‘Pandemonium’ is a commonly used word in reporting contemporary Sri Lankan Parliament, but occasions where Parliament continued its business despite such unruly behaviour and chaos are rare.
Parliament last Tuesday not only proceeded amidst heavy disturbances from the UPFA dissidents in the Opposition, but also managed to pass the bill scheduled in the day’s agenda. However, the sittings only lasted for two hours and the debate on the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) bill that sought to increase the women representation to a minimum of 25 percent in Local Government bodies confined to a half an hour.
The demonstration inside Parliament Chamber led by MPs Dinesh Gunawardena and Wimal Weerawansa, the minor coalition party leaders in the UPFA, was an extension of their struggle outside Parliament to establish a new Opposition party by breaking away from the UPFA.
About 50 UPFA dissidents who call themselves the ‘joint opposition’ agitated demanding recognition as an independent group in the Opposition. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya shied away from having to give a direct ruling whether this group be recognized or not. Instead he asked the SLFP MPs who are at odds with the party’s decision to form a national government to settle their matter by discussing within the party. “I cannot contribute to the sin of breaking up the SLFP,” he said.
However, the Speaker acknowledged the fact that there had been some injustice to them when allocating time at the Parliamentary debates and assured to give more time for them to speak. As of now, the so called ‘joint opposition’ MPs are also considered a part of the National Government when allocating time. The National Government has been allocated 70 percent share of the time, while the Opposition has 30 percent share. The 70 percent share of the Government is divided as 40 percent to the UNP and 30 percent to the UPFA. The Opposition includes the JVP and TNA, whereas the joint opposition MPs and UPFA ministers and deputy ministers in the Government share the UPFA's 30 percent slot. It was in this context, a letter signed by 50 UPFA MPs including 39 SLFP MPs was handed over to the Speaker requesting to recognize them as an independent group in the Opposition.
Havoc in Parliament
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe commenting on these concerns said there could only be one Opposition Leader and one Opposition in Parliament. He observed there could not be a Constitutional Opposition and a so called ‘joint opposition’ at the same time.
Disgruntled by the replies of the Speaker and the Premier, the UPFA MPs started behaving aggressively wreaking havoc in Parliament. They converged on the aisle and advanced towards the Speaker’s chair. They hooted, they shouted slogans as if in a protest march at Lipton roundabout, they sang songs while clapping to the tune and breathed fire at the Speaker and the Secretary-General of Parliament for not suspending the sittings abruptly.
When the protest was gathering momentum, the UNP backbenches and several ministers also hurried to the aisle and formed a protective ring around the Prime Minister. The crossfire began as they twisted the slogans and shouted back at the opposition group. For example, when MP Weerawansa led the slogans “Diyawu diyawu apita diyawu, ape aithiya apita diyawu” (we want our rights) and “Kathanayakata enna kiyapiya, mewata utthara denna kiyapiya” (ask the Speaker to come and reply), those were twisted by the MPs in the Government side as “Diyawu diyawu apita diyawu, passport ekak diyawu” (give us a passport) and “Buddhadasata enna kiyapiya, mewata utthara denna kiyapiya” (Ask Kaduwela Mayor G.H. Buddhadasa to come and reply), creating comedy scenes.
The Prime Minister purposely taking no notice of the hullabaloo, commenced the debate on the bill, continued speaking for few minutes and then asked the women MPs to carry on the debate. Ministers Chandrani Bandara, Anoma Gamage and Faizer Mustapha spoke for the bill from the Government side while TNA MP Mavai Senathirajah also joined in representing the Opposition. However, their speeches were barely noticed or heard due to the ruckus in the well.
At the same time, it could be seen that those belonging to rival groups who were at the aisle cracked jokes and laughed together, exchanged friendly gestures, shook hands and greeted each other, and this was enough to say neither party took the scene seriously. However, all the while JVP and TNA MPs, who officially represent the Opposition, sat back and enjoyed the scene quietly.
Notably, MP Namal Rajapaksa also remained silent throughout the demonstration as if he was deliberately trying to keep a low profile. He walked to the aisle and associated himself with the protesting group, but then again rested his arms on a front row desk of the Opposition side and watched the scenes with rather a sullen mood.
Among those who were witnessing the ugly scenes in the well was Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who took oaths as a National List MP on the very same day. To some extent the UPFA demonstration that went wild stole the thunder of Fonseka's return to the law making body. He first entered the House from the General Election in 2010, but had to vacate his seat in less than six months following his imprisonment. He is back filling the vacancy created by the demise of former Minister M K A D S Gunawardena. However, some sections in the society have come up with the argument that Fonseka could be disqualified to hold the MP post as he is still in the military service.
When the matter of recognition for their group was once again raised by MP Dinesh Gunawardena on Wednesday, the Premier agreed to come up with a final solution within the next Parliamentary sitting week. He asked time to discuss the matter with President Maithripala Sirisena, Opposition Leader R Sampanthan and SLFP Parliamentary Group Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva.
Meanwhile, the Speaker revealed that he received death threats over the phone on Tuesday night for not recognizing the UPFA dissidents as an independent group. The Speaker in a firm voice said he was unmoved by such threats, but urged not to intimidate or insult the Parliamentary staff over this matter.
The Premier had little rest in Parliament on Wednesday as question after question was posed to him, at the very commencement of the sittings, beginning with the newly introduced ‘Prime Minister's Question Time.' This time slot has been added to give an opportunity for the backbenchers to directly ask questions from the Prime Minister. Two Government MPs and two Opposition MPs raised four questions, and three supplementary questions were allowed for each question.
Large scale corruption and frauds
It has been an admirable effort, but at times when both the question and answer came from the Government, it did not look balanced and proper. Some who observed it said both the batting and bowling were from the same side. Reacting to a similar comment came from MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the Prime Minister asked him to raise his own question at the next round.
The ‘joint opposition’ MPs also showed special interest on the developments with regard to the appointment of the Attorney General. MP Dinesh Gunawardena raised the matter at two occasions in Parliament on January 29 and last Tuesday. Their keenness could have been justified by the fact that 35 files on the investigations relating to the large scale corruption and frauds during the previous regime are now before the Attorney General’s Department. It is no secret that these investigations have perturbed many who closely affiliated with the previous government.
On the other hand, the JVP was constantly pressurizing the Government to punish the culprits who are responsible for the crimes and wrong doings of the previous regime. The Prime Minister observing these facts assured Parliament, that he would make sure the investigations be carried forward smoothly in a manner that nobody could accuse that there is a political witch-hunt or that the Government has a ‘deal game’ with those perceived as tainted. He concluded saying, “there will be no escape for those who had involved in fraud or misuse of public money”.