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Sri Lanka: 1st Tamil politician named opposition leader since 1983

world Updated: Sep 03, 2015 22:37 IST
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Sri Lankan Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party leader and newly-elected opposition leader R Sampanthan looks on during an event in the eastern town of Muttur. (AFP File Photo)

The Sri Lankan Parliament on Thursday named an ethnic minority Tamil politician Rajavarothiam Sampanthan as the main opposition leader for the first time in 32 years, a sign of growing reconciliation in the nation following the end of a bloody civil war.

The majority of the nation's population belongs to the Sinhalese community and minority Tamils have alleged persecution by the government since the uprising of Tamil Tiger separatists three decades ago.

Sampanthan, 83, the head of Tamil National Alliance, is the first ethnic minority opposition leader since 1983, when Tamil legislators resigned en masse to protest against a law that compelled them to denounce separatism.

Parliament's speaker accepted Sampanthan as the main opposition leader after loyalists to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa were divided on whether they should support the government or be in opposition.

"We will oppose the government on all issues, where it is in the national interest to do so," Sampanthan told Parliament in his debut speech as the leader. "We will support the government on all issues, where such support is justified."

Sampanthan, a lawyer, was first elected to the Parliament in 1977. His party, the former political proxy of the Tamil Tiger insurgents, backed Maithripala Sirisena in the January presidential elections defeating Rajapaksa, who ordered a bloody offensive that ended the Tamil insurgency in 2009.

The previous government refused to acknowledge Tamils' request to probe alleged war crimes during the final phase of the war. The UN had last year passed a resolution calling for an international probe on the alleged human rights abuses.

The outcome of the investigation will be released at the UN Human Rights Council session later this month.

The new Sri Lankan government has agreed to a domestic war crimes probe and the US, which sponsored three successive UN resolutions against Sri Lanka, last week said it would support a domestic process if it is credible.