25th March 2001
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Presidential complex rocks House

By Chandani Kirinde
There was plenty of drama en acted within Parliament chambers this week with a cabinet minister threatening to resign and the UNP launching a poster campaign, over the construction of an official residence in Kotte for President Chandrika Kumara-tunga.

Urban development and Public Utilities Minister Mangala Samaraweera's offer to resign, both from his portfolio and even from parliament, came on Thursday when he challenged the Opposition to prove that one square foot of the President's House would coast Rs. 46,000. He presented a set of statistics which he said proved that a square foot of the President's house would cost a little over Rs6,000 and accused the Opposition of bungling their figures to mislead the people.

All UNP legislators who followed Mr.Sa-maraweera starting with Galle district MP Hemakumar Nanay-akkara challenged Mr. Samaraweera to resign after placing their own facts and figures on the table.

"If he is a gentleman, a Southerner, a Ruhunu puthra and a man who keeps his word, he must come to Parliament tomorrow morning with his letter of resignation in his pocket," Mr.Nana-yakkara said challenging the Minister to stay on till he finished speaking. However when Mr.Nanaya-kkara continued his speech after the adjournment for lunch, Mr.Samaraweera was not in the Chamber.

The day began with UNP members displaying posters that called on the people to tighen their belts while the President was building a palace for herself, a square foot of which would cost over Rs46,000.

So it was another week where the construction of the President's "Maligawa" took up most of the time in the debates that were supposed to address more important issues. 

The Committee state of the Budget got underway on Tuesday with the votes of the Ministry of Finance and Planning and the overheads of the office of the President, the Prime Minister, Judges of the Supreme Court, Office of the Cabinet of Ministers, Parliament, Department of Elections, Commission to investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption being among those areas that were to be debated.

However, most speakers barely touc-hed on these subjects. A few used them only to slander one another on how elections were rigged and the Supreme Courts was politicized.

On Monday, the second reading of the Appropriation Bill 2001 was passed by a majority of nine votes putting to rest rumours of an Opposition move to defeat the budget with the help of several members of the PA government.

As the seven day debate of the second reading of the Bill drew to a close, government members lauded President Chandrika Kumara–tunga with Minister Mangala Samaraweera proclaiming that she would go down in history as the best Finance Minister the country has ever produced.

The day also saw former Finance Minister and presently Minister of Ports and Southern Development Ronnie De Mel admitting that the country was facing an extremely serious financial crisis, the worst the country has faced since independence.

Journalists covering parliament also got their share of attention. The Speaker Anura Bandaranaike on Wednesday suspended the Independent Television Network (ITN) from televising or reporting on the proceedings of Parliament for five days effective from March 21.

The suspension followed complaints by opposition legislators that the ITN coverage of the parliament proceedings were biased and had made derogatory references to them.

Meanwhile Minister Samaraweera who has become the most outspoken supporter of the building of the President's House, said the Leader of the Opposition who was exhausted with building castles in the air about coming to power was now attacking the construction of the President's House. 

"This was part of the UDA plan presented at the time of this Parliament in 1982 in a bid to make Colombo the commercial hub of Asia. It's not a new plan," he said.

The Minister who stuck to facts during most part of his speech got derailed only towards the latter part -due to persistent provocation by opposition members- when he declared that the real reason for the opposition to the construction of the House was not political but personal.

"It's not a political problem. It is a family feud between the Bandaranaike's and Wijewardene's. It's a clash between people who have always had money and the new rich," he declared.

The Minister also used his speech to praise the Speaker lauding the greatness of the Bandaranaike-Ratwatte clan and their service to the country.

Aviation Minister Jeyaraj Fernandop-ulle, went a step further and said the PA would field Mr.Bandaran–aike as its next presidential candidate. "Who is going to be your candidate. We will field Mr.Band-aranike, if the President suggests it," he declared amidst loud applause from government benches.

Mr. Samaraweera's references to the wastage of state funds during the regime of Ranasinghe Prem-adasa did not go down well with the late President's son Sajith Premadasa who made several attempts to clarify certain remarks made by the Minister. 

"I have behaved in an immaculate way in this House," said young Premadasa trying to get the Minister to give way to him, to which the minister's curt reply was"I hope you do so outside the House as well."

Both UNP and JVP members also spoke on the abolition of the executive presidency with JVP's Vijith Herat saying the party would support any Bill presented to Parliament for this purpose.

Although most UNPers expressed similar sentiments, Nuwara Eliya district MP.S.Sathasivam had a different view. He said minority rights were better protected under the executive presidential system and abolishing it would be like changing the pillow for a headache without giving it the required treatment.

However, UNP Galle district MP Gayantha Karuna-tilleke said it was seven years since the Government promised to abolish the executive presidency and even today millions were being spent to maintain this office.

Mr.Samaraweera's attacks on the Wije-wardene's also became a pet subject of opposition members starting with national list MP A.H.M.Azwar who said the minister's mother was once employed at Lake House to help keep her home fires burning after her husband's death.

He compared Mr. Samaraweera to the court jester "Andare" and said it was a "comic and pathetic display of a minister trying to protect the President.

UNP's Kurunegala district MP Johnston Fernando asked what the plight of the people of Kotte would be when the President moves into the area. "The Minister says that once the President moves there security in Fort would be relaxed but what will happen to the people living in the Kotte area," he asked.

Minister Samara-weera bore the brunt of the Opposition attacks with both Mr.Azwar and MP Rajitha Senaratne calling him Sri Lanka's version of the Taleban for demolishing illegal structures and wanting to sell old buildings in Colombo to foreigners who would demolish them and open up casinos and clubs.

"He wants to build a Taleban culture here by demolishing everything and putting up new buildings", Mr. Senaratne charged.

Mr.Samaraweera found an ally in Fisheries Minister Mahi-nda Rajapakse who defended him saying that Mr.Samaraweera had done the most challenging thing a politician could do by offering to resign if he was proved wrong.

Justice Minister Batty Weerakoon who caused a stir in and outside parliament the pervious week by saying that several top administrators were involved in bribery and corruption linked to arms deals did a turn about of sorts and attacked the arms deals that were made during the time of the UNP.

Next was PA's Badulla district MP Dilan Perera who had a word of advise for the JVP warning them against clinging onto the tail of the UNP." Think of the sacrifices of your comrades and don't have any alliances with the UNP," he said.

UNP Kalutara district MP Mahinda Samarasinghe who opened the vote on the Finance Ministry accused the Government of destroying the country's economy and ruining its image abroad.

Minister Ronnie De Mel while explaining the seriousness of the economic crisis facing the country said that the administrative system needed to be re-structured immediately.

" We have three times more public servants than we need. Their huge salary and pension bills are non productive expenditure of the worst kind," he said.

When he was chided by the Opposition why a country faced with an economic crisis was having such a huge Cabinet , Mr.De Mel replied, "Don't ask me that. I didn't appoint the cabinet."

The few positive comments came from Deputy Finance Minister G.L.Peiris who said the attitude reflected by the younger members on both sides of the House was a silver lining amidst all the gloom.

"They made constructive suggestions with no malice. This augers well for the future," he said.

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