ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54
Columns - Lobby  

Back to parliament with a bang!

By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

A month long recess is not going to change the behaviour or attitude of our lawmakers. Hence when Parliament began its new session last Thursday, it was business as usual with more bickering and even worse dissension than when the House last met before its prorogation by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 6.

Things started with a bang with over-enthusiastic government supporters choosing the first day of the new session to stage a demonstration against Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the roundabout near Parliament Drive forcing the UNP leader to take an alternate route to get to the Legislature on time.

One would think Mr.Wickremesinghe is used to taking detours by now as he had a similar experience when he returned from Europe a few days earlier. A government-orchestrated protest against him along the Katunayaka-Colombo route forced the Opposition Leader to change his route to avoid protestors. But unlike on that occasion, Mr.Wickremesinghe had good reason to be angry at the obstruction, because parliamentary privileges entitle MPs the right to come to Parliament unhindered.

The hindrance may have served the Opposition Leader well in a way, because when he raised it as a privilege issue on the floor of the House, he also used the opportunity to question why President Mahinda Rajapaksa had shied away from his constitutional duty of coming to the Legislature to ceremonially open its new session. “Is the President afraid to come here? Why is he abroad at this time when the Constitution says he must come here and open the new session” he asked.

There was no reply to that query but his privilege matter was supported by Speaker W.J.M.Lokubandara as well as Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake both of who held that MPs cannot be obstructed from coming to Parliament under any circumstances. All 225 MPs across the political divide do usually agree on issues such as their parliamentary privilege which they jealousy guard and endorse with the same enthusiasm as their pay raises and fuel allowance hikes.

Other than on such issues, Parliament appeared to be more divisive than before the prorogation with the decision by former JVP strongman Wimal Weerawansa to quit his party. The dust does not seem to have settled over the bitterness that JVP members in Parliament are feeling and openly showing due to their belief that the split in the party was engineered by the Government. JVPs new Parliamentary Group Leader Anura Dissanayaka began the new session by taking on the government, accusing it of running an inefficient and corrupt administration while people were being burdened with unbearable economic woes. “The government uses the increase in world market prices of oil to cover up all its misdeeds but it has not done anything to stop waste and corruption and provide relief to the people,” he said.

But MP.Dissanayaka’s allegations were nothing compared to what was to follow. It was the JVP’s new Propaganda Secretary Vijitha Herath who dropped a bombshell while speaking on the debate on the extension of the emergency pointing a finger at elements linked to the government of being behind the killing of former Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The intensity with which the JVP is now taking on a Government for whom it was an apologist for several years, can well be summed up by rephrasing the saying “hell hath no fury like a JVPer scorned.”

If the JVP MPs were breathing fire at the Government, ruling party MPs showed they were no longer prepared to take criticism and allegations by the JVP in the same spirit as they did during the cozy days prior to the Weerawansa breakaway. Those days such allegations would have been dismissed with remarks such as “but we are all on the same side.” Instead, the allegations regarding Mr.Fernandopulle’s killing infuriated Government members to such an extent that Deputy Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage called the JVP a worse terrorist group than the LTTE. A number of other government MPs too came down hard on the Marxists.

Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva said the JVP was only helping the LTTE by making such allegations but said the Government was willing to begin an inquiry into Mr.Fernandopulle’s death and asked the JVP MP to come forward and present whatever information he has regarding such a conspiracy.

No discussion in Parliament would have been complete last week without mention of the escalating attacks on media personnel and organizations and many UNP members took it upon themselves with the support of the JVP to lambaste the government over this issue. Neither the two ministers in charge of the subject of media bothered to reply the allegations of government complicity in attacks on journalists, but Minister John Seneviratna who wound up the emergency debate on behalf of the government said more media personnel were killed and harassed under the UNP regimes in the past making specific reference to the killing of journalist Richard De Soysa.

It’s true that some members of the UNP speaking on media rights reek of double standards given the role they played to stifle the voices of dissent during their terms in office, but this government cannot keep justifying attacks on journalists by pointing to the UNP’s poor past record. Minister Seneviratna’s comments only show that the government was trying to cover its shortcomings by using the bad precedents set by the UNP and doing little to address, not only the issue of media rights, but also other problems in the country. If this senior government minister’s contention is that two wrongs make a right, there can be little hope for this country.

Meanwhile, the issues that dominated Parliament in the previous session are still very much unresolved. The appointment of an Acting Secretary General of Parliament is still being hotly contested by the UNP. But all that the Government is doing is to point the finger back at the UNP saying, “you did it during your time, so what’s wrong if we do it.” The non appointment of the Constitutional Council is also at a deadlock. Both issues can only be resolved by the President and until he makes up his mind, Parliamentarians can go on talking, but there is little they can do but wait for the President to act. So while J.R.Jayewardene’s “bahubootha” Constitution, as former President Chandrika Kumaratunga referred to it, keeps serving the country’s Executive well, its other clauses that are supposed to guarantee rights of ordinary citizens continue to be liberally ignored and violated.

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