COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday (Aug 18) appointed an officer from the island's Tamil minority to head the navy for the first time since a separatist war erupted 45 years ago.
Rear-Admiral Travis Sinniah is the first Tamil to head a wing of the military since 1970, even though Tamils make up around 15 per cent of Sri Lanka's population.
In 1972, the separatist Tamil Tigers took up arms and launched a bloody guerilla war for a separate state for the ethnic minority that only ended in May 2009 when they were crushed in a no-holds-barred military offensive.
"Rear-Admiral Travis Sinniah, who has served Sri Lanka Navy with immense loyalty for many decades, took office as the navy commander today," the President said on Twitter.
Rear-Adm Sinniah was a key figure in the war, capturing over a dozen Tamil Tiger rebels as they tried to flee the island in October 1987. Twelve committed suicide, an incident that controversially dragged Indian troops into fighting the Tigers.
He is also credited with destroying floating armouries owned by the Tigers and cutting off their supplies ahead of the final battles in 2009.
Sri Lanka's separatist war claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people between 1972 and 2009, according to United Nations' estimates.
The conflict discouraged the mainly Hindu Tamil community as well as Muslims - Sri Lanka's second largest minority - from joining the armed forces and police.
Only a few of them remain in the military.
The Tamil Tigers had cited discrimination in jobs and education among the key reasons for their campaign for a separate state.