Sri Lanka parliament skuffle
© Reuters
A pro-Rajapaksa member of parliament confronts police escorting the house’s speaker.
In 1987 grenades ripped through Sri Lanka's parliament, killing two people and narrowly missing the country's president and prime minister.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who until three weeks ago occupied the prime minister's office, had been in the building that day, he reminded journalists on Friday. "I've been here when a bomb was thrown," he said. Even so, the scenes in Sri Lanka's parliament this past week have been shocking, he said. "This is the breaking-up of parliament by a group of people claiming to be the government."

A few hours earlier, legislators allied to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country's former strongman president, had trashed Sri Lanka's national assembly, attacking police officers with fists, chairs, even a copy of the country's constitution, and dousing opposing lawmakers with streams of water mixed with chili.

During a parliamentary brawl the previous day, an MP allied to Wickremesinghe had appeared to brandish a knife at opponents. It had actually been a steel letter opener, the MP clarified on Friday.

The fighting, broadcast around the world, graphically illustrated a crisis that has left the Indian Ocean island without an agreed prime minister or cabinet, a currency at record lows, and a paralysed civil service.


On Saturday the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, was still refusing to accept that Rajapaksa, whom he had tried to appoint as prime minister in a hastily convened ceremony three weeks ago, did not have the confidence of parliament. Doing so would almost certainly mean having to restore Wickremesinghe to the position: something the president says he could never tolerate, "even for one hour".

Sri Lanka has been the arena of a larger geopolitical tussle between India, the region's traditional giant, and China, its rich and rising challenger. The country of 22 million has also been struggling to reconcile with its Tamil minority after a brutal three-decade civil war, and seek justice for the corruption and abuses alleged to have flourished under Rajapaksa's earlier 10-year rule.

Yet on the ground in Colombo, these large frames fit awkwardly around a crisis that appears to have much baser origins: greed, ambition and a hatred that has festered between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, until recently the country's two most powerful men.

Wickremesinghe, 69, is a lawyer who attended one of Colombo's top high schools. His father and grandfather ran newspapers. He enjoys opera and single-malt whisky, speaks faultless English, and for the past quarter-century has led the business-friendly United National party.

Until 26 September, he governed in coalition with Sirisena, a former government administrator from the country's central hinterland whose parents were farmers, and who is a stalwart of the populist, working-class Sri Lanka Freedom party.

"Ranil is an educated person, and Sirisena is a boy from the sticks," a longtime friend of Wickremesinghe's, who has spent time with the deposed leader in the past week, said. "Ranil's a patrician: he doesn't kiss babies. He wears business suits, but Sirisena always wears traditional Sri Lankan garb."

In 2015 Sirisena defected from the Rajapaksa government to form an unlikely alliance with Wickremesinghe. In a result that surprised observers, they unseated Rajapaksa, and promised an era of renewed civil liberties, better ties with the west and yahapalanaya - good governance.

Their coalition didn't last four years, collapsing not just under the weight of ideological contradictions but also the personal ones between the two men. The government has become gridlocked and unpopular, and was staring at defeat in elections scheduled for two years' time.
"An arranged marriage has broken down," says a longtime family friend of Wickremesinghe's. "Not because nothing was achieved - though not enough was achieved - but because the central hypothesis behind it didn't work out. They came together for the good of the country, but also to win an election, and then to take advantage of each other in order to solidify their position."
But the crisis has also played out badly for Rajapaksa. Until the past month he had been expected to sweep back into power at the next election. After he was installed as Wickremesinghe's replacement by Sirisena last month, he received the assent of police and the army, named a cabinet and took over state media. Then his momentum failed. "There was no procession to power," observed one Colombo-based diplomat last week. "Only a trickle of defections."

It is unclear how last week's violence in parliament, orchestrated largely by Rajapaksa's supporters, will affect the popularity of a leader who, since losing office, has strived to portray himself as chastened by defeat and willing to work within the rules.

In Colombo's Lipton Circus last week, several thousand people gathered to rally in support of Wickremesinghe. They carried signs reading "abolish the executive presidency" and "down with the illegal prime minister". Watching through the glass doors of his cafe, on the edge of the circle, Mahesh Alkegama declared: "It's all bullshit."

The trendy diner, opened a month ago, had been deserted since the crowd took to the streets. Alkegama, 28, was educated in London, but returned in recent years on the promise of being part of Sri Lanka's post-war renaissance. "When shit like this happens, it slows you down," he said.

For many Sri Lankans, the crisis is a cause for disgust in their leaders - even the democratic system itself. "A country like this needs an authoritarian leader," Alkegama said. After considering, he added: "Or maybe a controlled democracy."

Others see shoots of hope in recent events. Sri Lanka's institutions are under serious strain, but they are holding. Earlier last week the country's highest court, usually reluctant to defy the executive branch, ruled to suspend Sirisena's attempt to dissolve parliament and call an election - an order widely regarded as unconstitutional. MA Sumanthiran, a Tamil MP, called the judgment "the most important order the supreme court has delivered in its entire history".

Despite unsubstantiated allegations that some Wickremesinghe allies have been offered up to $2m to defect to Rajapaksa's side, most have stayed loyal.

The parliament's speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, was advised not to enter parliament on Friday. Unruly MPs had surrounded his ceremonial chair and would eventually pelt the 78-year-old with books and bottles. Jayasuriya defied the advice. "I will enter the chamber for the future generations of Sri Lanka," he said.