COLOMBO: Calling for a national reconciliation, Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena today regretted that past leaders had failed to bring together the "hearts and minds" of communities since the end of the war against the LTTE.
Addressing the island's 67th anniversary of independence here that saw the country's main Tamil party TNA attend the celebrations for the first time in decades, Sirisena asked: "Can we be truly happy with our achievements since 1948?"
"All leaders must take the blame for their failures," in an apparent reference to his predecessor and two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was despised for allegedly sidelining the Tamil and Muslim minorities in order to retain his popularity with the majority Sinhalese.
His speech was in stark contrast to those of Rajapaksa, who typically celebrated the country's military victory over the Tamil Tigers after the nearly three decade-long conflict in 2009.
"The biggest challenge today is to unite the hearts of the people of the north and south through a national reconciliation process," Sirisena said at the ceremony, where a "declaration of peace" was also read out to pay respect to all those who were killed in the civil war.
The LTTE, based in the northern and eastern parts of the country, were fighting for an independent state for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.
"We ventured into massive physical development since the end of the war in 2009. But we failed to bring together the hearts and minds of communities," said Sirisena, who trounced Rajapaksa in the January 8 polls.
At the same time, he said "it is not proper to point fingers at each other".
"All political parties and leaders who governed this country must look at themselves and meditate on their role and look to the future," Sirisena said.
Praising Rajapaksa for bringing the LTTE's separatist war to an end, he stressed the need to achieve national reconciliation by bringing all communities together.
Sirisena and his ministers also pledged in a nationally televised address to never allow the "land to be traumatised by the shedding of blood of innocents".
Vowing to duly implement his democratic and constitutional reforms, Sirisena said his government would pursue a foreign policy of neutrality to win over the international community to develop the island.
Sirisena, who was the opposition unity candidate, received overwhelming support from the ethnic minorities to defeat the long-time strongman Rajapaksa.
The president also vowed to abide by the UN values and follow the UN charter "to address our foreign policy problems".
Both the US and the Commonwealth have welcomed the Sirisena-led new government's approach to work with the international community.
Visiting US Assistant Secretary State Nisha Biswal said in a statement today at the end of her trip that "the United States looks forward to partnering with the Sri Lankan people to address the challenges and help Sri Lanka realise its true potential".
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, who wrapped up a three-day visit to Colombo yesterday, noted positive developments after the new government was installed in Lanka.