Sri Lanka’s new government declined to sing the national anthem in Tamil, the country’s second national language, during the island’s Independence Day celebrations on Tuesday, a departure from the previous government which sang the anthem in the country’s two primary languages to promote ethnic harmony in the aftermath of a decades-long civil war.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected last year largely with votes of majority Buddhist Sinhalese.
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Minority Tamils overwhelmingly voted against him. Gotabaya was a top defence official in the civil war and played a significant role in defeating the rebel Tamil Tigers.
Thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians were killed or went missing in the war which ended in 2009.
The country’s 72nd anniversary of independence from Britain was celebrated in the capital, Colombo, with military parades and air shows.
Gotabaya said in his speech that he is the president of all communities, reiterating a sentiment he made in his election speeches.
“I have the vision that I must serve as the leader of the country looking after all citizens rather than serve as a political leader concerned only about a particular community,” he said.
“As the president today, I represent the entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences,” Rajapaksa said.
Gotabaya supporters opposed singing the national anthem in the Tamil language during the previous administration.
Tamil politicians had requested Gotabaya to continue the practice of singing the Tamil translation of the national anthem recognised by the constitution in order to give the Tamil community a sense of belonging to the country after decades of estrangement with the state.
At a separate location, a group of civil activists from Sinhala and Tamil communities sang both versions of the anthem in a show of support for the Tamils.
Tamil Tiger rebels fought a 26-year civil war to create an independent state for ethnic Tamils, complaining of systemic marginalisation by the Sinhalese majority-controlled state since independence.
Sri Lankan troops crushed the rebels in 2009 with Gotabaya playing a key role as a defence bureaucrat in the government led by his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mahinda currently serves as the prime minister.
According to conservative United Nations estimates, about 100,000 people were killed in the civil war.
Both the government and the rebels were accused of committing serious human rights violations.