World

First Tamil to lead Sri Lanka opposition in 32 years

A Tamil lawmaker is to lead the opposition in Sri Lanka's parliament for the first time in 32 years, the speaker of the House said today.

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan (pic) is the first lawmaker form the ethnic minority to lead the opposition since 1983, when Tamil legislators resigned en masse to protest against a new statute that compelled them to denounce separatism.

The 82-year-old heads the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which emerged from last month's election as the third-largest party with 16 seats in the 225-member assembly.

The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which previously made up the opposition, has joined Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) in government.

"I recognise Rajavarothiam Sampanthan as the leader of the opposition," House Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said.

President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in January promising reconciliation and accountability for alleged war crimes committed by troops under former president Mahinda Rajapakse's command.

This week he urged the new parliament to take "difficult political decisions" to bring about ethnic reconciliation six years after the end of the war between Tamil separatists and the state.

"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.

The TNA supports a credible domestic investigation into alleged war crimes and has also pressed for a new constitution to "restore democracy and justice".

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

The two main Sinhalese parties last month agreed 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, remains in the opposition. – AFP, September 3, 2015. 

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