Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister: it was who reached for the gun first

Thursday, 8 November 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama


The National: The Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka's new government, whose legitimacy is shrouded in doubt, says the ousting of the country's Prime Minister was constitutional, will 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".

Sarath Amunugama, in a wide-ranging interview with The National at the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, defended the new Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa against accusations of undertaking 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 says, referring to ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his supporters, who are operating a parallel Government a mile away. "They are just the guys who have not been fast on the draw."

He says Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) was working to attract seven more MPs to achieve its own majority and oust its coalition partner, the party of President Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked the Premier after their relationship broke down over an alleged Indian-backed assassination plot.

He downplayed the controversy over Rajapaksa's appointment, saying he had only been "nominated" to be the Prime Minister until he was approved by the legislature. "Rajapaksa has to show his majority in Parliament," he said.

But experts say Rajapaksa's appointment is illegitimate and Sirisena's delay in convening Parliament a tactic to ensure they garner enough support before a vote takes place.

"I think it's grossly unconstitutional and undemocratic," says 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, frankly, to consolidate their hold over the levers of power and cobble together the necessary majority."

The 19th Amendment of Sri Lanka's Constitution, approved in 2015 by Sirisena himself, 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 feels the same way. On Monday, he issued his strongest statement since the crisis broke out on October 26, announcing that he would recognise only Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and reject Rajapaksa's Premiership until he could demonstrate majority support in Parliament.

"It's not up to him. Under the Constitution, he has no powers to do that," Amunugama says. "Fixing a date for Parliament to convene is the sole prerogative of the President."

But to 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.

Amunugama has been working in the Foreign Minister's office, the Sri Lankan flag hanging behind him, for less than two weeks and shows off his new business cards, even though Rajapaksa's cabinet has not been approved yet. He is serving as a sort of de facto Foreign Minister, at least until 14 November, when Parliament reconvenes after three weeks of political paralysis.

Although the permanency of his office remains uncertain, Amunugama spells out his foreign policy. Rajapaksa has been accused of being beholden to China, taking high-interest loans in return for handsome infrastructure projects for Beijing that have solidified its influence in India's backyard.

China now controls a deep sea port in 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, critics say. But Amunugama says 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 says. "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 the capital Colombo that China has helped Rajapaksa's re-emergence to power, as it tried to do in 2015 when he lost the presidential election to Sirisena. The Chinese Ambassador was the only foreign envoy to congratulate Rajapaksa when he was sworn in last month.

"I don't think that the Chinese government is giving money," Amunugama says.

Asked about whether Rajapaksa would favour China over traditional allies, the Minister says: "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 Rajapaksa because of his repression of the community during and after the civil war that ended in 2009, Amunugama brushes off their hopes of justice.

The United Nations blames 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 many 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 says. "In a war, there are war situations."

He says "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 say children and women are among those still being held. 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.

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 says, "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 says he wants any final outcome to pass peacefully, as any clashes "would be shown all over the world". He envisages 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.

When put to him that 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 15 November the Sinhala populist will be the official Premier. "He has, wait and see," is the reply.

On allegations of vote-buying, he says 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," Amunugama says. "Of course you can have policy debates and antagonistic parties but democracy must prevail."

Importantly, he says "the right to appoint and sack people must remain", in reference to Sirisena's sacking of the Prime Minister.

And what now for Wickremesinghe? "He's done, he's done for."