Pressure builds on island nation’s president to recall parliament amid international pressure for end to power struggle
Ousted Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday demanded parliament be allowed to choose between two rivals to run the country’s government amid warnings that the constitutional crisis could become a “bloodbath.”
With tensions already heightened by the killing of one activist, the United States added to international pressure on President Maithripala Sirisena to annul his suspension of parliament and end the power struggle. Wickremesinghe remained defiant at the prime minister’s residence, which he has not left since being sacked on Friday, when Sirisena called in former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse to take over the government.
“At the moment there is a vacuum, no one is in full charge of the country,” Wickremesinghe told reporters at the residence, which is surrounded by over 1,000 of his supporters and chanting Buddhist monks. He insisted that the legislature had judicial powers to resolve the crisis and said his dismissal was illegal. “That is why we want parliament summoned immediately to decide who enjoys the majority. I am still the prime minister who commands that majority.”
Sirisena followed up the sacking of his former ally by swearing in Rajapakse and suspending parliament, where Wickremesinghe’s party is the biggest party, until Nov. 16. Parliament speaker Karu Jayasuriya—who refused to endorse Sirisena’s shocking dismissal of Wickremesinghe on Sunday—also added to the warnings.
“We should settle this through parliament, but if we take it out to the streets, there will be a huge bloodbath,” said Jayasuriya, who is a member of Wickremesinghe’s party but whose post is officially neutral.
The speaker said he had urged Sirisena to let Wickremesinghe prove he has a majority on the floor of the House. He did not say if the president had responded. However, he said there were disturbing reports of people loyal to Rajapakse storming state media institutions, intimidating editorial staff and also disrupting the work of government ministries.
“Internationally, our image has suffered hugely as a result of this crisis,” Jayasuriya said after meeting with the country’s influential Buddhist clergy in the central pilgrim town of Kandy.
The United States urged Sirisena to “immediately reconvene parliament” to let lawmakers decide between Wickremesinghe and Rajapakse. India has made a similar call.
Rajapakse, whose rule was marked by grave allegations of rights abuses and growing 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 Monday in his first statement since his controversial elevation. “Hence, I accepted the invitation.” Sirisena appointed a 12-member cabinet giving the powerful finance portfolio to Rajapakse. Aides said the cabinet would be expanded to 30 members on Tuesday.
During his decade-long tenure Rajapakse leaned heavily on China for political support and took loans to build infrastructure that the new government described as white elephants. His reliance on Beijing angered India, who Rajapakse blamed for his defeat in the last presidential polls.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing was closely following the situation but believed Sri Lanka had “enough wisdom” to resolve it internally.
China’s ambassador to Colombo, Cheng Xueyuan, met separately with Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe on Saturday.
Tensions remained high across Colombo, with police leave cancelled and several legislators loyal to Wickremesinghe warning of street violence if parliament was not summoned. Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga was arrested on Monday a day after a man was killed when bodyguards opened fire to rescue him from a group loyal to Sirisena.
Ranatunga, captain of Sri Lanka’s 1996 cricket World Cup winning side and an ally of Wickremesinghe, was taken in after trade unions accused him of ordering the shooting. The police officer who opened fire was arrested on Sunday.
Rajapakse had earlier said his priority is to hold a general election “as soon as possible.” Parliamentary elections are not due until August 2020.