Comedies and laments: The tragedy of the House
There are no stand-up comedy shows in Sri Lanka but any visitor to Parliament last week would have got the chance to experience one courtesy the men and women they elected as their representatives to the highest decision-making body in the country. The behaviour of many Government and UNP members occupying front rows, middle rows and back benches, during the four days of sittings produced enough drama to make a super hit sequel to the popular film “parliament jokes.”
Prodded on by a newly energised Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, many of the UNP MPs seemed eager to disrupt sittings than address worthwhile issues, while it was more of a one man shown on the government side with Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle doing his best to keep Opposition MPs at bay and in the process adding to the comedy.
The UNP began Tuesday’s sessions by championing the cause of sacked minister Sripathy Sooriyaarachchi, who is being held in remand custody. Quoting from Erskine May, law reports, Standing Orders and the MPs Powers and Privileges Act, the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe said that Mr.Sooriyaarachchi’s privileges as an MP had been violated by being prevented from attending sittings of Parliament.
Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera (former Speaker), Kandy district MP Lakshman Kiriella (lawyer), Puttlaam district MP Range Bandara (ex-policeman) as well as several other UNP MPs supported the argument. With this issue disrupting sittings for more than one and a half hours, a group of UNP MPs cum lawyers were asked by the UNP leader to go to the Kaduwela Court as the remanded MP was being produced before the Magistrate. But they did not have to make the trip because shortly the group rushed back into the chambers and an elated Mr.Wickremesinghe announced that the Court had given permission to Mr.Sooriyaarachchi to attend sessions.
He came to Parliament in the afternoon when Kurunegala district MP Dayasiri Jayasekara was on his feet. Mr. Sooriyaarachchi received a warm welcome from the UNP MPs. Mr.Jayasekera’s performance was a hard act to follow. Not only did he continue to speak when Deputy Speaker Geetanjana Gunawardena told him his time was up but he also kept his party colleagues gathered around him heartily entertained. At one point there were two MPs on their feet at the same time, Mr.Jayasekera on the UNP side and Minister of Special Projects Mahinda Wijesekara on the government side, making simultaneous speeches. Wednesday began with another uproar, this time with regard to the beefed up security due to the visit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Legislature to unveil a portrait of former President J.R.Jayewardene. UNP Ratnapura district MP Mahinda Ratnatilleke complained that he was not allowed to park his vehicle in the MPs garage and the keys of his vehicle were taken away by security officials. Several other opposition members joined in and the Leader of the Opposition intervened to say that MPs should be given prior notice of additional security measures so as not to inconvenience them.
This argument went so far that it prompted the Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva to charge that the UNP was hatching a conspiracy to kill the President and that is why they were against additional security for his visit. “Maybe the UNP wants to get rid of him, but we want to protect him so we have advised him not to come today,” Mr.De Silva said.
Mr. Fernandopulle joined in stating that he had telephoned the President and asked him to stay away due to the opposition protests. The President seems to have ignored those requests because he did turn up for the unveiling of the portrait and seemed quite happy to be seated next to the person who is allegedly hatching a plot to get rid of him.
The same day Mr. Sooriyaarachchi raised a privilege issue in Parliament and said he had been remanded because of his exposure of a deal between the President and the LTTE and said his life was in danger because of this. He also used the occasion to deny charges levelled at him of misusing public property.
The following day question time in Parliament was turned into another occasion to harass the government side. Once again the Leader of the Opposition rose to a Point of Order to state that the minister in charge of the subject should be present to answer questions raised by opposition MPs. He said when the UNP was in power ministers made it a point to be present in the Chamber.
Another argument broke out and allegations flew to and fro and the half an hour allocated for question time dragged on for nearly an hour longer. Question time has now become the favourite time for all kinds of futile cross talk. The JVP, the JHU and the TNA have attempted to use the question time to address pertinent matters but the politicking between the two main parties is preventing that.
And while the drama was being played out a hapless Speaker W.J.M.Lokubandara was unable to do much to bring order in the House except lament that neither his parents nor teachers ever found fault with him in the past but now he had to hear criticism from all kinds of persons.
One can sympathise with the Speaker to some extent given that he is himself a UNP MP, elected to the high seat after an acrimonious vote and in his own words is like the proverbial “girayata ahuwuna puwakk gediya.” When he sympathises with the government side, he is accused of being a proponent of the “Mahinda Chintanaya” and when he sympathises with the UNP side he is accused of partiality towards his party. One can only say that had he taken firm action against errant MPs when he took over the mantle of Speaker, it might have helped him control the situation better by now but given the free for all that has become a regular feature in the House and become almost acceptable behaviour, things are unlikely to change during his tenure.
The Speaker said last week that patience is his great virtue but how much patience the people of this country have for this kind of behaviour from their elected MPs can be gauged when the next election comes round.