I am willing to hold direct talks with LTTE, says Rajapakse

DONNING THE MANTLE: Sri Lanka's fifth executive President Mahinda Rajapakse taking the oath in the presence of Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva in Colombo on Saturday.  

V.S. Sambandan

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's new President, Mahinda Rajapakse, on Saturday said he was willing to "engage in direct talks" with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and adopt an inclusive approach to find an "honourable solution" to the decades long separatist crisis.

He also promised to usher in a "new Sri Lanka," in which he was "not the master, but the trustee of the country."

Mr. Rajapakse was sworn in as the President by Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, at 1.20 p.m. here on Saturday. Speaker W.J. M. Lokubandara, Cabinet Ministers, and leaders from political parties allied to Mr. Rajapakse attended the ceremony.

After the swearing-in, Mr. Rajapakse set a dove free into the skies, symbolising his desire for peace. "War is not my method. I will initiate a new round of talks with all those who have a stake in the solution to the national question," he said.

In his first speech as President, Mr. Rajapakse emphasised the importance of achieving an honourable peace and appealed to "India and other friendly Asian neighbours as well as to the international community" to "assist" Sri Lanka "in reaching an honourable peace." The inaugural speech also gave broad indications of the imminent changes in his approach to conflict resolution.

On peace talks with the LTTE, he said he would take steps to accommodate "due representation of the interests of both the north and the south in the talks." The current "bi-lateral approach to peace" (between Colombo and the LTTE) would be replaced with "a multi-party approach." He said his Government would "revise and update the existing ceasefire to overcome its defects."

Special institution

Mr. Rajapakse also said he would set up a "special institution" under his supervision to rebuild tsunami-devastated areas, including those in the Tamil-majority north and east, parts of which are under LTTE control.

For growth and development, Mr. Rajapakse said he would steer "a macro-economic policy that ensures social justice while opening ample opportunities for the development of the individual with the objective of building a new economy that could take Sri Lanka to a strong position in the world economy."

Mr. Rajapakse — whose main allies included the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party comprising Buddhist monks — also dispelled apprehensions of religious minorities. "There will be no state interference in religious affairs. The state has enough work."

The current facilitator, Norway, India, Japan and the European Union were among the first countries to congratulate the new President.

In his letter to Mr. Rajapakse, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed confidence that the two countries would "continue to work together in the spirit of co-operation and good neighbourliness that characterises our bilateral relations to promote good relations and understanding."

Norwegian Minister for International Co-operation Erik Solheim said Oslo "looks forward to continuing our close co-operation with the new President and the Government of Sri Lanka in a wide range of areas, including support for efforts to achieve lasting peace that inspires confidence in all Sri Lankans."

The Japanese Government "strongly hopes" that the peace process "will be invigorated with a view to achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict."

The E.U. said it would "continue to support the people of Sri Lanka and their new President."