Sri Lanka's law and order minister quit on Monday to avert a possible split in the ruling coalition government after he defended security firm Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS). His resignation comes as a result of a probe into corruption charges related to the firm's floating armoury vessels and weapons deals.
Minister Tilak Marapana, an ex-attorney general handpicked by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, last week defended AGMS in parliament. A faction of Wickremesinghe's ruling United National Party along with some civil society groups had demanded Marapana's resignation after his speech.
“Some members of the government and public suspect that my position as the law and order minister could have an impact on the ongoing investigations conducted by the police. So I have decided to resign," Marapana told reporters.
Marapana represented AGMS before he was appointed minister in September.
The AGMS armory vessel Avant Garde was arrested in the port of Galle in October. Company officials say they received permission from the Ministry of Defence for the vessel to enter the port, but upon arrival, Sri Lankan Navy officials boarded the ship and placed it under government control. The company described the Navy's actions as a “downright betrayal.”
Sri Lankan authorities found 816 T56 (an AK-47 variant) and 84 S type firearms on board the ship, along with about 200,000 rounds of ammunition. The vessel was allegedly licensed to carry no more than 100 arms. Additionally, reports indicate that at least 59 of the guns found had no legible serial numbers. According to statements of crew aboard the Avant Garde, the weapons were intended for transfer to the private security firm Rakna Lanka Limited.
The arms transfer appears to confirm industry observers' concerns that arms stored aboard floating armories could be sold off under murky circumstances.
The Avant Garde is not the only AGMS vessel under investigation. The armory ship Mahanuwara was boarded by Sri Lankan police early in 2015; they found 3000 unregistered firearms aboard. A court ruling on October 22 paved the way for a full investigation of the Mahanuwara to begin.
Prior to arrival in Galle, the Avant Garde was stationed in the Red Sea. It is one of three armory vessels owned by AGMS.