A week after taking office, Sri Lanka’s new president reached out to ethnic Tamils in the country’s north on Thursday by appointing a new governor for the Northern Province, replacing a retired army commander with a retired diplomat.
Tamil leaders have long complained that, five years after declaring victory over Tamil separatists, Sri Lanka’s government remained reluctant to demilitarize the former conflict zone, instead maintaining large detachments of troops and vast military compounds there. Particularly irritating to them was the man chosen as the province’s governor: Maj. Gen. G. A. Chandrasiri, who commanded army forces during the last, brutal years of the 25-year civil war that ended in 2009.
President Maithripala Sirisena said General Chandrasiri would be replaced by H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, a longtime diplomat who once served on a Truth Commission that recommended an inquiry into reports of grave human rights abuses committed during the last phase of the war. The government website that announced the change emphasized that the new governor was a “nonmilitary civil servant.”
General Chandrasiri’s removal was “one of the major requests” expressed by Tamil voters in the most recent regional elections, said Abraham Sumanthiran, a legislator with the Tamil National Alliance party.
“We are hopeful of better times,” Mr. Sumanthiran said. “We think there is hope with his appointment that things can improve.”
A United Nations report has said that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed during the final months of the war, largely because they were confined to a small territory under heavy government shelling. Rights organizations also accused the separatist rebels of recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as shields.
During the presidential campaign, some Tamil voters expressed skepticism that Mr. Sirisena would offer significant changes in policy toward the north: He served as a lieutenant and loyalist to President Mahinda Rajapaksa throughout the civil war and relied heavily on the same electoral base of Sinhalese Buddhists who mainly supported the government during the fighting.
Still, Mr. Rajapaksa was deeply unpopular in the region, and turnout for his opponent was high on Jan. 8 in many parts of it.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political scientist based in the Northern Province capital, Jaffna, said the new government would have to address a range of pressing issues in the north, including collapsing incomes, social exclusion and the return of land under military control. The opportunity for reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and northern Tamils, he added, could easily be derailed by “an overbearing international community” pressing for accountability.
That having been said, he called the appointment of Mr. Palihakkara “the biggest opening we’ve had since the end of the war.”