Sri Lanka’s ex-leader seeks comeback with night vigil
AFP – Tens of thousands of supporters of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse staged a huge night rally in Colombo late Wednesday as the ex-leader demanded snap elections.
Rajapakse, who ruled his country with an iron first for a decade, lost the presidency in January 2015 and the subsequent parliamentary elections in August 2015.
However, his new Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party won local council elections in February as he attempts to engineer a dramatic comeback ahead of presidential elections slated for 2019.
Police said they deployed over 5,000 officers in Colombo as activists began pouring into the city from early afternoon and took over a key intersection.
"Our estimate is 75,000 to 80,000 people participated and it is the biggest night-time protest in Colombo," a senior police official told AFP.
Rajapakse addressed supporters holding candles and kerosene oil torches
"We are against the sale of national assets," Rajapakse said. "We are pressing the government to hold early elections."
The SLPP is also bitterly opposed to the government leasing to China a loss-making $1.4 billion port built by Rajapakse with loans from Beijing.
The government leased the facility to China under a $1.1 billion deal saying it was unable to repay the huge loans taken out by Rajapakse.
Another troubled Rajapakse-era project, an international airport built inside a wildlife sanctuary, is up for sale, but there have been no buyers so far.
Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the protest was also aimed at putting pressure on investigators and the judiciary ahead of a special court hearing into Rajapakse-era corruption.
"This is an attempt to intimidate the judiciary. All those who are leading the protests are currently on bail in connection with massive corruption charges," Samaraweera told reporters.
A new court set up to investigate major corruption began its work two weeks ago by hearing the case against Rajapakse’s top aide Gamini Senarath and three others accused of siphoning off 500 million rupees ($3 million).
Two of Rajapakse’s three sons have also been charged with money laundering and other relatives face corruption allegations.
The ex-president denies any wrongdoing and has accused the government of a witch-hunt.