Premadasa Sworn In as Sri Lanka Leader
Ranasinghe Premadasa was sworn in as president of Sri Lanka on Monday in a Buddhist ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth, and he again appealed for an end to the ethnic violence that has devastated the island nation.
“Further delay in finding a solution will enable certain elements to destroy many more innocent lives. This destruction must end because democracy cannot tolerate it,” Premadasa said in his inaugural address.
Premadasa, 64, took the oaths of office and secrecy during a two-hour ceremony in this picturesque hill town, 85 miles east of the capital of Colombo.
Heavily armed soldiers surrounded the sacred temple, where more than 500,000 people gathered to watch the ceremony. Police sharpshooters were perched on surrounding roofs, and troops checked all those entering the city.
Premadasa won a six-year term by defeating two opponents in the Dec. 19 presidential election. He polled 50.4% of the vote, although only 55% of the 9.3 million eligible voters cast ballots.
He succeeds his mentor, Junius R. Jayewardene, as president after serving as his prime minister for 11 years. The president wields supreme power in Sri Lanka.
Premadasa assumes the task of ruling a nation reeling from five years of strife between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils.
Nearly 10,000 people have died since 1983 when Tamil militants began fighting for independence from the majority Sinhalese. The fighting also has left the national economy in shambles, ruining the island’s crucial tourism industry and reducing agricultural production.
Premadasa also faces an uneasy relationship with regional superpower India, which sent an estimated 47,000 peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka 18 months ago to help disarm the rebels and enforce a cease-fire under a pact signed by both governments.
The insurgency has yet to be quelled, however, and Premadasa said he wants the unpopular Indian soldiers to leave. On Sunday, the Indian government announced that it would start withdrawing its troops this week at Premadasa’s request.
Unlike most of Sri Lanka’s ruling elite, Premadasa was born in the slums of Colombo. During his campaign, he frequently said he was the only candidate who could champion the poor in this country where the per capital annual income is $360.
Premadasa joined the United National Party in 1956 and entered Parliament four years later. When the party returned to power in 1977, he became Jayewardene’s prime minister.
He remained at that post throughout Jayewardene’s term, although the two had some policy differences, most prominently over the Indian-sponsored accord aimed at ending the Tamil rebellion. Jayewardene signed the accord; Premadasa opposes it.