ties with the international community.
“We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organizations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people,” he said. “We will work with friendship and brotherhood and cooperation with all states.”
Rajapakse fell out with the West over allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War. He refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
While in power he cultivated close links with China, which has invested heavily in Sri Lanka, seeking to counter rival India’s influence.
Beijing on Friday minimized suggestions that the change could impact its Sri Lankan projects.
Sirisena, a former health minister who united a fractured opposition to pull off an unlikely victory, also thanked his predecessor for a “fair election that allowed me to be the president.”
He was elected with 51.28 percent of the votes, to the former leader’s 47.58 percent.
It was a remarkable setback for a leader who had appeared certain of victory when he called snap polls in November last year.
Sirisena has promised sweeping reforms of the presidency and said he will transfer many of its executive powers to parliament within 100 days. He said he would serve only one term after being elected on a tide of resentment against Rajapakse.
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