'Lanka will be friendly but neutral in int'l matters'

'Lanka will be friendly but neutral in int'l matters'

Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Photo by REUTERS)

Sri Lanka's newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa delivered a measured speech on Monday at his swearing-in ceremony, saying his country will maintain friendly ties with all nations and remain neutral in matters involving international powers so as to stay out of conflicts.

The 70-year-old controversial wartime defence secretary's statement is of importance as Sri Lanka has historically been an important commercial hub along the maritime routes due to its strategic position in the Indian Ocean, where China is increasingly making its inroads, raising concerns in India.

Rajapaksa stormed to victory on Sunday, trouncing his nearest rival Sajith Premadasa by a margin of over 13 lakh votes - 52.25 per cent of votes polled against 41.99 per cent.

In his first address to the nation at the Ruwanweli Seya in Anuradhapura, Rajapaksa spoke on matters such as foreign policy and sustainable development.

On foreign policy, the newly-elected President noted that Sri Lanka will remain friendly with all nations but would remain neutral so as to stay out of conflicts between international powers, Sri Lankan news outlet News First reported.

He also pledged to support the UN's sustainable development goals and make Sri Lanka one of the leading countries in sustainable development.

President Rajapaksa assured that corruption would not be tolerated under his administration.

Rajapaksa, who ruthlessly ended Sri Lanka's nearly 30-year civil war with the LTTE, is both respected and reviled in the island nation where he is considered a "war hero" by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, but mostly distrusted by the minority Tamils.

A former military man, Rajapaksa attended the counter-insurgency and jungle warfare school in Assam in 1980, served as the defence secretary during his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa's tenure as president from 2005 to 2014.

In 1983, he also got a masters in Defence Studies from the University of Madras.

Rajapaksa visited India in 2012 and 2013 in his capacity as the defence secretary.

While families of ethnic Tamils killed or disappeared during the civil war accuse Rajapaksa of war crimes, Muslims fear his popularity among Sinhalese Buddhists will further deepen the divide between the two communities post the Easter Sunday attacks carried out by Islamist extremists that claimed 269 lives.

The Hindus and Muslims together constitute approximately 20 per cent of Sri Lanka's population.

Though dubbed as "war hero", the role of Rajapaksa in ending the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with the death of its supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2009 is quite divisive as he stands accused of violating human rights, a charge he vehemently denies.

During his first media interaction in October after being declared as a presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka People's Party (SLPP), Rajapaksa said if elected, he would not honour the country's commitments to the UN Human Rights Council on post-war accountability and reconciliation.

"We will always work with the United Nations, but I can't recognise what they (UN) have signed with (the) past governments," he said.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution in September 2015 which made it committed to fulfil a range of measures dealing with human rights, accountability and transitional justice.

Rajapaksa is accused of overseeing torturing and indiscriminate killings of both civilians and combatants, and later of political assassinations.

He and his brother Mahinda are also accused of condoning sexual violence and extrajudicial killings allegedly by Lankan security forces during the war.

Rajapaksa, who was a top target of the Tamil Tigers, survived an assassination attempt in December 2006 by an LTTE suicide bomber. He is also considered to be tilted towards cash-rich China.

During his brother Mahinda's regime, China started investing heavily in infrastructure projects in the island nation as Lanka faced international isolation at the tail end of the civil war.

Critics say it was due to Mahinda that the country has fallen into the "Chinese debt trap".

The Hambantota port, which was funded by a Chinese loan during Mahinda's regime, was leased to Beijing on a 99-year debt-for-equity swap in 2017 after the country failed to pay off the debt.

Born on June 20, 1949, in Palatuwa in Matara district, Rajapaksa, who hails from a high-profile political family, is the fifth of nine siblings.

His father D A Rajapaksa was a prominent politician in 1960s in the Wijeyananda Dahanayake government and also a founding member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

He joined the Ceylon Army as a Cadet Officer in 1971. In 1991, he was appointed Deputy Commandant of the Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy and held the position until his early retirement from the army in 1992.

During his 20 years of military service, Rajapaksa received awards for gallantry from three Lankan presidents - J R Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and D B Wijetunga.

In 2005, he returned to Lanka to assist his brother Mahinda's presidential election campaign. During that time, he obtained dual citizenship from Sri Lanka.

He was appointed to the post of defence secretary in November 2005 by then newly elected President Mahinda. In this capacity, he oversaw the military operation which eventually defeated the LTTE in May 2009 and earned him the tag of a "war hero".

Rajapaksa is married and has a son. 

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