Sri Lanka’s new government promised a tolerant era of harmony and political freedom after years of mounting repression under a decade-old administration that unraveled in electoral defeat this week.
In a speech on Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena vowed to end corruption and nepotism that marred the reputation of his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who stepped down on Friday after his shock election loss. Speaking from the highland jungle city of Kandy, the seat of Sri Lanka’s last Sinhalese kingdom, Sirisena asked for continued support of religious minorities who helped him win the election.
“While protecting the country’s main religion Buddhism, we also protect the rights and freedom of Hindu, Muslim, and Catholic people in practicing their religion and create consensus among them to build up this country,” he told a large crowd.
Sirisena’s speech came as the country prepares to receive Pope Francis, who is expected to deliver a message of inter-faith dialogue on a trip starting on Tuesday.
Rajapaksa became a hero to many for ending Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war with a crushing victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. But critics accused him of crimes at the brutal end of the war and he also oversaw censorship and persecution of minorities, political rivals and journalists.
He ignored pressure to address rights issues and ensure media freedom even after a U.S.-backed United Nations resolution in March urged the country to prosecute war criminals.
Sirisena, who was acting defense minister under Rajapaksa in the final stages of the war and only defected to the opposition in November, is unlikely to accept a U.N. war crimes probe. But he vows to rein in graft and rights abuses.
“I will take all the steps to eliminate corruption, loopholes, and bribes completely from this country,” he said, adding that he would make the police force politically neutral.
A power struggle has broken out over control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which both Sirisena and Rajapaksa belong to. Several lawmakers defected to Sirisena’s group on Sunday.
Sirisena has ordered the Telecommunication Regulation Commission (TRC) to lift a ban on all news websites blocked under his predecessor. “They will be given full freedom,” a spokesman said.
Rajitha Senaratne, a lawmaker who acted as spokesman for Sirisena during the election campaign, called on exiled dissidents and journalists to come home, and said the media will be free to criticize the new government.
“Media houses will not be torched,” Senaratne said. “All the past killings and attacks of journalists will be probed. Also there won’t be any phone tapping as in the past.”