DRAMA: Maithripala Sirisena (left) with Ranil Wickremesinghe


SRI LANKAN police on Monday (16) arrested a leading dissident within president Maithripala Sirisena’s party, deepening political tensions on the island after the head of state suspended parliament.

Mahindananda Aluthgamage, a former sports minister, was held over `39 million ($260,000) that were allegedly misappropriated in 2014, police said.

He was accused of spending government money to buy sports goods, which were handed out in a bid to get support for former president Mahinda Rajapakse ahead of a national election. The items included 14,000 boards for the popular south Asian game of carrom.

Aluthgamage is a key figure in a faction that op­poses Sirisena within his socialist Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP). The party has been in an uneasy coalition with the right-wing United National Party of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe since 2015.

There was no immediate comment from Aluthga­mage’s faction which is led by Rajapakse, who was in power for nearly a decade till he was defeated by Sirisena in 2015.

The former sports minister’s arrest is seen by sen­ior party members as a blow to the Rajapakse-fac­tion which controls a majority of SLFP MPs.

The two factions within the SLFP tried to unite this month by introducing a no-confidence motion against the prime minister who comfortably defeated it.

The failure to topple the prime minister led to seri­ous recriminations within the SLFP. Six SLFP ministers resigned last week after voting against him and sources say they are about to formally join the Rajapakse-fac­tion, further weakening Sirisena’s hold on his party.

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, one of the 16 legis­lators who decided to join the opposition, said: “We were to cross over and sit with the opposition on April 19. Now we will do that on May 8.”

Sirisena halted parliament’s session last Saturday (14) until May 8 to give him more time for political manoeuvering, sources said. “The president has prorogued parliament until May 8,” Sirisena’s secre­tary, Austin Fernando, said, declining to say why.

A senior minister, speaking on condition of ano­nymity, said: “The prorogation means all the existing committees will be lapsed and new committees have to be appointed when parliament is reconvened.”

Some main parliament committees including those looking into public enterprises and accounts are headed by opposition lawmakers. Apart from facing a party revolt, Sirisena also faces mounting troubles with prime minister Wickremesinghe.

Tensions have heightened since Sirisena’s faction and Wickremesinghe’s UNP suffered major losses in local elections in February. Rajapakse was the big winner in the election.

In recent weeks, Sirisena has reduced Wickremes­inghe’s powers over the central bank, policy making institutions and other bodies. Sirisena is expected to reshuffle his cabinet on his return from the Com­monwealth summit in London this week.

Only one parliament sitting was scheduled before May 8 and the new cabinet will swear in on April 23, two government legislators said. Sirisena appointed four ministers on a temporary basis to handle the main ministries. (Agencies)