October 30, 2018 / 9:37 AM / 16 days ago

Supporters of ousted PM protest as Sri Lanka gripped by political crisis

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Sri Lanka’s ousted prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe protested in the capital Colombo on Tuesday as political turmoil on the island entered its fifth day.

FILE PHOTO: Sri Lanka's sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reacts during a news conference with Sri Lanka's Foreign Media Association in Colombo, Sri Lanka October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka was plunged into crisis on Friday when the country’s President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and swore in ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa to replace him, breaking up a fragile coalition governing the country.

Sirisena has suspended parliament to the anger of supporters of Wickremesinghe, who say the president is trying to prevent lawmakers from keeping him in power.

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters gathered near Wickremesinghe’s residence in the south of the capital, holding signs calling on Sirisena to “protect our democracy”.

“This is a coup. It has all the characteristics of a coup,” one of the protesters, Deepanjalie Abeywardene, told Reuters, while holding a sign which read “reconvene the parliament”.

“This is a third-grade act by Sirisena. We voted him as the president to ensure democracy,” said P. Ariyadasa, a 62-year-old farmer from Mesawachchiya, 230 km from Colombo.

Sirisensa named a new cabinet on Monday with Rajapaksa in charge of finance.

But some of Wickremesinghe’s ousted ministers have refused to accept his sacking.

On Sunday, former oil minister Arjuna Ranatunga attempted to enter his office, leading to violence that left two dead.

The speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament Karu Jayasuriya has also refused to recognise Rajapaksa as the new prime minister, warning of “bloodshed” if the standoff moves to the streets.

The power struggle in Sri Lanka comes at a critical time for the country’s economy, with credit rating agencies warning that ongoing political turmoil could raise financing costs and lower foreign capital inflow as it attempts to refinance sizable government debts.

Sri Lanka is also a key state in the battle for influence in south Asia between traditional ally India and China. The Chinese government has been one of the few to congratulate the pro-Beijing Rajapaksa on becoming prime minister.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Edited by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel

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