New president’s peace agenda

Sri Lanka’s new president Mahinda Rajapakse has vowed to re-start peace negotiations with hostile Tamil rebels quickly — as soon as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gives its word — and clinch a political solution for the strife-torn country.

In a strong speech soon after being sworn in as president by Chief Justice Sarath N Silva, Rajapakse said he respected all religions, races and people and promised to bring an honourable peace that would satisfy all communities. But he said: “For negotiations to resume, human rights violations, murders, abductions and child recruitment should end.”

Rajapakse, who won last Thursday’s presidential poll against main competitor, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe by a wafer-thin margin, was referring to the rebels who have been blamed for several violations during a three-year long ceasefire. The new leader, pegged as a ‘people’s man’ and son of the soil, is seen resorting to a hardliner approach to the peace process unlike Wickremesinghe, who during his tenure as PM in 2002-2004, was soft towards the rebels.

Both outgoing president Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe were absent from the grand ceremony just after noon at the presidential secretariat which was relayed live by state television to millions of viewers across Sri Lanka. Rajapakse, the fifth executive president of Sri Lanka, also inspected a guard of honour and witnessed a traditional gun salute as part of the ceremony. His next major task is to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet. It was unclear whether Kumaratunga would continue to reside at President’s House and Rajapakse at ‘Temple Trees”, the official mansion of the prime minister or whether the outgoing president would move out in a few days or coming weeks.

In his speech, the president said he would continue the peace process and the ceasefire and pave the way for a multi-racial society to live in peace. “I will start negotiations with the LTTE for a political solution as soon as the LTTE declares they are ready for talks. I will be talking to all parties and groups,” he added. Rajapakse planned to set up a special mechanism to speed up post-tsunami work across the island, including the battered northern and eastern regions. Referring to allegations that he was a hardliner Buddhist and would not show tolerance to other religions, the president said that as a Buddhist he has been taught to respect all races and religions. “The government will not interfere with any religion and I as an individual respect all religions,” he said.

Rajapakse’s wife is a Christian and their three sons are students of a prestigious Christian school in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s majority community is the Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhists, while the minority Tamils and Muslims follow Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. The president also said he would present a new budget — just 10 days before the 2006 budget was presented by finance minister Sarath Amunugama — to accommodate proposals in theRajapakse’s election manifesto. Amunugama’s budget had few of the proposals offered in Rajapakse’s manifesto, disappointing the latter.

Samath, a freelancer, wri-tes for THT from Colombo