Sri Lanka's new president a beacon of change

Sri Lanka's new president a beacon of change

COLOMBO - Maithripala Sirisena won the Sri Lankan presidency on a stand against corruption and nepotism that resonated with a public seeking change after a decade under an autocratic presidency.

While many of the nation's politicians are known to be loud and brassy, supporters all describe Sirisena as a gentle speaker with a warm, trustworthy demeanour. But his life has been an ongoing battle against the status quo.

Sirisena's family moved from the south to Polonnaruwa, in central Sri Lanka, for farming. He got involved in politics as a high school student, joining the Sri Lanka Freedom Party's youth league. He also fought against then-President J.R. Jayewardene and was imprisoned twice, in 1971 and 1979, on charges of anti-government activities.

Sirisena majored in agriculture in college and then went to the Soviet Union in 1980 to study political science. He won his first parliamentary seat in 1989. He served as secretary-general of the SLFP for about 13 years, from 2001 until announcing last autumn that he would run for president.

He grew disillusioned with longtime ally and then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa after becoming health minister in 2010. Sirisena has accused Rajapaksa of colluding with the tobacco industry to try scrapping a planned requirement that cigarette packages include pictorial health warnings. But Sirisena would not bow even to massive bribes and made the warnings a reality, an achievement recognised by the World Health Organisation.

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