COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka has failed to heal its deep ethnic divide since the end of the nation's civil war five years ago, the president acknowledged Wednesday in a major speech calling for national reconciliation.
President Maithripala Sirisena's Independence Day speech was a sharp departure from those of his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who typically celebrated the country's military victory over the Tamil Tigers after a quarter century of conflict.
Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa, his former ally, in a surprise election victory last month.
"The biggest challenge today is to unite the hearts of the people of the north and south through a national reconciliation process," he said. The rebels, based in the northern and eastern parts of the country, were fighting for an independent state for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.
Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, have long said they are treated as second-class citizens by the ethnic majority Sinhala, who are predominantly Buddhist.
"It is not proper to point fingers at each other," he continued. "All political parties and leaders who governed this country must look at themselves and meditate on their role and look to the future."
Since his election, Sirisena has announced several measures to promote reconciliation, including the release of private land occupied by the military during the civil war in the north and freeing rebel suspects detained for many years without trial. He also fired a former military official who was the governor of the northern province, replacing him with a civilian.
In a few weeks, the U.N. Human Rights Council is scheduled to release a report on war crimes allegations against government soldiers and the Tigers in the final months of the fighting.
According to a U.N. report, up to 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in just the final months of the fighting. It remains unclear how many people died in the decades-long civil war.
The government has been accused of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals and blocking food and medicine from getting to people trapped in the war zone. The rebels are accused of forcibly recruiting child soldiers, using civilians as human shields and of killing those trying to escape their control.
A "declaration of peace" was also read out at the ceremony, paying respect to all people killed in the civil war.
Sri Lanka achieved independence from Great Britain on Feb. 4, 1948.