8th April 2001
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Children flee as ugly words and sandals reign

By Chandani Kirinde
Parliament proceedings were dragged to a new low last week with legislators not only washing each others' dirty linen within the Chambers of the august assembly but also displaying their worst behaviour.

Little heed was paid to the sanctity of Parliament as the most "unparliamentry" language was hurled to and fro with mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers being dragged into the slander match which sent a gallery full of school children fleeing from the Chambers in fright. The verbal mud slinging was not the end of it all. Two MPs went a bit further by brandishing their sandals at one another, one of them having to be restrained by his colleagues.

All this happened last Thursday when the votes on one of the most important ministries - the Defence Ministry - was being debated. The personal duels between Government and Opposition UNP legislators resulted in sittings being suspended for ten minutes.

The melee began when UNP Parliamentarian Abdul Cader launched a personal attack on PA parliamentarian Mahindananada Aluthgamagae - both from the Central Province.

Still obviously suffering from the unpleasant election experience in the area, Mr.Cader accused Mr.Aluthgamage of talking about him while he was not in the House on a previous occasion and went onto describe how he had helped the young PA legislator in his early days - giving"Biriyani" for Mr.Aluthgamage's sister's wedding and driving him to school and many other personal remarks.

Although Mr.Aluthgamage remained calm while allegations were being hurled at him, the counter attack began when he was allowed to speak for five minutes after Mr.Cader. It was the beginning of the ugly verbal exchanges to follow.

"I will not reply this rascal because I studied in a good school," were the opening words of Mr.Aluthgamage but his onslaught soon followed. Little was heard thereafter as the Chamber was reduced to utter chaos with PA Digamadulla MP U.L.M. Mohiddeen who was presiding over the House being left utterly helpless.

Unable to bring the House under control, he soon left the Chair and sittings were suspended for ten minutes. 

With the resumption of sittings Deputy Speaker Sarath Munasighe took the Chair. Tempers had cooled down by then. UNP's Dr.Rajitha Senaratne who spoke after the resumption noted with regret that the gallery full of school children was now empty as they had fled in fear as the shouting erupted between the legislators.

The day's troubles did not end there. UNP Jaffna district MP T.Maheswaran who spoke on the transport problem faced by people in Jaffna was followed by the inimitable Deputy Minister of Social Services Mervyn Silva who crossed over to the PA from the UNP in recent times. 

His reference to the Jaffna legislator as "Kotiya" did not go down well with Mr.Maheswaran although Mr.Silva's constant interruptions are normally taken in lighter vein by most opposition MPs and totally ignored by others. 

Mr.Maheswaran who has always been subjected to such name calling by government legislators, this time appeared enraged and removed his sandals and started waving them in Mr.Silva's direction. Mr.Silva soon removed his sandals and attempted to run down the aisle and had to be restrained by several of his colleagues. Hence another fight ensued and by the time tempers cooled down and it was almost time for the days proceedings to wind up. Top Defence Ministry and Military officials who witnessed the actions of the MPs could be forgiven for questioning whether the legislators were more interested in settling their personal problems in Parliament than addressing serious issues the country was facing.

The day ended with the motion to extend the state of emergency for a further month, along with the Defence Ministry vote being passed with 111 members voting for and 89 against it. The Opposition jointly voted against the motion stating it was a mark of protest against the destruction of the "Bo Maluwa" at Punchi Borella.

Even though the government and especially Urban Development Minister Mangala Samaraweera came under fire for the demolition in Punchi Borella which damaged part of the "Chaithya" , it took away the attention from the construction of the Presidential complex in Kotte which had become the main subject of Opposition attacks in the past weeks.

The subject was hardly talked about on the day the votes of the Ministry of Urban Development, Construction and Public Utilities was debated. This time it was not construction but destruction at Punchi Borella that earned Minister Samaraweera a new name-"Mangalaban" - nicknamed after the demolition of Buddha statues by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

The demolition came up for discussion on several occasions within the Chambers during the week with JVP MP Wimal Weerawansa accusing the government of being insensitive to people's sentiments.

"There is a big difference between demolishing illegal structures and bull dozing an area around a temple. We cannot play around with the sentiments of the people," he said.

Speaking on the day that also marked the 30th anniversary of the 1971 JVP insurrection, Mr.Weerawansa said they were prepared to learn from history and go forward with their strengths and leave the shortcomings behind.

"We are still paying the price for the burning of the Jaffna library. Don't let similar incidents happen again," he urged.

His words did not go down well with Government MP's who charged the JVP of killing Buddhist monks and destroying temples and now talking like saints.

Several UNP MPs accused Mr.Samaraweera of insulting Buddhism while government members congratulated him for his courage to go ahead with the demolition of illegal structures.

"King Dutugamunu did not get UDA permission before putting up the Ruwanweli Seya.Is he going to demolish that? Are you going to demolish the Kalutara Bodhiya as it is too close to the road?," asked an angry Kegalle district UNP MP R.A.D.Sirisena.

Veteran UNP legislator M.H.Mohamed also asked Minister Samaraweera to show more restraint when dealing with such sensitive matters. " When it comes to the demolition of a place of worship don't act like a bull in a China shop," he pleaded.

Among those who spoke out in support of Mr.Samaraweera were Public Administration Minister Richard Pathirana who lauded him for his work. " He is a clever and efficient minister and he remains unbowed amidst all adversity," he said.

When the votes of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was taken up on Tuesday, the rumour that President Kumaratunga was seeking office as the Secretary General of the UN had the House abuzz.

UNP MP A.H.M.Azwar was keen to know the veracity of the rumour because if it were true he said the building of the "Maligawa" could be stopped. His colleague Ravi Karunanayake queried the matter too making the mischievous remark, "It could be Sri Lanka's gain but the UN's loss."

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar addressed more serious issues and said that definitive dates for talks with the LTTE would be announced by the end of the month.

"Very considerable progress has been made in this regard with Norway's facilitation. Everybody must appreciate that we are entering into a complex process after much bitterness," he said.

The activities of the Cricket Board were also discussed in Parliament during the votes of the Ministry of Sports with its minister Lakshman Kiriella promising to conduct all matters connected to the Board with transparency.

China may return spy plane 

WASHINGTON, April 6 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said Washington and Beijing were "making progress" on the return of a U.S. spy plane and its crew held in China, as both sides worked toward an agreed account of the mid-air collision that triggered the crisis.

"We're working hard to bring them home through intensive discussions with the Chinese government. We think we're making progress," Bush said on Friday at an awards ceremony, amid a flurry of diplomacy.

His comments reflected a mood of guarded optimism in Washington after an American general met for the second time with the 24 crew members of the stranded Navy surveillance plane on Hainan island, off the south coast of China.

Military Attache Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock briefed Bush after the visit to the crew, telling the president by telephone: "(It would) make you feel real proud. They look real good."

After a briefing with the Pentagon, CIA and State Department, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner said the United States and China were working on a written "common understanding" on the incident to be reviewed and agreed upon by Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Warner said the letter would include regret for the loss of the Chinese pilot, who was missing and presumed dead after his fighter collided on Sunday with a U.S. reconnaissance plane. But Warner said the letter would not contain a U.S. apology, as demanded by Beijing.

"I would say that the question of an apology is not in any way to be incorporated in the letter," the Virginia Republican told reporters on Capitol Hill.

As part of a stepped-up diplomatic exchanges, Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi met with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Friday at China's request.

"We expect to continue meetings in Washington or Beijing overnight and over the weekend," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said after the talks. "There are no particular next meetings scheduled. We just expect that we'll continue to have them."

In Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan Island, Sealock told reporters the 21 men and three women in the U.S. Navy crew detained at a Chinese military base were in "great spirits."

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