AP Interview: Sri Lanka's ousted PM accuses rival of bribery

Ousted Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Friday there is credible evidence that his replacement is attempting to buy support in Parliament ahead of an expected vote of confidence when it reconvenes.

Representatives of the newly formed government under former strongman Marinda Rajapaksa have offered lawmakers positions and money in exchange for their support, Wickremesinghe told The Associated Press in an interview at Temple Trees, the prime minister's official residence in Colombo.

"They have been asked to come and meet to discuss the arrangements," he said.

Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister a week ago after President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe and suspended Parliament until Nov. 16, creating a constitutional crisis. Since then, Wickremesinghe has stayed at Temple Trees, insisting he is still the legitimate prime minister and controls a majority in Parliament.

Palitha Range Bandara, a lawmaker from Wickremesinghe's United National Party, told the House speaker on Friday that he had been offered millions of dollars and a minister portfolio to cross over to Rajapaksa's new government.

Mahindananda Aluthgamage, a lawmaker from Rajapaksa's party, denied the allegations.

"We don't have such money to offer anybody," he said.

Kabir Hasheem, the UNP chairman and, until last week, the government's minister of highways and road development, said other lawmakers had described similar offers, but that the majority in Parliament was holding out.

On Friday, 119 lawmakers in the 225-member Parliament signed a letter urging Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to reconvene the body immediately.

Rajapaksa said Thursday that Sirisena would summon lawmakers as soon as Nov. 5. Since Monday, Sirisena has handed out 14 Cabinet posts, including to five lawmakers who defected from Wickremesinghe's coalition, and made Rajapaksa finance minister.

At Temple Trees, all but two dozen of the more than 1,000 security guards usually stationed there have withdrawn. The government has kept about 15 plainclothes guards to protect the sprawling complex itself, while 10 others have remained to guard Wickremesinghe.

Supporters and young Buddhist monks wandered freely through the complex, making a violent eviction of Wickremesinghe unlikely.

Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's president from 2005 to 2015, is credited by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese ethnic majority with ending a 25-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers, a militant group of minority Tamils fighting for independence.

Still, even after persuading lawmakers to lift term limits, Rajapaska lost a re-election bid in 2015 amid accusations of nepotism, corruption and wartime atrocities. Since then, he and his brothers Basil Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, his former defense secretary, have been working to reclaim power. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People's Front), the party they formed in 2016, swept local elections in 2018, an embarrassing defeat for Wickremesinghe's United National Front, a coalition formed with Sirisena in 2015 to defeat Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe's government was also sharply criticized last year after handing over operations of a port Rajapaksa had developed with Chinese loans to a Chinese company. The ousted prime minister said Friday it was an open-bidding process.

"The Chinese were giving the loans and had been given the first option. And if you're not satisfied, give it to others. We did that and we found that there was a very good offer by China Merchants. But remember similarly we also had an airport without airplanes and again we followed the same procedure," he said, adding that his government had been negotiating with an Indian airport operator for that concession.

Kehaliya Rambukwella, a spokesman for the new government and Rajapaksa's former media minister, said the government would renegotiate the 99-year lease for the port, which Rajapaksa's supporters deride as an outright sale.

Although supporters of both Rajapaska and Wickremesinghe claim to have the support of a majority in Parliament, Rambukwella said Sirisena was exploring sidestepping the question altogether by dissolving the legislature ahead of the 4 1/2-year period stipulated by Sri Lankan law.

"If Ranil (Wickremesinghe) gets a vote of confidence, the president said that within one hour, he'll resign, which means he will dissolve the government," Rambukwell said.

Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said the events of the past week have established a dangerous precedent for Sri Lanka.

"Without an election, there has been a change of government, a very fundamental change of government, and yet there is no election. There is no possibility of democracy in this situation," Perera said.