Thursday 19 September 2019

Thousands march to support newly-appointed Sri Lanka government

A former strongman has been named as prime minister by the country’s president.

Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, right, and his newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, right, and his newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

By Emily Schmall and Bharatha Mallawarachi

Thousands of Sri Lankans have marched in support of a new government led by the country’s former strongman, highlighting the political polarisation in the Indian Ocean island nation.

The rally near Parliament came amid a constitutional crisis sparked by President Maithripala Sirisena’s move to oust prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, replace him with ex-leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and suspend Parliament.

Mr Wickremesinghe has refused to vacate his official residence, insisting he is the lawful prime minister and that the president had no constitutional right to replace him.

A Sri Lankan police officer tries to control the crowd (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

Thousands of his supporters have been keeping vigil.

Supporters of Mr Rajapaksa at the rally chanted “Whose power is this? Mahinda’s power!”

As patriotic songs blared over loudspeakers, thousands shuffled through heavy rain toward a makeshift stage.

Police and Sri Lankan special forces with semi-automatic rifles stood guard.

Pradeep Kariyawasam, the head of Mr Rajapaksa’s party in Colombo, said that although Mr Wickremesinghe continues to maintain he is the country’s legitimate leader, “the people are with us”.

Supporters of Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena and his newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

“Give people a chance to choose their government and not hide behind constitutional interpretations,” he said.

Mr  Sirisena and Mr Rajapaksa arrived at the rally amid loud cheers.

Mr Sirisena told the crowd that the change he initiated was more than a personnel shift.

“I ousted a vision that is incompatible with our local culture and values, and that works according to foreign agendas,” Mr Sirisena said.

“For the past three and a half years, poor people were suppressed by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s economic and political vision.

“Local thoughts were rejected and an extreme neo-liberal form of governance was carried out.”

Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, right, and his newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa wave to supporters (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

He was referring to Mr Wickremesinghe’s free-market economic policies and public-private partnerships with companies from China and India to operate strategic centres such as ports and airports.

Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters have accused Mr Wickremesinghe of selling Sri Lanka’s assets, citing a 99-year lease agreement his government struck with Hong Kong conglomerate China Merchants Port Holdings Co Ltd last year to operate a failing port developed with Chinese debt during Mr Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency.

“Foreign countries are trying to take our resources, take our land,” said Mithra Kumara Jayasinghe, a wedding photographer at the rally who said he had voted for Mr Rajapaksa the two times he was elected president, in 2005 and 2010, and when he lost a re-election bid in 2015.

Critics of Mr Sirisena’s actions say Parliament was suspended to give Mr Rajapaksa time to gather enough support to survive a no-confidence vote when politicians reconvene on November 14.

Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has said he will not recognise the new appointments until either side is able to prove it has a majority.

It means that the speaker still recognises a Wickremesinghe-led Parliament.

PA Media

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