Tamil MP Sampanthan to lead Sri Lanka opposition

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File photo: Sri Lankan Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam SampanthanImage source, AFP
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Rajavarothiam Sampanthan heads the third largest party - but may struggle to unite the opposition

A Tamil MP has become leader of the opposition in Sri Lanka's parliament - the first member of the ethnic minority group to hold the post in 32 years.

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, 82, leads the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which became the third-largest party after last month's general elections.

His appointment is seen as a step towards ethnic reconciliation after 26 years of civil war ended in 2009.

The two largest parties are in power together in a coalition government.

Speaking to parliament on Thursday, Mr Sampanthan said his party would "be loyal to this country and the people of this country", and prioritise finding "an acceptable resolution to the Tamil question".

Ethnic Tamils want greater autonomy, and an investigation into the 26-year conflict between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended in 2009.

At least 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the civil war, with some reports suggesting about 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in its final few weeks.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has pledged to set up a domestic inquiry into atrocities from the conflict. Both sides have been accused of war crimes.

During the 17 August elections, the United National Party and Mr Sirisena's supporters in the United People Freedom Alliance took a majority of seats, but agreed to form a unity government, leaving the TNA, with 16 seats, as the largest opposition party.

The TNA has pledged to make the restoration of democracy and the rule of law a priority - and has successfully evolved into a party that champions national issues, not merely ethno-centric ones, BBC Sinhala's Azzam Ameen reports.

However, the big question will be whether he can command the confidence of all of the opposition, including the hardline factions of the UPFA who support former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and have spoken out against his appointment, our correspondent adds.