Sri Lanka's new president delays forming Cabinet, US hopes to strengthen ties

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena gestures as he arrives to address the nation from outside the Buddhist Temple of Tooth in the central town of Kandy on Jan 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena gestures as he arrives to address the nation from outside the Buddhist Temple of Tooth in the central town of Kandy on Jan 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's new president on Monday again delayed naming a Cabinet as he failed to reach agreement with partners in his wide-ranging coalition over apportioning ministerial portfolios.

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

Analysts have already warned that Mr Sirisena, who ousted veteran strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in last week's election, may struggle to satisfy the diverse coalition that backed his campaign. "The Cabinet is almost finalised, but there is some tweaking going on to accommodate partners," said an official who asked not to be named.

Mr Sirisena on Sunday invited all parties to join his Cabinet and spoke to top US diplomat John Kerry, after pledging to mend ties with the West. The US Secretary of State said Washington wanted to strengthen its relations with Sri Lanka, which soured under Mr Rajapaksa.

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 Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr Sirisena.

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

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

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

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

Mr 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.

Mr Kerry spoke with Mr 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".

Mr Kerry had earlier voiced appreciation for Mr 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 Rajapakse 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 criticised 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.

Mr Kerry is in India ahead of a visit by US President Barack Obama, who will be guest of honour at the country's Jan 26 Republic Day celebrations.