COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s president suspended Parliament even as the prime minister he fired the previous day claimed he has majority support, adding to a growing political crisis in the South Asian island nation.
Chaminda Gamage, a spokesman for the parliamentary speaker, confirmed that President Maithripala Sirisena had suspended Parliament until Nov. 16. He made the move while ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was holding a news conference Saturday in which he asserted that he could prove his majority support in the chamber.
Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet on Friday and replaced him with former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, creating what some observers said could be a constitutional crisis.
The suspension of Parliament is expected to give Rajapaksa time to try to muster enough support to survive any no-confidence vote.
Several members of Rajapaksa’s family — former Cabinet members and government officials — are facing charges of corruption and a special high court has been set up to hear the cases quickly. Rajapaksa’s appointment as prime minister is expected to provide relief to them.
Wickremesinghe said at the news conference that Parliament should be allowed to resolve the political crisis.
“As far as the prime ministership is concerned, the person who has the majority support in Parliament has to be the prime minister, and I have that majority of support,” he said. “When a motion of no confidence was moved (in the past), we defeated it, showing that the house has the confidence in me.”
“It is not necessary for us to create a crisis. It is not necessary for the people of the country to suffer,” Wickremesinghe said.
An Indian External Affairs Ministry official said New Delhi “is aware of the developments and watching the situation closely.”
Sri Lanka became a center for the India-China rivalry for control of the Indian Ocean region during Rajapaksa’s presidency, which displayed heavy pro-China leanings. His government provided for the outright sale of land on an artificial island being developed by China with an investment of $1.5 billion.
But the possibility of China’s presence in an area separated from Indian territory by only the narrow Palk Strait upset India.
Wickremesinghe, who was in charge of the economy as prime minister, scrapped the clause in the deal with Beijing allowing outright land ownership.
Tensions have been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, as the president did not approve of some of the economic reforms being introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena was also critical of investigations into military personnel accused of human rights violations during Sri Lanka’s long civil war.
Rajapaksa ruled Sri Lanka as president for nine years from 2005, accumulating immense power and popularity among the country’s majority ethnic Sinhalese after overseeing the military’s defeat of Tamil rebels in May 2009, ending the 25-year civil war. Some supporters hailed him as a king and savior.
But he also was criticized internationally for failing to allow an investigation into allegations of war crimes by the military. Under his government, dozens of journalists were killed, abducted and tortured and some fled the country fearing for their lives.
Sri Lanka is deeply scarred by the civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese and ethnic Tamil rebels, who were largely Hindu and were demanding a separate nation.
The government, headed by Rajapaksa, and the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels both were accused of serious abuses in the war. A U.N. report found that up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final months of the war alone.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said Rajapaksa’s return to power has raised fears about a recurrence of “past abusive practices.”
“Rajapaksa’s return to high office without any justice for past crimes raises chilling concerns for human rights in Sri Lanka,” the group’s statement quoted its Asia director Brad Adams as saying. “The current government’s failure to bring justice to victims of war crimes under the Rajapaksa government reopens the door for past abusers to return to their terrible practices.”
After winning the war, Rajapaksa rode on his popularity to change the constitution by scrapping a two-term limit for the presidency, enabling him to stay in power for life. He also took over the powers of appointing election and bribery commission officials, as well as judges.
His ruthlessness with dissenters, the lavish lifestyles of his three sons and nepotism that saw his brothers holding sway in many key institutions gradually eroded Rajapaksa’s popularity, resulting in his defeat in his bid for a third term in 2015.
However, the excitement among the people for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that came into power in what was called a “bloodless revolution” soon began to evaporate.
Despite some key democratic reforms, the new government failed to punish alleged criminals in the Rajapaksa government — the key promise on which it came to power — stem corruption within its own ranks and deliver on the economic front.
Hundreds of Wickremesinghe supporters gathered outside his home on Saturday, waving party flags and denouncing Sirisena and Rajapaksa.
“We are the people who brought him to power and now he is trying to unseat our prime minister,” said Priyantha Perera, who is self-employed. “He has forgotten how our party and leaders helped him. He is politically bankrupt.”