Chili powder thrown as Sri Lankan MPs brawl again

Sri Lankan police members protect parliament speaker Karu Jayasuriya, in a black jacket, center, as he tries to walk to his chair while parliament members who are backing newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa protest during the parliament session in Colombo on Friday. — Reuters

COLOMBO — Sri Lanka’s political crisis escalated Friday with police having to escort the speaker into parliament and MPs throwing chili powder and furniture at rivals.

The Indian Ocean nation has been paralyzed since Oct. 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as premier and replaced him with former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa.

On Friday speaker Karu Jayasuriya was blocked from taking his chair for almost an hour by a group of legislators backing Rajapaksa. Finally, Jayasuriya entered the red-carpeted chamber protected by dozens of unarmed officers and parliamentary staff.

Rioting MPs took away the ceremonial chair, but staff carried in an ordinary office chair as a makeshift replacement.

However, rioters grabbed that chair too, breaking it into pieces that were then used as projectiles to attack rivals and police.

A former parliament staffer said on Friday’s scenes were unprecedented.

“We haven’t had a situation where the speaker was prevented from entering the chamber,” former sergeant-at-arms Wijaya Palliyaguruge said. “This is also the first time that the speaker had to come in with police protection.”

The British High Commissioner (ambassador) James Dauris echoed international concern over violence in Sri Lanka’s parliament, a legacy from British colonial rule that ended in 1948.

“Sri Lankans have again seen deplorable behavior by some MPs, unbecoming of them and of their noble institution,” Dauris said on Twitter. “No parliament can perform its role when its own members stop it from doing so.”

Standing in a corner with a human shield of khaki-clad constables, the speaker, in his usual black and gold robes, used a wireless microphone to take a voice vote on a revised no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa lost a similar vote on Wednesday, but refused to step down saying that vote was not taken properly. His party had acknowledged that they did not command a majority in the 225-member assembly despite attempts to engineer defections.

President Sirisena, who has the power to appoint a new prime minister, told political parties representing a majority of legislators on Thursday night to submit an amended motion to confirm the toppling of Rajapaksa.

On Thursday MPs moved another resolution against Rajapaksa, this time to reject his call for snap elections. That vote could not go ahead after parliament descended into chaos, as punches and projectiles flew.

Rajapaksa himself stayed away from the rioting and walked out of the chamber after the no-trust motion was passed against him.

A Rajapaksa loyalist was seen throwing chili powder at rival legislators and police. Several constables and legislators were taken to the parliament’s medical center for first aid.

Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, a legislator from ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party, said he was among those treated after chili mixed with water was thrown at his face.

Leftist lawmaker Vijitha Herath said he suffered a forehead injury when a rival hit him with a hard-cover copy of the constitution that was on the speaker’s table.

“I was also attacked with chili water,” Herath said. “Usually, chili powder or water is the favorite weapon of bank robbers and gangsters.”

Another legislator Anura Kumara Dissanayake said he saw a Rajapaksa supporter assaulting a parliament employee who had been guarding the speaker’s chamber.

“It was disgusting to see the behavior of these MPs,” Dissanayake said. “They were going to great lengths to prevent today’s vote, but they did not succeed.”

Rajapaksa’s spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella denied they attacked police or staff, but blamed the speaker for the chaos.

“He (the speaker) need not have rushed the vote,” Rambukwella told reporters in parliament after sittings were adjourned till Monday. — AFP