Sri Lanka housing minister vows to tap wartime army chief if elected president

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s presidential frontrunner housing minister Sajith Premadasa launched his campaign on Thursday, promising to appoint a wartime army chief as head of national security should he win the ‪Nov. 16 presidency in a nation still reeling from Easter Sunday Islamist attacks.

Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka's Housing Minister and the presidential candidate of the United National Party (UNP)-led New Democratic Front, waves to his supporters as he arrives at his first election campaign rally, in Colombo, Sri Lanka October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Premadasa, 52, is one of two presidential frontrunners and is popular for his anti-poverty credentials and memories of his father, former president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was killed by a Tamil Tiger separatist suicide attack in 1993.

He is facing a challenge from former wartime defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, who has promised to ramp up national security and stamp out Islamist militancy.

The issue has taken the central stage in the election following the bombings on churches and luxury hotels that killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday.

Premadasa is contesting for the New Democratic Front (NDF), a broad alliance led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP).

He has tended to focus more on social issues, but on Thursday touted his national security credentials during a speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters at the historic Galle Face Green by the ocean in the commercial capital Colombo.

“At the moment, national security has become an issue that has drawn the attention of many in the country. After my

victory, I will entrust the responsibility of national security to Sarath Fonseka,” said Premadasa, clad in a white short sleeve shirt and trousers.

Fonseka was the army chief who led the military to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. However, he fell out with Rajapaksa that same year and ran against Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother and former president, in 2010.

After losing the election, Fonseka was sentenced to jail in 2010 over corruption. He was released in 2012 after pressure from Rajapaksa’s opponents and is currently a UNP legislator.

“I will not allow any form of terrorism. We will eliminate all forms of terrorism,” Premadasa told the cheering crowd.

Before the campaign meeting, he went to temples to seek the blessings of Buddhist monks, who hold large sway over voters in the Buddhist-majority island nation of 22 million.

Premadasa’s pledge comes as his rival Rajapaksa, popularly known as Gota, is facing a legal case on misappropriating state funds and allegations of human rights abuses when he was defense chief. Rajapaksa has denied any wrongdoing.

Premadasa entered politics in 1994 and has held several ministerial portfolios, including housing and poverty alleviation, since he was first elected to the legislation in 2000.

Premadasa has promised to eradicate poverty and improve housing in the country under a slogan of “shelter for all by 2025”.

Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Alexandra Hudson