Sri Lanka’s new leader plans to dissolve the country’s Parliament in May, setting the island nation on course for general elections in late June or early July — around the same time that he plans to announce details of a probe into allegations of human rights abuses during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, he told TIME in a rare interview.
Maithripala Sirisena had earlier indicated that he would set up the probe within a month of a visit to the U.K. in March. But, speaking to TIME in his first interview with an English-language news organization since taking office in January, he said details of the planned investigation would be announced by the end of June, just as the country heads into early general elections.
“We have informed the U.N. that we’ll have a very strong internal mechanism to look into this and we’ve asked for advice and consultancy through the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,” he says.
Sirisena replaced the autocratic Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, after defecting from the then President’s side in November to become a surprise but unifying opposition candidate. He has pledged to weaken Sri Lanka’s powerful executive presidency, telling TIME: “It’s a major problem for the country that power has been centralized. Power must be distributed.”
Separately, the country’s new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, told TIME that Sri Lanka had revived efforts to set up a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an idea first mooted under Rajapaksa. He faced international pressure for failing, in the words of a report by a former U.N. human rights chief, to ensure an “independent and credible” investigation into allegations of human rights abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil conflict with separatists from its Tamil minority in 2009.
“We’ve reopened the talks with South Africa and this time they’ve been positive,” says Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in after Sirisena’s election victory on Jan. 8. He said the government hopes to share proposals for a Sri Lankan truth commission with the U.N. Human Rights Council in September. Proposals are also in the works for a domestic judicial process to deal with the allegations.
Earlier, speaking to the BBC Sinhala service in London during a visit to the U.K. in March, Sirisena, who like Rajapaksa belongs to Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority, had indicated that the domestic probe into the allegations would be set up within a month.
Amid speculation that his ascent to the Presidency might spark a shift in the country’s foreign policy, with a move away from China as he revives ties with India and the West, Sirisena insisted that Sri Lanka had an “absolutely non-aligned [foreign] policy.”
Under Rajapaksa, China built closer ties with Sri Lanka, providing billions of dollars in loans. Last year, the Sri Lankan government under Rajapaksa allowed a Chinese submarine to dock twice in Colombo.
“We do not have any enmity toward anybody; we extend the hand of friendship to all countries,” says Sirisena.
Sirisena’s point was reiterated by the country’s new Prime Minister, who said efforts by Sri Lanka’s new leaders to cultivate friendlier ties with India and the West didn’t constitute a “tilt away from China.” “The fact is we moved away from everyone else, leaving only China. We antagonized the West, we antagonized India. You can’t carry on like this. Sri Lanka needs the West, it needs India, it needs China,” says Wickremesinghe.
See the full story in this week’s TIME International.
— With reporting by Amantha Perera/Colombo