Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sri Lanka parliament opens with brotherhood, enmity

By Ranga Sirilal and C. Bryson Hull - Sri Lanka's new parliament unanimously elected the president's brother as speaker on Thursday, while the jailed general who lost the presidential race blasted the government from the opposition bench.

The 225-seat legislature sat for the first time a day after results were declared from an April 8 legislative poll that gave newly re-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa a 144-seat majority, making his government Sri Lanka's strongest since the late 1970s.

Rajapaksa rode victory in the three-decade war with the Tamil Tiger separatists last May to a landslide re-election in January, and a majority of Sri Lankans voted his United People's Freedom Alliance into power.

After legislators took their oaths, they unanimously elected former Ports Minister Chamal Rajapaksa as speaker after new Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne proposed him and the main opposition United National Front alliance seconded it.

Speaker is a powerful post since he runs the legislature's agenda and has the power to decide whether an impeachment motion can be brought against the president with a simple majority.

The president's youngest brother, Basil, and son, Namal, also took their oaths, confirming the Rajapaksa family as the latest of Sri Lanka's political dynasties. The president was in his parliamentary office at the time and did not address parliament.

His ally in war who turned a bitter rival in politics, General Sarath Fonseka, as leader of the opposition Democratic National Alliance, got his first chance to speak publicly since his arrest in February and subsequent court-martialling.

The man who led the army to victory over the Tamil Tigers, and was twice nearly killed by them, criticised the government over arbitrary arrests and impingements on freedom of speech and human rights.

"At this moment it is very important to have the freedom of the people," Fonseka said. "I'm also a victim of these injustices, and I'm grateful I was able to raise these issues when I entered parliament for the first time."

Fonseka was allowed to attend parliament, even though he is facing two courts-martial, one for politicking in uniform and the other for improper procurement. He denies wrongdoing and says he is being punished for challenging the president.

© Reuters

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