By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) – Eight Muslim government officials in Sri Lanka quit their portfolios on Monday in solidarity with the industry minister accused by the opposition of supporting Islamist militants who killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday.
However, the three ministers and five junior ministers only resigned from their portfolios, not from the government or their parties, so there was no immediate risk to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s parliamentary coalition.
Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena have been on the back foot since the bombings of churches and hotels, facing criticism the government failed to act on warnings of the attacks and struggled to contain subsequent anti-Muslim riots. At the same time, Muslim leaders say there is growing persecution against them in the majority Sinhala Buddhist island.
The resignations undercut a planned no-confidence motion led by supporters of nationalist former President Mahinda Rajapaksa against Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who also resigned from the ministry on Monday, making the motion unviable.
The motion contained 10 accusations against Bathiudeen, including charges that he provided ammunition to a factory owned by one of the April 21 bombers and that he pressured the army to release suspects arrested in connection with the attacks.
Bathiudeen’s accusers have not provided evidence for their accusations, which Bathiudeen has denied.
The ministers said their resignations would allow investigators to probe the claims without interference. The mass resignations also deflect attention from Bathiudeen while halting the no-confidence motion that could hurt the government.
“We will not leave the government – we will protect the government” Rauff Hakeem, formerly minister of city planning, water supply and higher education, said at the prime minister’s residence.
Powerful Buddhist monks have been piling pressure on Muslim politicians.
Opposition lawmaker and Buddhist monk Athuraliye Ratana Thero launched a hunger strike on Friday in front of a sacred temple in the central Kandy district demanding the resignation of Bathiudeen and two Muslim governors.
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, head of the hardline Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, had threatened to press for national protests if the men were not sacked by noon on Monday. Gnanasara had been serving a six-year sentence for contempt of court, but was freed thanks to a presidential pardon last month.
Some Sri Lankans shut stores and halted public transport in parts of the island on Monday to support the monks.
Two Muslim governors, M. L. A. M. Hizbullah and Azath Salley also resigned on Monday. It was not immediately clear who might replace them or the ministers.
A presidential election is due this year, with Rajapaksa’s brother, former wartime defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, set to run.
(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Frances Kerry)