Colombo – Sri Lanka’s president urged the new parliament Tuesday to take “difficult political decisions” to bring about ethnic reconciliation six years after the end of a decades-long separatist war.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) emerged as the single largest party after the August 17 election in Sri Lanka, and is now expected to push through democratic and economic reforms © AFP/File Ishara S. Kodikara
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) emerged as the single largest party after the August 17 election in Sri Lanka, and is now expected to push through democratic and economic reforms © AFP/File Ishara S. Kodikara

Maithripala Sirisena called on lawmakers to take the lead in healing the wounds of the war that ended in 2009, hours after they were sworn into parliament following last month’s general election.

“Even at this late stage, we should take the difficult political decisions to ensure ethnic harmony and bring about reconciliation,” Sirisena said in an address to parliament outlining the new government’s agenda.

“I will give leadership to that new political journey you should begin from this house,” he said in a speech broadcast live on television.

Sirisena came to power in January promising reconciliation and accountability for alleged war crimes committed by troops under the command of then-president Mahinda Rajapakse.

Sirisena, who defeated his former mentor Rajapakse in January’s election, has also promised to cede many of the presidential powers amassed by his predecessor during his decade-long rule.

Sirisena strengthened his mandate at the August 17 general election after voters backed his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose United National Party (UNP) won the biggest number of seats.

The president’s speech came hours after lawmakers were sworn into the 225-seat parliament, marking the start of the new session.

The UNP and Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) agreed last month to enter a broad-based coalition government, in a remarkable turnaround for a country that had until recently appeared firmly in Rajapakse’s grip.

Rajapakse, who refused to join the coalition, took his seat on the opposition benches on Tuesday along with a group of his supporters.

Sirisena’s speech comes ahead of the release later this month of an UN Human Rights Council report on Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes during Rajapakse’s time in command.

A new cabinet is expected to be sworn in later this week and will include members of Rajapakse’s SLFP. But official sources said key portfolios will remain with Wickremesinghe’s UNP.

Lawmakers from the main Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party, which emerged as the third largest at the August election, called for a new constitution to “restore democracy and justice”.

TNA leader R. Sampanthan said Tuesday his party would push for justice and greater autonomy for the ethnic minority, who say they suffer widespread discrimination on the Sinhalese-majority island.

“Among several issues that this parliament must deal with, is the framing of a new constitution so as to restore democracy, pluralism… equality and justice,” Sampanthan said.

The 82-year-old is tipped to be named by parliament as leader of the official opposition, a position Tamils held for six years until 1983.