Violence erupted in Sri Lanka’s Parliament for two consecutive sessions, with the situation deteriorating to the point that police had to enter into the Chamber on 16 November in order for sessions to be conducted.
Wednesday’s session on 14 November was the first time Parliament had convened since 26 October, when President Maithripala Sirisena, in a surprise move, withdrew the Sri Lanka Freedom Party from the coalition government and called for early elections.
On Thursday, 15 November, Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya attempted to pass a no-confidence motion against Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, who sat in the prime minister’s seat. The situation swiftly devolved into a brawl, with a group of MPs loyal to Rajapaksa surrounding the Speaker’s podium and pelting him with several objects, including a garbage bin and a copy of the Constitution. A fight broke out with several MPs on both sides exchanging blows. A few were injured. Despite the fracas, parliamentarians shielded the speaker, who attempted to take a vote on the no-confidence motion. Being unable to take a vote by name, he took a voice vote. A memo signed by 126 MPs was subsequently handed over to Sirisena from the Speaker’s Office.
However, Sirisena refused to accept the memo, on the basis that the motion filed did not follow proper procedure. Following a meeting with the president, a clause in the motion was deleted. Sirisena himself tweeted “I urge all Parliamentarians to uphold principles of democracy parliamentary traditions at all times” adding that he would not prorogue Parliament “under any circumstances”.
However, the session on 16 November saw unprecedented violence and contempt for parliamentary proceedings. A number of Rajapaksa loyalists stood on the Secretaries Platform, including UPFA MP Arundika Fernando, who occupied the speaker’s seat. They began chanting angrily, highlighting the actions of UNP MP Palitha Thewarapperuma, who appeared to be brandishing a knife in footage on November 14 (he later told press it was a letter opener that had been ‘pushed into his hand’ in the confusion).
The chanting continued for 45 minutes, and the Sergeant-at-arms was unable to enter the House to begin the session. Eventually, the Sergeant-at-arms came in through a side door, holding fast to the Mace, and surrounded by a cohort of police. Jayasuriya followed close behind. However almost immediately, the Rajapaksa loyalists began throwing objects at the group, including chairs, heavy bound books, and water laced with chilli powder. The Speaker’s Chair itself was toppled over. Several police officers, as well as senior UNP MP Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and JVP MP Vijitha Herath had to receive treatment in the parliament dispensary following the session.
Despite the chaos, Jayasuriya once more attempted to pass the no-confidence motion from the aisle of the Chamber, being unable to approach his seat. His speech was recorded in the Hansard. Once more, the revised no-confidence motion was tabled. Vainly calling for order in order for a vote to be called, Jayasuriya called a voice-vote. Having held that “the ayes have it” the Speaker adjourned Parliament until 19 November.
However, reports received indicate that Sirisena has once more refused to accept the motion. A memo released by Rajapaksa’s office laid out 12 steps that would need to be fulfilled for the motion to be passed — an ironic twist considering that several legal experts have raised questions about the legality of Rajapaksa’s appointment.
At present, the coalition consisting of the United National Front, the JVP and the TNA continue to hold the majority in Parliament. However, with Sirisena refusing to accept two consecutive no-confidence motions, the situation remains at a deadlock. Reaching a political compromise in the next few days will be key in order to prevent further instability and possibly, violence.