Parliamentarians in Sri Lanka, probably like their counterparts in many other parts of the world, like to jealously guard the privileges they are entitled to as legislators.
The kind of parliamentary privileges they clamour for sounds archaic in this day and age where legislators and those holding public office should come under the most scrutiny by the media and the public, if democracy is to be meaningful. But some legislators have sought recourse to the Parliamentary (Powers and Privileges) Act time and again when they feel their rights have been infringed in some manner or the other and taken many liberties under the cloak of privilege.
Almost all cases of privilege are raised by the MP concerned. But last week saw an unusual move when UPFA Gampaha District MP Dulip Wijesekera moved an adjournment motion where he charged that legal cases involving ministers and MPs which were given wide publicity in the media with lawmakers not getting the opportunity to counter these allegations, constituted a violation of their human rights causing them “mental agony.”
Although the motion was general in nature, Government MPs were in fact interested in a specific case where the North Central Province (NCP) Chief Minister Berty Premalal Dissanayake and his son Minister Duminda Dissanayake have been linked by an eyewitness to the arson attack in August on the house of the late Anuradhapura district UNP campaign manager Dr. Raja John Pulle.
Government legislators including MP Lalith Dissanayake and Ministers Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Jagath Pushpakumara spoke on the motion. They directed their wrath at the Buddhist monk who made the allegation in a statement before a Magistrate, while Minister Duminda Dissanayaka whose parliamentary privileges were allegedly violated, as claimed by government MPs by the wide publicity given to his case in the media, kept silent.
The issue was first raised on Friday morning by none other than the Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva who launched an attack on the media for reporting the story. It’s surprising that a seasoned parliamentarian of his calibre in defence of a government politician, would want to berate the media, for reporting a court case, when the person directly affected himself failed to raise the matter. To ask Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara to intervene to protect the privileges of an MP when an inquiry is pending against him is even more ludicrous and would only put the Legislature on a collision course with the judiciary and undermine the judicial process itself.
When the Leader of the House raised the matter, he spoke of a conspiracy to tarnish the image of ministers and government MPs by certain sections of the media.
It was up to UNP MPs P. Harrison and Dayasiri Jayasekera, who spoke during the adjournment debate the same evening, to remind Government legislators that the state media was used almost daily to slander opposition politicians and the issue of violation of privileges of opposition legislators was conveniently ignored.
While the government has avoided any major pitfalls in Parliament during the committee stage of the Budget so far, embroiling itself in issues to protect individuals will not do much to improve its image in the eyes of the public.
Thousands of people already have to endure road closures so that MPs can make their way safely to and from Parliament. Thankfully, all roads in Sri Lanka don’t lead to the Legislature, because if that were the case many more thousands of people would have been forced to kick their heels and stay put for half an hour or 45 minutes during days when Parliament sits. While people endure such hardships, the onus is on the MPs to tackle issues that affect the country as a whole and not protect individual interests.