Sri Lanka's new president Sirisena welcomes dissidents home, vows to end censorship

Sri Lanka's newly elected president Mithripala Sirisena waves at media as he leaves election commission in Colombo on Jan 9, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Sri Lanka's newly elected president Mithripala Sirisena waves at media as he leaves election commission in Colombo on Jan 9, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO (AFP) - New President Maithripala Sirisena invited exiled dissidents back to Sri Lanka and promised to end censorship Saturday as he began to turn the page on the authoritarian rule of his toppled predecessor.

A day after his shock victory over veteran incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse, Sirisena began assembling a cabinet to deliver his pledges to repair the war-scarred nation's diplomatic standing and implement a raft of reforms.

Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday evening after ending Rajapakse's decade-long rule, was trying to form a "national unity" cabinet that would include members from a cross section of parties, an aide said.

"He will name some ministers next week and the balance after the pope's visit," from January 13 to 15, said Sirisena's top aide Rajitha Senaratne, who is tipped to become health minister.

He said that Sirisena has ordered the immediate lifting of censorship on dissident websites, an end to phone tapping, surveillance of journalists and politicians, and the establishment of a right to information law.

There was also an invitation to dozens of Sri Lankan journalists and other dissidents who have fled the country fearing attack from the previous administration to "come back immediately".

"From now on, you have the freedom to criticise us. We will take strong action against anyone who tries to undermine media freedom," Senaratne told reporters in Colombo.

Sirisena had promised a 100-day programme to carry out urgent political and economic reforms, including moves to cut back on the powers of the president that Rajapakse gave himself during a decade in office.

Although there was no word from the new president himself on Saturday, Sirisena is expected to make an address to the nation from the historic hill resort of Kandy on Sunday.

Shortly after being sworn in, Sirisena appointed parliamentary opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as his prime minister.

Wickremesinghe, who is expected to wield considerable power, is seen as having significantly better relations with the West and regional powerhouse India than Rajapakse.

In a previous stint as prime minister between 2002 and 2004, he managed to secure international support for a peace process designed to end the island's long-running Tamil separatist conflict.

The efforts ultimately failed as Norwegian-brokered negotiations fell apart when Tamil Tiger rebels broke off talks and returned to fighting in 2006, soon after the hardline nationalist Rajapakse came to power.

Rajapakse came to be shunned by many Western nations, who accused him of turning a blind eye to large-scale human rights abuses.

Several leaders, including the Indian and Canadian prime ministers, boycotted a Commonwealth summit hosted by the strongman leader in November 2013 over his refusal to allow an international investigation into claims of massacres at the end of Sri Lanka's 37-year war in May 2009.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British leader David Cameron were among the first to congratulate Sirisena, whose first overseas visit will be to India next month, Senaratne said.

- 'Pressure on military' -

Rajapakse won praise from US Secretary of State John Kerry for conceding defeat in the election early on Friday, even before the last votes had been counted, when he realised that Sirisena had an unassailable lead.

But in his press conference, Senaratne said that Lt. Gen Daya Ratnayake, who is the head of the armed forces, had come under pressure to intervene shortly before the concession.

"The army chief was under pressure to deploy but he did not. He declined to do anything illegal," Senaratne told reporters.

"Even in the last hour, he (Rajapakse) tried to remain in office. Only when he realised that he had no other option, he decided to go."

Rajapakse fell out with the West over allegations his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war. He refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.

While in power he cultivated close links with China, which has invested heavily in Sri Lanka, seeking to counter rival India's influence.

Beijing has downplayed suggestions the change in leadership could impact its projects in Sri Lanka.

Sirisena, a former health minister who united a fractured opposition to pull off an unlikely victory, has thanked his predecessor for a "fair election that allowed me to be the president".

It was a remarkable reverse for Rajapakse, who had appeared certain of victory when he called snap polls in November.

Sri Lanka's press showed rare unity Saturday in giving the thumbs up to Sirisena.