Followers of sacked Sri Lankan PM stage mass rally

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's rival prime ministers battled to tempt lawmakers from opposing sides yesterday as they sought numbers to swing any parliamentary vote of confidence to end the country's constitutional crisis. Parliament has been suspended since President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as head of government last Friday and nominated former strongarm leader Mahinda Rajapakse for a spectacular return to frontline politics.

While Wickremesinghe has been backed by the United States and other countries in calling for the suspension to be lifted, both sides have been marshalling their support for a vote that will decide the rivals' fate. Rajapakse, 72, gave four legislators from Wickremesinghe's party ministerial portfolios after persuading them to defect on Monday. Wickremesinghe, who has refused to leave the prime minister's residence since he was sacked, has in turn convinced two lawmakers from Sirisena's camp to join his United National Party.

Following the defections, Wickremesinghe has 105 MPs in the 225-seat chamber while Rajapakse and Sirisena together have 98. A majority of the 22 remaining MPs are expected to back Wickremesinghe in any vote but the horse-trading is sure to intensify, observers said. A deputy minister in Wickremesinghe's administration, Ranjan Ramanayake, accused China of paying for Rajapakse to buy legislators. "I am telling China not to spend their millions to buy MPs in Sri Lanka. They want to buy the country wholesale," he said.

China denies interference

Rajapakse led a pro-China policy during his 10 years as president up to 2015. But the claim was denied by the Chinese embassy in Colombo. "Recent allegations about China by MP Ranjan Ramanayake are groundless and irresponsible," said an embassy statement to AFP. "It is a matter of internal affairs, and China has consistently supported the principle of non-interference in other country's internal affairs." Despite calls for a parliamentary vote to end the crisis, Sirisena showed no sign of lifting the suspension which runs until November 16.

Wickremesinghe's finance minister Mangala Samaraweera said the president is trying to buy time to secure votes for Rajapakse. "If he (the president) has the majority there is no need to keep parliament shut. He wants to buy time to do some horse deals," Samaraweera said. Parliament speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who on Monday said there would be a "bloodbath" unless the assembly votes, stepped up his warnings of unrest in an official letter to the president calling for the suspension to be lifted. "If you do not, we will not be able to stop people taking alternate action to protect their democratic rights," Jayasuriya said in the letter seen by AFP.

"In the name of democracy, I urge you to reconsider your decision to prorogue parliament and allow justice to be served." Jayasuriya said more than 125 legislators had signed a petition seeking the reconvening of the assembly. Tensions have already been heightened by the killing of one activist in the capital on Sunday.

Sirisena appointed a 12-member cabinet late Monday giving the powerful finance portfolio to Rajapakse. Aides said the cabinet will be expanded to 30 members on Tuesday. Rajapakse-whose rule was marked by grave allegations of rights abuses and authoritarianism-said he was given the job because his predecessor's party "engaged in a quest to sell off valuable state assets and enterprises to foreign companies". "I was aware that at this moment of national peril, the people expected our leadership and protection," Rajapakse said after the cabinet was named. "Hence, I accepted the invitation."

Mass rally

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of activists blocked the centre of Colombo yesterday to protest the sacking of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) staged the protest outside his official residence where he has remained since President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed him Friday. Sirisena named former authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapakse as head of government, triggering a constitutional crisis.

The party said about 100,000 people took part in the protests while police sources gave a figure of 25,000, though many busloads were still arriving.

"We are against the sacking, the people did not vote for Sirisena to act in this manner," Wickremesinghe told supporters from a makeshift stage. "We will resist what the president has done." Crowds chanted "down with the rogue PM", referring to Rajapakse, and "respect the mandate, recall parliament." Effigies of Sirisena were torn up in a symbolic protest against the president's move which has been described by many local newspapers as a "constitutional coup."

Large crowds, many wearing caps in green, the UNP party color, took part in the hurriedly arranged rally that forced the closure of several roads. More than 2,600 police and 10 units of Special Task Force commandos were deployed for the protest, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said. Parliament speaker Karu Jayasuriya has warned that the crisis could lead to a "bloodbath" on the streets unless Sirisena ends a suspension of parliament to let MPs choose between Wickremesinghe and Rajapakse. Wickremesinghe has demanded that parliament meet so that he can prove he has majority backing.- Agencies