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Sri Lanka parliament opens with brotherhood, enmity

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s new parliament unanimously elected the president’s brother as speaker on Thursday, while the jailed general who lost the presidential race blasted the government from the opposition bench.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) hands over the oath of office to new Prime Minister Dissanayake Mudiyansalage Jayaratne (R) as the secretary to the president, Lalith Weeratunga, looks on during the swearing-in ceremony in Colombo April 21, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

The 225-seat legislature sat for the first time a day after results were declared from an April 8 legislative poll that gave newly re-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa a 144-seat majority -- Sri Lanka’s strongest government in more than a decade.

Rajapaksa is expected to name his cabinet on Friday and trim it down considerably, while keeping the finance and defence ministries for himself.

He rode victory in the three-decade war with the Tamil Tiger separatists last May to a landslide re-election in January, and a majority of Sri Lankans voted his United People’s Freedom Alliance into power.

After legislators took their oaths, they unanimously elected former Ports Minister Chamal Rajapaksa as speaker after new Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne proposed him and the main opposition United National Front alliance seconded it.

Speaker is a powerful post because he runs the legislature’s agenda and has the power to decide whether an impeachment motion can be brought against the president with a simple majority.

The president’s youngest brother, Basil, and son, Namal, also took their oaths, confirming the Rajapaksa family as the latest of Sri Lanka’s political dynasties. The president was in his parliamentary office at the time and did not address parliament.

GENERAL SPEAKS

General Sarath Fonseka, his ally in war who became a bitter rival in politics as leader of the opposition Democratic National Alliance, got his first chance to speak publicly since his arrest in February and subsequent court-martial.

The man who led the army to victory over the Tamil Tigers, and was twice nearly killed by them, criticised the government over arbitrary arrests and impingements on freedom of speech and human rights.

“At this moment it is very important to have the freedom of the people,” Fonseka said. “I’m also a victim of these injustices, and I’m grateful I was able to raise these issues when I entered parliament for the first time.”

Fonseka was allowed to attend parliament even though he is facing two courts-martial, one for politicking in uniform and the other for improper procurement. He denies wrongdoing and says he is being punished for challenging the president.

Diplomats were watching closely who Rajapaksa would name as foreign minister after the incumbent lost re-election.

Two government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters former Export Development and International Trade Minister G.L. Peiris would be named foreign minister to replace Rohitha Bogollagama.

Peiris, a lawyer and academic, has held a number of ministries including finance, justice and constitutional affairs, and led numerous delegations to multi-lateral lenders.

Considered among Sri Lanka’s top intellectuals, he also has a connection to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Peiris was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University at the same time as her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Editing by Paul Tait

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