Punch-up in Sri Lankan parliament as thousands rally

Amal JAYASINGHE
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Parliamentary proceedings in Sri Lanka turned ugly as MPs got physical with each other in the chamber

Sri Lanka's political crisis descended into farce Thursday with MPs throwing punches and projectiles in parliament, a day after voting the disputed prime minister out of office and leaving the country without a government.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who triggered the unprecedented constitutional standoff by sacking prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last month, held talks Thursday with parties representing a majority in the legislature in a bid to defuse tensions.

An MP who was at the closed-door talks said there was no breakthrough to end the deadlock, but the parties agreed not to escalate tensions.

"The only way out is for the president to respect the no-confidence motion against his PM nominee," the legislator said referring to Wednesday's vote against Mahinda Rajapakse's disputed government.

There was no immediate comment from Sirisena about the talks involving Wickremesinghe's United National Party and two other smaller groups who together have 122 out of 225 MPs in the House.

The discussions followed a mass rally in Colombo where activists denounced Sirisena's October 26 sacking of Wickremesinghe that plunged the Indian Ocean nation into turmoil three weeks ago.

Fisticuffs broke out in the national parliament earlier in the day as a majority of MPs moved another resolution against Rajapakse, this time to reject his call for snap elections.

"It was difficult to make out immediately who was hitting whom, but several were hurt, but not seriously," an official in parliament told AFP. "The speaker adjourned the House till tomorrow (Friday)."

The official said an MP from toppled premier Rajapakse's party injured himself trying to rip out the speaker's microphone and had to be taken to hospital with a bleeding hand.

Two weeks after dismissing Wickremesinghe and appointing Rajapakse in his place, Sirisena dissolved the strategically important Indian Ocean nation's parliament and called snap elections for January.

However, these moves were suspended by the Supreme Court on Tuesday pending an investigation. Day-to-day administration in Sri Lanka remains paralysed as the crisis drags on.

Parliament reconvened on Wednesday and lawmakers approved a motion of no-confidence in what they called Rajapakse's "purported" cabinet, also passing motions declaring Sirisena's moves illegal.

- No government -

Thursday's routine parliament session, the first since Rajapakse and his disputed administration were deposed, began with the speaker announcing that the country now had no government.

"As of now, there is no prime minister, no cabinet ministers and no government in Sri Lanka," said Karu Jayasuriya, wearing his black and gold robe. "I do not recognise anyone as prime minister."

The vote ousting Rajapakse and the Supreme Court's rulings were a major boost to Wickremesinghe.

The four-time prime minister, popular with Western countries for his economic reforms, had refused to leave his official residence after being fired by the president.

- Let's have elections -

Sirisena, who is vested with constitutional powers to induct a new prime minister and a cabinet of ministers, was yet to take note of Wednesday's no-confidence motion.

On Thursday he accused Jayasuriya of violating legislative traditions, saying the signatures of 122 legislators who opposed Rajapakse had not been certified as genuine and also pointed to a typographical error.

"We don't need to submit signatures to the President. All he has to do is take notice of the resolution passed by parliament. He need not be a proofreader," leftist lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake said.

The president also rejected the position that he did not have the power to sack Wickremesinghe and replace him with Rajapakse.

- Unbecoming -

The crisis has alarmed the international community.

Germany's ambassador Joern Rohde‏ tweeted on Thursday that it was a "bad day for democracy in Sri Lanka... reading about throwing objects at the speaker and preventing votes is unbecoming of a democracy."

"There is political and economic instability. Our international image has been badly damaged," Jayasuriya told Sirisena in a letter released to the media before his meeting with Sirisena later in the day.

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