Sri Lanka president swears in new unity government

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) reads from a sheet while taking an oath as he is sworn in as minister of policy planning and economic affairs in front of Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (centre) in Colombo on Sept 4
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) reads from a sheet while taking an oath as he is sworn in as minister of policy planning and economic affairs in front of Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (centre) in Colombo on Sept 4, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) after taking an oath as he is sworn in as minister of policy planning and economic affairs in front of Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on Sept 4, 2015.
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) after taking an oath as he is sworn in as minister of policy planning and economic affairs in front of Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on Sept 4, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) walks during the ministerial swearing-in ceremony Colombo on Sept 4, 2015.
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) walks during the ministerial swearing-in ceremony Colombo on Sept 4, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (centre) shares a moment with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (second from left) next to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (left) after they pose for group photos at the swearing-in ceremony for newly
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (centre) shares a moment with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (second from left) next to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (left) after they pose for group photos at the swearing-in ceremony for newly elected cabinet ministers in Colombo on Sept 4, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appointed members of a new unity government Friday, a day after parliament endorsed the move as part of efforts to address ethnic reconciliation after decades of war.

President Sirisena gave most portfolios in the 43-minister cabinet to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP), which won the August 17 general elections but fell short of an absolute majority.

The rest were given to Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the country's second biggest party, who it will govern with in coalition.

The SLFP was in opposition until the most recent election.

"We have agreed to work as one group for a period of two years," President Sirisena said as he addressed the newly appointed ministers after a swearing-in ceremony in the capital Colombo.

Earlier this week, Sirisena asked the new parliament to take "difficult political decisions" to help bring about ethnic reconciliation between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils six years after the end of a 37-year civil war.

The formation of the government had been delayed by protracted negotiations between the UNP and the SLFP over how cabinet posts should be shared, officials said.

President Sirisena retained the key defence portfolio in the new cabinet as required by Sri Lanka's constitution. The UNP took other key posts such as finance, foreign affairs, health and education, while 11 SLFP MPs were also inducted into the government.

However, a splinter group of the SLFP loyal to former president Mahinda Rajapakse was sidelined.

Despite belonging to the same party, Sirisena and his predecessor are arch-rivals. Sirisena led a breakaway faction to successfully challenge Rajapakse's bid for a third term as president in January in a victory backed by the Prime Minister's UNP.

The SLFP contested the August 17 election as the main party in a group called the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

Tamil-led opposition

In a further sign of progress towards reconciliation, yesterday a Tamil lawmaker became leader of the opposition for the first time in three decades.

Eighty two-year-old moderate Rajavarothiam Sampanthan heads the Tamil National Alliance, which emerged from last month's elections as the third-largest party with 16 seats.

Decades of conflict ended in May 2009 with the crushing of the separatist Tamil Tiger guerillas after claiming more than 100,000 lives.

Ahead of Friday's swearing in, Sirisena charged three ministers with urgently addressing issues arising from a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report on alleged war crimes committed while crushing the rebels.

They are Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and D. M. Swaminathan, minister for resettlement.

The UNHRC report is to be made public at this month's session of the UN Human Rights Council. Rajapakse's government had refused to cooperate with the UN and insisted that not a single civilian was killed by troops under his command.

The new government, however, has agreed to cooperate with the UN and address allegations that government forces killed at least 40,000 ethnic Tamils while fighting the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.