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First Tamil in 32 years to lead opposition in Sri Lanka

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COLOMBO: A Tamil lawmaker became leader of the opposition in Sri Lanka’s parliament for the first time in 32 years on Thursday, in the latest sign of progress towards ethnic reconciliation on the once bitterly divided island.

Rajavarothiam Samp­anthan is the first lawmaker from the ethnic minority to lead the opposition since 1983, when Tamil legislators resigned en masse to protest against a statute that compelled them to denounce separatism. The 82-year-old moderate heads the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which emerged from last month’s election as the third-largest force with 16 seats in the 225-member assembly.

“We shall be loyal to this country and the people of this country,” Sampanthan told the House on Thursday.

“Our primary duty is to ensure that there is an acceptable resolution to the Tamil question.” Sri Lankans voted overwhelmingly in last month’s polls to continue what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called the “January 8 revolution” in reference to the toppling of long-time leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The former president won huge support among the majority Sinhalese community for defeating Tamil guerrillas who waged a long separatist insurgency on the island, but was blamed for failing to bring about ethnic reconciliation in the aftermath of the conflict. Wickremesinghe’s new government has pledged to work for unity in Sri Lanka, which still bears the scars of the decades-long civil war between separatist Tamil guerrillas and the state.

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