Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

The Newest Weapon in Sri Lankan Politics: Chile Powder in the Eyes

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Lawmakers hurled chairs, thick books and stinging chile powder at one another as violence and chaos erupted again on the floor of Sri Lanka’s Parliament on Friday.

At least four lawmakers and several police officers were injured. The proceedings were carried live on TV and beamed across the island nation.

The trouble began when lawmakers allied to Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president who, in a contentious move, was appointed prime minister last month, arrived in the chamber early and occupied the speaker’s chair.

The lawmakers broke microphones and staged mock sessions. They also blocked the mace, a gold-tipped ebony staff that is the symbol of authority, from being brought into the chamber to begin the session.

After 45 minutes of this mayhem, the side doors to the chamber suddenly opened. Dozens of policemen marched in. They linked their arms to form a human chain. They protected the ceremonial guard who held tight to the ebony mace.

The Parliament speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, clad in his ceremonial robe, grabbed a seat in the corner of an aisle and conducted the session of Parliament a few yards away from his podium, using a wireless microphone.

In the past few weeks, this is what Sri Lankan politics has descended to: confusion, chaos, dysfunction and bitter rivalry.

The government has been paralyzed by a three-way duel between Maithripala Sirisena, the president; Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister who was summarily deposed by the president in October; and Mr. Rajapaksa, considered the strongman of Sri Lankan politics.

Earlier this week a majority of lawmakers voted to reject the president’s choice of Mr. Rajapaksa for prime minister. On Friday, they did it again with another no-confidence vote, conducted in the midst of the uproar.

Mr. Rajapaksa stood by in the chamber, watching as his allies rampaged as they had on Thursday as well.

They threw wooden chairs at police officers and books at rival lawmakers. They also whipped water bottles filled with a spicy chile powder sludge so that the nasty mixture got into the eyes of the police officers, temporarily blinding them.

The officers were unmoved. They never retaliated.

“The cowardly thuggery displayed in Parliament today is a shame to us all,” said Juanita Arulanantham, a young lawyer who watched the fracas on TV at home.

“But there was also so much to be proud of,” she added, saying that the speaker and the police officers showed enormous bravery and would fall “on the right side of history.”

After the vote, Mr. Rajapaksa left the chamber to a cacophony of hoots.

Mr. Sirisena had claimed on Thursday that he would accept the result of the vote, but by Friday he seemed to be wavering again.

Mr. Sirisena has said he definitely does not want to go back to Mr. Wickremesinghe, whom he has called inept and corrupt.

Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean along major shipping routes across Asia. Both China and India have invested heavily in Sri Lanka, and diplomats from many countries are watching the events here closely.

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

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