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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister: crisis was a case of who reached for the gun first

Sarath Amunugama rejects criticism that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resurgence was unconstitutional

Sarath Amunugama was appointed foreign minister in a new Sri Lanka government that still awaits parliament's endorsement.
Sarath Amunugama was appointed foreign minister in a new Sri Lanka government that still awaits parliament's endorsement.

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 with The National, 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.

Sri Lankan police officer tries to control a rally in Colombo for newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and president Maithripala Sirisena / AFP 
Sri Lankan police officer tries to control a rally in Colombo for newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and president Maithripala Sirisena / AFP 

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.

But experts say the appointment was illegitimate and Mr Sirisena’s delay in convening parliament was to give him time to gather enough support.

“I think it’s grossly unconstitutional and undemocratic,” said Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.

“Clearly, when it happened, Sirisena and Rajapaksa did not have a majority of members of parliament.

“They have taken three weeks to consolidate their hold on power and cobble together the necessary majority.” An amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, approved in 2015 by Mr Sirisena, removed the president’s power to sack the prime minister except under certain conditions, which critics say have not been met.

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.

Sri Lanka's newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena talk during a rally near the parliament in Colombo. Reuters
Sri Lanka's newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena talk during a rally near the parliament in Colombo. Reuters

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.

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Read more:

Sri Lanka's Tamils fear bloody return of 'Tiger killer' Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan press freedom crushed following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return

Inside Temple Trees: Prime minister’s bungalow becomes Sri Lanka’s seed of resistance

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Asked about whether Mr Rajapaksa would favour China over traditional allies, the minister said: “That is a wrong perception. We are friends of everybody. Why should you have a single diet when you have a smorgasbord?”

On the Tamil minority, which fears the return of Mr Rajapaksa because of his repression of the community during and after the civil war that ended in 2009, Mr Amunugama brushes off their hopes of justice.

The United Nations blames Mr Rajapaksa for the killings of thousands of Tamil civilians in the final weeks of the civil war against the LTTE rebel group. There has been little justice for them, with those behind the killings still at large, much of their land still in military hands and numerous still missing.

“Our idea would be to put this all behind us, now 10 years have gone. We can’t go on and on and on,” he said. “In a war, there are war situations.”

He said “almost all” of the Tamil land taken by the military has been returned, the government has appointed “missing people’s committees” and claims that most of those believed to be missing were “LTTE cadres who were killed in battle”. Tamil activists said children and women are among those still being held. Mr Amunugama blames the accusations on the Tamil “diaspora” who are protesting in Europe and elsewhere for international justice to be brought against those responsible for civil war atrocities.

Mr Amunugama also dismisses fears about the increasing militarisation of the Tamil-majority north and east of Sri Lanka, saying the presence of the military gives the Tamils better security, a statement in stark contrast to the words of fear coming out of those areas.

“The local population wants peace and quiet,” he said, “like in the south” of the country.

“Sri Lanka is one, indivisible. This is not a discriminatory military act.”

Returning to the political crisis, he said he wants any final outcome to pass peacefully, as any clashes “would be shown all over the world”. He envisages Mr Rajapaksa serving for at least a year before any election is called, even though the country looks set to be heading for such an outcome.

A Rajapaksa supporter reacts during a rally. Reuters
A Rajapaksa supporter reacts during a rally. Reuters

When put to him that Mr Rajapaksa does not have enough votes at present to obtain a majority in the 225-seat parliament, the new face of Sri Lankan diplomacy is supremely confident that by November 15 the Sinhala populist will be the official premier. “He has, wait and see” was the reply.

On allegations of vote-buying, he said lawmakers are “free agents, they can vote [how they want]”, citing safeguards against bribery, such as being fired from their parties.

But is Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, still one? “The country is firmly grounded in democracy. This is a small country. We cannot afford any alternative,” Mr Amunugama said.

“Of course you can have policy debates and antagonistic parties but democracy must prevail.”

Importantly, he said “the right to appoint and sack people must remain”, in reference to Mr Sirisena’s sacking of the prime minister.

And what now for Mr Wickremesinghe? “He’s done, he’s done for,” he said.