Sacked Sri Lankan PM’s residence becomes symbol of power struggle

Supporters of ousted Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe shout slogans during a protest against his removal, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Colombo. (AFP)
Updated 04 November 2018
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Sacked Sri Lankan PM’s residence becomes symbol of power struggle

  • President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe on October 26 but he has refused to accept the decision or to leave the residence
  • Wickremesinghe has asked lawmakers to vote to decide between him and Rajapaksa and end the crisis, but parliament has been suspended since his sacking

COLOMBO: The banquet hall at Sri Lanka’s ousted prime minister’s official residence is packed with supporters — many sleeping on chairs and the floor — who have come to stand guard as he tussles for power with an old rival.
Thousands of loyalists from across the country are camped out at the Temple Trees residence in Colombo, a colonial-era bungalow where Ranil Wickremesinghe has been holed up since his shock dismissal more than a week ago.
Day and night they top up coconut oil lamps and keep jasmine-perfumed incense sticks burning in the 5,000-capacity banquet hall — usually reserved for state dinners and VIP weddings — while the 69-year-old plots his next move.
President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe on October 26 but he has refused to accept the decision or to leave the residence so former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa — who was named in his place — can move in.
S.M. Faheed, a 73-year-old diehard supporter of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), vowed to stay there until the constitutional crisis is resolved.
“I will not leave until Ranil is given the PM’s chair,” Faheed said. “We are here to support him and make sure no one tries to throw him out of Temple Trees.”
“If I have to, I will stay here till I die.”
Wickremesinghe has asked lawmakers to vote to decide between him and Rajapaksa and end the crisis, but parliament has been suspended since his sacking.
“If I win... (Rajapaksa) must stand down. If he wins, I will leave Temple Trees and move away,” Wickremesinghe told AFP on Friday.
But he will have trouble convincing his followers to give way.
Shakuntala Devi traveled 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the Tamil city of Jaffna in the north of the country to join the crowd that grows each day.
Volunteers bring meals to Devi and others while Buddhist monks chant prayers that are broadcast on a public address system within the premises.
Devi said she wanted to show solidarity after Wickremesinghe’s government built 5,000 homes for people like her who were displaced by the civil war that ended in 2009.
“I came to show my gratitude to the prime minister,” she said.
Another protester who gave her name as Sandya said: “We want to tell Sirisena: If you have any shame, call parliament and let our leader take back his seat.”
Others in the huge crowd echoed her views, with one person saying Sri Lanka had “become the laughing stock of the world.”
“Sirisena is the most ungrateful man. May he be cursed and be struck by lightning,” said Jayanthi Jayewardena, an elderly supporter.
Sirisena won the presidency from Rajapaksa in 2015 with the help of Wickremesinghe and his UNP. The two formed a coalition, but have since fallen out badly.
Matters came to a head with the sacking, which Wickremesinghe acknowledged had surprised him.
Sirisena has cut Wickremesinghe’s official bodyguard retinue and pool of limousines. A depleted plain clothes contingent now keeps watch over the residence while a private cleaning company has also been hired.
A few police commandos in camouflage uniform can also be seen.
Legislators loyal to Wickremesinghe keep up back-to-back press conferences at the residence which has become the center of media attention, with crowds mobbing visiting politicians and asking for selfies.
In comparison Rajapaksa has remained low-key, quietly organizing a campaign to win over MPs to support him when parliament eventually meets.
Huge sums have allegedly been offered to potential defectors and some lawmakers have already left the UNP.
Wickremesinghe, who has been speaking to local and foreign journalists while conducting talks with allies, said he was concerned that the power struggle could degenerate into street violence.
“There can be trouble in the country if this goes on,” he said.
“We will be calling on our people not to resort to violence... but you don’t know what arises in a situation like this. A few desperate people can start off a bloodbath.”


Taste of kindness: Buddhist monks serve iftar at a Dhaka monastery

Updated 21 May 2019
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Taste of kindness: Buddhist monks serve iftar at a Dhaka monastery

  • The monastery’s generosity has not gone unnoticed by the fasting Muslims

DHAKA: As the clock strikes 6 p.m., Shudhhanondo Mohathero hurries to the kitchen to alert his army of 15 monks that they have less than 40 minutes until iftar. 

Soon, people will begin queuing outside the Dharmarajika Bouddha Bihar, a Buddhist monastery in Dhaka, where Mohathero hands out free food packs to fasting Muslims who are too poor to buy a meal to end their fast.

It is a tradition that 89-year-old Mohathero started 10 years ago when he assumed responsibility for the temple’s upkeep.

“Since the early days of the monastery, we have received tremendous support in celebrating different Buddhist festivals from our Muslim friends. So I thought it’s time to do something in return,” Mohathero told Arab News.

Built in 1951, the monastery, which is located in Basabo in the eastern part of Dhaka, has been involved in various social welfare activities. Since the start of Ramadan this year, almost 200 food packs have been doled out every day, with plans to double the number by the end of the month. The 15 monks who live in the monastery prepare the food boxes for iftar.

At a cost of around 80 cents, which is funded by the temple, each box contains traditional Bangladeshi iftar items such as puffed rice, boiled and seasoned chickpeas, jilapi (a deep-fried sweet pastry), beguni (deep-fried eggplant) and dal bora (a fried item with smashed lentils and dates).

“In previous years, our junior monks used to prepare iftar at the monastery. This year, however, we are starting to outsource the items due to the sheer volume,” Mohathero said. 

“Since the early days of the monastery, we have received tremendous support in celebrating different Buddhist festivals from our Muslim friends. So I thought it’s time to do something in return.”

Shudhhanondo Mohathero, Chief monk of Dhaka’s Buddhist Monastery

The monastery’s generosity has not gone unnoticed by the fasting Muslims.

“I have been receiving iftar from the monastery for three years. Since my husband works as a daily-wage laborer, this iftar has made our lives very comfortable,” Asma Khatun, a local resident, said.

Another devotee, Sharif Hossain, said that iftar from the monastery “is like a divine blessing.”

“After losing all my properties in a river erosion, I moved to Dhaka just a few months ago and started living in a slum. I can finally feed my family with the iftar provided by the monks,” he said. 

Talking about his experience being part of a project that builds communal harmony, Prantar Borua, an apprentice monk at the temple, said: “We feel proud and happy to be doing such an extraordinary thing. It’s a small contribution to the community, but it’s the best we can do at this moment.”

The monastery’s generosity has won praise from the Bangladesh authorities, too.

“It’s a nice initiative from the Buddhist community, especially at a time when the world is experiencing many hate crimes and interreligious conflicts. It upholds the spirit of religious harmony,” Abdul Hamid Jomaddar, joint secretary of the Religious Affairs Ministry, said.

“Our government believes in the coexistence of different religions, which is the beauty of this secular land,” he added.