US vows to work with new Sri Lanka president

Sirisena delays forming cabinet, may struggle to satisfy diverse coalition that backed his campaign
US vows to work with new Sri Lanka president

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (center) gestures as he arrives to address the nation from Kandy on Sunday (AFP Photo/Ishara S. Kodikara) 

Sri Lanka
January 12, 2015
Washington pledged Monday to work with Sri Lanka's newly-elected government to help improve human rights and democracy, voicing hope that the election will mark the start of a new chapter in ties.

US Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned President Maithripala Sirisena late Sunday to say the US now hoped to strengthen its ties with the tear-shaped Indian Ocean island.

Ousted veteran leader Mahinda Rajapaksa had alienated many foreign leaders by refusing to cooperate with an international probe into alleged wartime abuses during a crackdown on Tamil Tiger rebels.

Kerry spoke with Rajapaksa just "days ago," he told a press conference, to highlight "the importance of maintaining a peaceful process no matter what".

"So it is good that the people of Sri Lanka have been able to have an election that has been accepted and which has resulted in a peaceful change of power," he told reporters in Gandhinagar, western India.

But the top US diplomat cautioned: "There are still real challenges in Sri Lanka."

"We offered immediately to engage in a dialogue to begin to work at guaranteeing that the problems with respect to human rights, the problems of inclusivity, challenges with respect to governance are going to be addressed."

There was however "hope that we can now forge a different outcome in Sri Lanka. The election hopefully will become a demarcation point for a new moment, a new chapter, a new set of opportunities for the people of Sri Lanka."

Kerry had earlier voiced appreciation for Rajapaksa's early concession of election defeat, although a Sirisena aide has since said the former president tried to hold onto power by staging a coup.

Relations between Washington and Colombo soured under Rajapaksa after the United States secured a UN-led investigation into the final stages of Sri Lanka's separatist war that ended in May 2009.

US envoy Michele Sison had strongly criticized Sri Lanka's failure to address allegations that up to 40,000 mainly minority Tamil civilians were killed by troops in the final months of the war.

Delay in formation of government

Meanwhile, Sirisena on Monday again delayed naming a cabinet as he failed to reach agreement with partners in his wide-ranging coalition over apportioning ministerial portfolios.

Sirisena originally pledged to form a government on Sunday, but aides said discussions were still under way.

Analysts have already warned that Sirisena, who ousted Rajapaksa in last week's election, may struggle to satisfy the diverse coalition that backed his campaign.

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"The cabinet is almost finalized, but there is some tweaking going on to accommodate partners," said an official who asked not to be named.

The president, who needs a majority in the 225-member assembly to push through ambitious reforms, has moved to strengthen his hold on parliament by securing further defections from Rajapaksa's party.

He has pledged to reverse many of the constitutional changes made by the former president, who gave himself huge powers over all key institutions, including the judiciary.

Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) split on Sunday night when a section of its policy-making central committee broke away and pledged support to Sirisena.

Sirisena loyalist Duminda Dissanayake said the SLFP had appointed the new president as party leader, though that was immediately challenged by the Rajapaksa camp.

The split is a serious setback to Rajapaksa's attempt to retain control of his party, which has already been hit by a large number of defections after former health minister Sirisena broke away late last year.

He has already led the biggest defection from any government in Sri Lanka since independence from Britain in 1948. AFP

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