Rabble-rousers in Parliament | Daily News


 

Rabble-rousers in Parliament

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena in the very first week of taking on his new mantle took a number of sensible decisions to protect the rights of the Parliamentarians and the dignity of the House.

The decisions and statements made at the Chair of the Speaker do not limit to that specific moment, but have far reaching impacts and set a precedent for many years to come. There have been ample instances where the House turned to the former Speakers’ decisions when it was in doubt or having difficulty dealing with a situation.

Speaker Abeywardena stood firm for freedom of expression of the Members of Parliament (MPs) when he decided to accommodate the opinion stated by Tamil People's National Alliance MP C V Wigneswaran in the Hansard, though certain sections of that speech were apparently provocative.

“Every MP, in the Government or the Opposition, is entitled to their opinion. If you are not in agreement with what was said, you can contradict it and express your own stance,” the Speaker said without giving way to the pressures of MPs to expunge the controversial remarks by Wigneswaran. The Speaker’s words were a reminder of the oft-quoted phrase ‘I agree to disagree’.

Wiggy stirs up hornet’s nest

Making his maiden speech in Parliament, Wigneswaran referred to Tamil as “the language of the first indigenous inhabitants of this country”, and added that the people living in the North and the East are “entitled to the right of self-determination in addition to their hereditary and traditional rights to be recognized as a nation”.

Irked by those comments on ethnic lines, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Manusha Nanayakkara requested the Speaker to remove it from the Hansard and Nalin Bandara, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, State Minister Sarath Weerasekara, SLFP MP Shantha Bandara and some others also took aim against Wigneswaran’s speech.

It could be seen that the seniors of the Government and the Opposition were measured in their criticism not to add fuel to the fire. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader MP Rauff Hakeem lauded the Speaker for standing by the MPs’ privileges, observing that he took the right decision not to expunge Wigneswaran’s speech.

Notably, Minister Wimal Weerawansa too embraced the opinion that ignoring Wigneswaran’s comments, in the same way “how people ignore the behaviour of a drunken man at a wedding”, would be more sensible than counter-arguing.

Not just this Parliament, but many Parliaments in the past have also been polarized on ethnic lines. This is because politicians, may they be in the North or the South, have increasingly made it a habit to pander to racist sentiments to bag more votes at elections. As scholars have repeatedly pointed out, one branch of extremism nourishes the other. A measured approached is necessary to defeat extremism and win hearts and minds of other communities.

Hardliners

When looking at personal information of octogenarian politician Wigneswaran, one can see that he has spent the better part of his life mingling with the Sinhala community in the South.

He was born in Colombo and was educated at several prominent schools in Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Colombo. He is fluent in Sinhalese and in fact participates in talk shows and interviews conducted in that language. He practised law for more than 15 years and was a member of the judiciary for 25 years. His ethnicity had not been a problem for him to climb up the ladder to be a Supreme Court judge. It is a known fact that his son is married to the daughter of Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Yet, when he stepped into politics after 2013, ethnicity has become a major concern for him to the extent of demanding self-determination to the North and the East. If this is not political expediency, what else could be?

In the meantime, All Ceylon Tamil Congress MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, joining in the Parliamentary debate, openly accused the State for “committing heinous crimes” against the Tamils, and added that the “people in the North want international accountability”.

MPs Wigneswaran and Ponnambalam are dissidents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and they secured stakes in Parliament by leading two new political formations with hard-line views in the North. Their rabble-rousing speeches had stirred up controversy from time to time even in the past.

The country is faced with multiple challenges on the socio-economic fronts. Dividing on ethnic lines or wasting time on such arguments is the last thing the people want from the Legislature at this juncture.

The Government’s reactions in the above instances show that it has already grasped that message and chosen to respond only when and where necessary.

PCoI summons

In a different turn of events, the Speaker once again defended the privileges of MPs when he said in no uncertain terms that no Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) could summon the Chairman or members of a Parliamentary Committee to question on an investigation conducted by such Committee.

National People’s Power Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake brought the attention of the House that former COPE Chairman Sunil Handunnetti had been summoned before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday attacks to question on a COPE investigation into the Batticaloa “Sharia” higher education institute.

Citing the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act, he pointed out the special permission of the Speaker or the House is required for such a move. The Speaker, agreeing to this fact, informed the Members that Parliament would write back to the PCoI.

AG’s legal advice

Leading to another interesting development, the Attorney General announced on Monday that the Constitution disqualifies Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP-elect Premalal Jayasekara from taking oaths as an MP. The AG’s legal opinion was sought by the Justice Ministry following a query by the Prisons Department. Jayasekara, also known as ‘Choka Malli’, was sentenced to death along with two others by Ratnapura High Court on July 31 over a shooting incident where a political supporter of the then Common Candidate, former President Maithripala Sirisena was killed in Kahawatte during the Presidential Election in 2015.

Jayasekara has appealed against the verdict. Despite conviction, he polled the second highest preferential votes in Ratnapura at the last Election. The AG has pointed out that serving a death sentence is a disqualification to be an MP.

Sunny Rohana Kodithuwakku and Ranjith Bandara are next in the SLPP preferential vote list polling an equal number of votes. Election observers said Election Law provides for tossing a coin on rare occasions like this. However, the SLPP and the Election Commission will soon make their official positions known.

UNP’s fate

Meanwhile, the leadership tussle of the United National Party (UNP) has reached a tipping point as a number of Party heavyweights have thrown their hats into the ring while the Working Committee, the apex decision making body of the Party, is to meet this week to make a final decision.

As at now, former MPs Ruwan Wijewardene, Arjuna Ranatunga, Vajira Abeywardena, Ravi Karunanayake and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya have claimed their interest in succeeding Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP Leader. Will Wickremesinghe, who has clung on to the leadership post since 1994, let it go this time or will he stack the deck at the Working Committee to remain in the post or to enter Parliament from the National List backdoor?

It could be seen that the Party hierarchy was not welcoming Jayasuriya’s bid for leadership and tried to block his entry stating that he was not a member of the UNP. Jayasuriya refusing to back down from the fight responded to the allegations with proof of his membership.

There was also speculation that Jayasuriya’s interest in the post is to pass the mantle to his son-in-law Navin Dissanayake. The late Gamini Dissanayake’s son Navin made a case for himself as the next UNP leader in the run up to the last Election.

On the other hand, there was also speculation that former State Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, who hails from Wijewardene and Senanayake political dynasty, was the Wickremesinghe’s pick when he proposed that a ‘young leader’ should succeed him. According to the UNP, proposing a name for its solitary still-vacant National List seat would be done only after resolving the leadership crisis.

At the same time, the SJB has also extended a proposal for the merger of the two factions by handing over the UNP leadership to Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. With all these developments, the coming week will be important in deciding the fate of the ‘Grand Old Party’ as it also marks its 74th Anniversary.

Incidentally, the SLFP, the other Grand Old Party of Sri Lankan politics, marks its 69th anniversary today. It too is down to only one directly elected seat (Angajan Ramanathan from Jaffna), although 13 SLFPers who contested from the SLPP also entered Parliament.

It seems surreal that after seven decades, the two major parties of Sri Lankan politics have virtually disappeared from the scene, paving the way for two new political entities to take the helm in Parliament and the general political discourse.


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