Saturday, 26 Nov 2022

Fists. A Flying Garbage Can. And Maybe, at Last, Negotiations in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — When the parliamentary speaker tried to call a vote, several lawmakers heckled him, and a gang of them swarmed the podium and broke his microphone. Someone threw a garbage bin at him. Then a bound copy of the Sri Lankan Constitution soared through the air.

Fists swung wildly. Several lawmakers were injured. The speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, 78, had to be hurried out a back door and the session canceled. Several members of Parliament were left dabbing their wounds with tissue paper.

But the chaos on Thursday seems to have focused Sri Lanka’s deeply divided government. For the first time since a constitutional crisis erupted last month, pitting the president against his own prime minister, the two sides are meeting.

Lawmakers in Colombo, the seaside capital, said Thursday night that they had talked to the president, trying to find a way to break the deadlock.

For several weeks now, Sri Lanka’s government has been cast into confusion. It’s not even clear who is prime minister.

In late October, the president, Maithripala Sirisena, abruptly sacked the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, calling him inept and corrupt.

The president then appointed a new prime minister: Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president who is considered something of a strongman. When lawmakers balked at this, the president simply dissolved the Parliament.

But the tide has turned in the past few days. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an interim order vacating the president’s sacking of the Parliament.

On Wednesday, when the parliament reconvened, a majority of lawmakers passed a no-confidence vote in Mr. Rajapaksa, which, according to Sri Lankan constitutional experts, means he is no longer prime minister.

This Indian Ocean island nation of 22 million people, known for its tasty tea and plentiful coconuts, is seen as a prize by both India and China. India had a friendly relationship with Sri Lanka for years, but recently China has invested heavily in the country and lent the island money that it is struggling to pay back.

It was forced to turn over control of an important port to China.

The Rajapaksa family is considered the most powerful on the island. Mr. Rajapaksa was an authoritarian president, criticized for stifling dissent and accused of war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which he brought to a decisive close in 2009. Several of his brothers have served in high levels of government.

On Thursday, it was his supporters who attacked the speaker of Parliament, trying to block a vote that would have expressed disapproval with a speech Mr. Rajapaksa had just made, in which he called for fresh elections.

Sri Lankan lawmakers have brawled many times before. But this was the first time, many said, that the speaker had been assaulted.

Mr. Wickremesinghe still claims he is the rightful prime minister. Both Mr. Rajapaksa and Mr. Sirisena have said they didn’t accept the no-confidence motion against Mr. Rajapaksa, claiming that the speaker had no right to call such a vote or that he did it in the wrong way.

On Thursday night, a lawmaker allied to Mr. Sirisena said the president would accept a new no-confidence vote, if it were done properly.

Western ambassadors, who have joined the crowds in the parliament gallery over the past several days, have asked all sides to work out a political settlement in line with Sri Lankan law.

Dharisha Bastians reported from Colombo and Jeffrey Gettleman from New Delhi, India.

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