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Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, addresses the nation Jan. 11.

A gem of an election for Sri Lanka

A reformer's surprise presidential win brings hope of reconciliation for a Sri Lanka still divided nearly six years after a civil war.

As countries from Lebanon to Rwanda know, once a civil war ends, the hard part begins. A society rived by conflict must patch together a peace with a measure of accountability, reparations, compromise, and forgiveness. Last week, Sri Lanka finally took a leap toward such reconciliation – nearly six years after ending its civil war.

In a surprise result, the South Asian island nation of 21 million people elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who promises major reform. While his victory was a rejection of the power grabs and corruption under his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, just as noteworthy is the fact that he won a majority of votes from the country’s major ethnic and religious groups. This brings some hope that Sri Lanka will finally allow a full accounting of a war that lasted nearly three decades and took an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 lives.

Sri Lanka’s government has not come clean on civilian casualties toward the end of the war. It needs that kind of truth-telling for social healing, as other conflict-scarred nations, such as South Africa and Brazil, have discovered. Last year, the United Nations finally started its own probe of human rights violations and related crimes committed during the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The guerrilla group had long sought a homeland for the long-marginalized minority Tamils that would be separate from the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

After defeating the Tigers in 2009, then-President Rajapaksa did little to reduce Sinhalese chauvinism or uplift the Tamils and Muslims. He also intimidated opponents in the media and courts. Last November, when he called for a snap election, he thought he would win. But Mr. Sirisena, a former political ally, put together a coalition that found unexpected enthusiasm for change. Voter turnout was a record high, signaling a desire to restore justice, forge a common national identity, and share power with the country’s minorities.

The new leader, who pledges “compassionate governance,” should now either set up a genuine truth commission or cooperate fully with the UN probe. Shedding light on Sri Lanka’s past communal violence can brighten its path toward becoming a unified nation.

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