COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka on Thursday appointed as a cabinet minister its first five-star field marshal and the former army general who led the military to victory in a 26-year war against Tamil Tiger separatists.
Sarath Fonseka, the leader of the Democratic Party, lost the August parliamentary poll, but entered parliament following a nomination this month by the ruling United National Party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Fonseka was sworn in as minister of regional development at a time when supporters of former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa accuse the government of investigating the military over war crimes at the demand of the West and the United Nations.
Rajapaksa refused to investigate any alleged war crimes in the final phase of the conflict that ended in May 2009.
"The message is that, as the government is moving forward in implementing the U.N. resolution, it continues to respect the military and is not rejecting the military in any way," said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an independent advocacy group.
Fonseka’s appointment signals that the government may protect senior military leaders "suspected of widespread abuses", rights group Human Rights Watch said this month.
Fonseka, 65, has rejected domestic and international allegations that he was responsible for war crimes during the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers and has said he is willing to testify in any international court.
He won a pardon from President Maithripala Sirisena last year after being convicted by Rajapaksa's government of offences ranging from corruption to engaging in politics in uniform.
Fonseka challenged Rajapaksa in the presidential election of 2010 and lost the election by 18 percentage points.
Rajapaksa's government accused him of planning a military coup and arrested him less than a month after his election defeat. Fonseka rejected the allegation.
Sentenced to 30 months in jail, he was released in May 2012. He headed a new opposition party while in jail and won a parliamentary seat in April 2010 elections, but was stripped of the post after his sentencing.
Fonseka's party backed Sirisena at the presidential polls in January last year.
Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Clarence Fernandez