Sri Lanka's newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first retired military officer ever to hold the office, pledged Monday to emphasize national security and adhere to a neutral foreign policy.

A former defense secretary during Sri Lanka’s civil war, Rajapaksa won Saturday's election with 52.3% of the vote, defeating Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party.

Rajapaksa succeeds President Maithripala Sirisena, who had held the office since January 2015.

Rajapaksa, 70, a member of the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority, also appealed to minority Tamils and Muslims to support his administration.

The election took place only seven months after Sri Lanka was hit by deadly terror attacks on Easter Sunday. Blamed on Islamic fundamentalists, the attacks on churches and stores killed at least 290 people and hurt the nation’s tourism industry.

"The main message of the election is that it was the Sinhala majority vote that allowed me to win the presidency," he told Agence-France Presse Monday at his swearing-in ceremony. "I knew that I could win with only the votes of the Sinhala majority. But I asked Tamils and Muslims to be a part of my success.”

Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda was also president, and the two instructed the military to crush Tamil separatists during the final stages of 26-year civil war that ravaged Sri Lanka and killed some 40,000 people. Critics contend Rajapaksa should face charges of war crimes in connection with the suppression of Tamil rebels in that war. Rajapaksa has denied all such accusations.

Rajapaksa has been given the nickname “The Terminator” for his ruthlessness.

Rajapaksa has also drawn concerns over his reported plans to rebuild the state’s intelligence and surveillance arms – networks which the prior regime was forced by international observers to remove. Muslims fear these state agencies will be used to monitor them in the wake of the Easter attacks.

"Sri Lanka's Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency," said Alan Keenan, project director for Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group.

Rajapaska also faces a number of civil suits in the U.S., including allegations that he ordered the torture of a Tamil man while serving as defense secretary. He has also been accused of ordering the killing of an anti-government newspaper editor.

In addition, Rajapaska has been accused of engaging in fraud and receiving kickbacks during his tenure as defense secretary.

The Wall Street Journal reported that under brother Mahinda Rajapaska's administration, Sri Lanka leaned towards China, which has loaned billions of dollars to pay for infrastructure projects on the island.

These loans have added to Sri Lanka’s foreign debt burden – now amounting to $34.4 billion, or 45% of GDP.

To deal with the huge debt burden and kick-start a tepid economy, Rajapaksa has promised to reduce the 15% value-added tax by about half and eliminate certain other taxes.

In 2018, Sri Lanka’s GDP growth hit a 17-year low of 3.2%. The International Monetary Fund forecast 2.7% GDP gain for this year.

"Gotabaya's economic strategy is likely to focus on more populist measures" Eurasia Group’s South Asia analyst Akhil Bery told Bloomberg. "We're also likely to see a much friendlier posture towards China, but not as antagonistic to the West as some might believe. Gotabaya is pragmatic and likely to recognize that he will need the U.S. support if Sri Lanka's debt troubles resurface."

For now, the U.S. is welcoming the new leader.

Alaina Teplitz, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka tweeted: “We look forward to working w/ President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa on issues of good governance, economic growth, the advancement of human rights and reconciliation in support of a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka.”