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Sri Lankan Foreign Minister defends ousting of PM

The Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka’s new government, the legitimacy of which is shrouded in doubt, says the prime minister’s removal was constitutional

Nov 06


The Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka’s new government, the legitimacy of which is shrouded in doubt, says the prime minister’s removal was constitutional. Sarath Amunugama said the ousting would be finalised with a parliamentary vote in the new government’s favour and that the takeover was just a matter of “who reached for the gun first”.

In an interview, Mr Amunugama defended the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa against accusations of the first coup in Sri Lanka’s history, bribing MPs to obtain support in parliament and delaying a vote until it has the majority it needs.

“They would have done absolutely the same,” he said, referring to removed prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his supporters, who are operating a parallel government less than two kilometres away.

"They are just the guys who have not been fast on the draw." Mr Amunugama said Mr Wickremesinghe’s United National Party was trying to attract seven more MPs for a majority and oust its coalition partner, the party of President Maithripala Sirisena who sacked the premier after allegations of an Indian-backed assassination plot.

He downplayed the controversy over Mr Rajapaksa’s appointment, saying he had only been nominated as prime minister until he was approved by the legislature. “Rajapaksa has to show his majority in parliament,” Mr Amunugama said.

The Speaker of the Parliament, Kaya Jayasuriya, apparently felt the same way. Yesterday Mr Jayasuriya issued his strongest statement yet, saying he would recognise only Mr Wickremesinghe as prime minister and reject Mr Rajapaksa until he showed majority support in parliament.

“It’s not up to him. Under the constitution, he has no powers to do that,” Mr Amunugama said. But to Mr Wickremesinghe’s supporters at Temples Trees, the official prime minister’s residence where he has remained, those now sat in the ministries are doing so illegally.

Mr Amunugama has been working in the foreign minister’s office, even though Mr Rajapaksa’s cabinet has not been approved yet. He is serving as a de facto foreign minister, at least until November 14, when parliament reconvenes after three weeks of political paralysis. Although the permanency of his office remains uncertain, Mr Amunugama is clear on his foreign policy. Mr Rajapaksa has been accused of being beholden to China, taking high-interest loans in return for infrastructure projects for Beijing that have strengthened its influence close to India.

China now controls a deep sea port in Mr Rajapaksa’s home town of Hambantota, giving it a dock for its navy, although Sri Lankan officials say any military use of the port would require its approval. China owns the port on a 99-year lease, which leaves plenty of time for that to change as Sri Lanka’s debt burden increases, according to critics. Mr Amunugama said Colombo will not side with either China or India, but benefit from alliances with both.

“We don’t lean towards anybody. We are equidistant from India and China. There is no benefit to Sri Lanka by tilting to one side or the other,” he said.

“We have constantly reassured not only India, but America, the western countries, Japan, all those who are interested in what is happening in Hambantota, that it is only a commercial port, by no means is it a military port.”

There are also murmurs in Colombo that China has helped Mr Rajapaksa’s re-emergence to power, as it tried to do in 2015 when he lost the presidential election to Mr Sirisena.

The Chinese ambassador was the only foreign envoy to congratulate Mr Rajapaksa when he was sworn in last month.

“I don’t think that the Chinese government is giving money,” Mr Amunugama said.