Gotabaya Rajapaksa sworn in as Sri Lanka's President at Buddhist temple

Colombo, Nov 18 (PTI) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was sworn in as Sri Lanka's new President on Monday at an ancient Buddhist temple, thanked the Sinhala majority for their overwhelming support and reached out to the jittery Tamil and Muslim minorities by promising to protect them though many of them did not vote for him.

The former defence secretary, who is credited with helping end the island nation's long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), stormed to victory on Sunday in the presidential election, 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.

Rajapaksa's swearing-in ceremony took place at the Ruwanweli Seya, a stupa and a hemispherical structure containing relics and considered sacred to Buddhists all over the world, in the ancient north central town of Anuradhapura, around 200 kms from the national capital Colombo.

Rajapaksa, the seventh Sri Lankan President, is the only one to be sworn in outside Colombo.

Clad in immaculate white, Rajapaksa, 70, signed the official document in the presence of Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya at the auspicious time of 11:49 am after being administered the oath by the president's secretary Udaya R Seneviratne.

In his short speech, Rajapaksa thanked the powerful Buddhist clergy in the country for backing his presidential bid and vowed to protect all communities while giving foremost priority to Buddhism.

He also thanked the Sinhala-majority people for electing him.

'I knew I would win the presidency with support coming only from the Sinhala majority. I told the minorities to join me. I did not receive their support. But I will make sure that I will be president for everyone,' he said.

Rajapaksa said he would protect all communities while giving foremost position to Buddhism.

Muslims make up nearly 10 per cent of Sri Lanka's over 21 million people, who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

About 12 per cent of the population are Hindus, mostly from the ethnic Tamil minority. Some 7 per cent of the population are Christians.

In his address, Rajapaksa also thanked his brothers Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa for assisting his successful presidential campaign.

He also promised to fulfil the promises made in his election manifesto and urged everyone to unite to rebuild Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa who earlier served as the Secretary of Defense under President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to make national security one of the priorities of his government as the country is coming to terms with the Easter Sunday terror attacks that killed 269 people.

President Rajapaksa delivered parts of his address in English and spoke on matters such as foreign policy and sustainable development.

On Foreign policy, he noted that Sri Lanka will remain friendly with all nations but would remain neutral so as to stay out of conflicts between international powers.

The new president also pledged to support the United Nation's sustainable development goals and make Sri Lanka one of the leading countries in sustainable development.

President Rajapaksa assured the people that professionalism and efficiency would become a cornerstone of his government and vowed not to tolerate corruption.

Rajapaksa's selection of the venue, the Ruwanweli Seya, one of the eight most prominent Buddhist shrines, was a symbolic gesture to thank the country's Buddhist majority, who voted him to power.

The stupa which is considered sacred to Buddhists all over the world was built by King Dutugemunu in the 140 B.C., who reigned over the country after defeating Tamil King Elara. The Ruwanweliseya is ranked among the tallest ancient monuments in the world.

He was a colonel in the Sri Lankan Army before leaving it to migrate to the US in 1992. He was until then in the battlefield against the LTTE in the North.

Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka when older brother Mahinda was named the presidential candidate in 2005. With his brother's victory he was appointed to the powerful position of Secretary to the Defense Ministry.

His sharp leadership skills and incise decision makings were largely responsible for ending the LTTE's armed campaign. In 2006, he survived an assassination attempt carried out by the LTTE with minor injuries.

Rajapaksa is also the first civil servant to become president, only the first sibling of a president to win presidency, the first president in the history to be inducted in office without even spending a day as a parliamentarian.

Analysts said his large mandate on Saturday with over 1.3 million votes reflected the public confidence in his strong leadership and his ability for precise decision making.

The Daily News, in an editorial, said the first task of the new president should be uniting a nation fractured along ethnic, religious and political lines and fearful of a resurgence of extremism after the tragic events of April 21.

'The Easter attacks dealt a blow to a Sri Lanka psyche that was enjoying the bliss of peace after over 30 years of internal war. The Government's state of unpreparedness on Easter Sunday, not to mention the catastrophic intelligence failures that led to it, no doubt hardened the resolve of the populace to find a leader who could fill this national security vacuum,' the editorial commented.

'In Gotabaya Rajapaksa, they saw hope for a new Sri Lanka that can face its combined national security and nation building challenges,' it added. PTI CORR RS MRJ AKJ AKJ