House on fire as JVP, TNA turn guns on govt.
By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent
What was expected to be an uneventful week in Parliament turned into a week of confusion and controversy raising serious questions about the future of the ruling UPFA government. This was after one of its main coalition partners -- the JVP threatened to quit if the government went ahead and began talks with the LTTE to set up an interim administrative structure as a prelude for discussions on finding a final settlement to the national question.

The JVP was reacting to a statement issued the previous night by the Government Information Department saying the government was prepared to set up an interim authority firstly to handle the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of the northeast before holding talks to find a permanent solution.

Infuriated that the JVP had been kept in the dark about a change in the Government's stance on the resumption of talks, JVP's Parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa dropped the bombshell on Thursday morning in Parliament when he threatened to quit the alliance. The members of the other constituent parties of the UPFA were caught unawares and had them turning uncomfortably in their seats.

Among two senior UPFA/SLFPers who were present in the Chamber at the time were Leader of the House Maithripala Sirisena and Buddha Sasana Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.

Mr.Weerwansa had the enthusiastic backing of the JVP legislators as he ripped into his 12-page hand written statement, receiving extra applause as he read out the threat to quit the government towards the end of his speech.

And as Mr. Weerawansa was turning up the heat inside the Chamber, legislators of the TNA were marching into the House carrying posters accusing the government of squandering away the three years of cessation of hostilities by not making serious attempts to resume the stalled peace talks and for using tsunami aid to buy arms. Hence they missed Mr. Weerawansa's speech altogether because by the time they entered the Chamber, the JVP MP had finished his speech.

There was some support for the JVP statement from JHU MP Ven. Aturaliye Ratana Thera who followed Mr. Weerawansa and asked that a responsible Minister in the Government make its position clear on the basis on which it would resume the talks. However there was no reaction from the Government to the statement.

It was an unproductive week in Parliament as far as legislation was concerned. Although three Bills were lined up for passage, namely the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Bill, none could be passed.

The disaster management bill was introduced as an urgent bill and Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle told Parliament on Friday that it had to be passed that day. But TNA Parliamentarian R. Sambanathan and JHU MP Rev. Aturaliye Ratana Thera both wanted more time to study the bill and make it acceptable to all parties before it was approved.

Hence the debate on the Bill was adjourned half way through and the next sitting day on March 9 has been set for its approval. On Wednesday, Justice Minister John Seneviratne introduced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which will increase the number of Appeal Court Judges, from 11 to 21. It will also allow the setting up of five provincial circuits over which the Appeal Court will exercise it's jurisdiction.

UNP MP Professor G.L. Peries called the legislation to increase the number of judges "entirely desirable" and said it would go a long way in reducing laws delays as there was at least 12,000 cases pending before the courts now and had been dragging on for years.

However, he said there was need for more severe penalties for criminals as people lacked safety and security in their lives and it was necessary to bring back people's confidence in national institutions with a strict approach to offences.

TNA MP Nadarajah Raviraj too welcomed the legislation but said there was the need for a permanent Constitution for the country unlike what was happening now when there were periodic amendments being made. He said such a Constitution should embody the rights of all the people in the country and would help solve the national problem as well.

However the debate on this Bill too had to be abandoned mid way after Kalutara district MP Rajitha Senaratne spoke on the conduct of a judge, which the Justice minister objected to on the grounds it breached Parliamentary Standing Orders and with the subsequent uproar the debate was put off for a later date.

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill too could not be passed as there were certain technical matters concerning it but it had the backing of all parties and especially women legislators who spoke en masse on how it would go a long way to protect women and children from domestic violence.

With news of the two Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) members -- a Minister and a Deputy Minister having resigned their portfolios -- the position of the UPFA government appeared even shakier by the time the sittings ended on Friday. How the Government will weather the next two weeks before sittings re-commence on March 9 is left to be seen.

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