Mismanaged MPs, misguided missiles overshadow Budget speech

UNP walks out in protest against Govt. thuggery within House
By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

Not many people noticed when some time back, glass tumblers used to serve water to Members of Parliament inside the Chamber, were replaced with small plastic bottles of water.

The reason was the growing number of Legislators choosing to resort to physical confrontation over verbal confrontation during debates in the House.

And going by the unruly scenes that took place last Monday, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was on his feet presenting his Government’s Budget for the next year, the decision seemed a wise one, because, instead of the plastic water bottles that were flung across the Well of the House that day, one falling just a few feet away from the President himself, flying glass tumblers would have proven to be more lethal.

Since the day the now widely publicised scenes took place, there has also been a lot of finger pointing, the Government side resorting to its usual “conspiracy” theory being the reason for the UNP action, while the UNP has accused the ruling party of using thuggery to silence its critics, even within the walls of the House by.

When President Rajapaksa’s helicopter landed on the lawn of the parliamentary complex in Kotte, last Monday afternoon, a light drizzle greeted him, but it wasn’t till he stepped inside the building that he became aware that a storm was brewing. Several UNP MPs had been detected with antigovernment posters by the Parliament Police, and being aware of this, the President joked with photographers as he walked in, that there would be better scenes inside the House, for the media personnel to record, than of him walking in.

The President entered the Chamber at 1.53pm, and minutes into his speech, he directed his ire at the UNP, saying the nation had been placed on a very destructive path from 1977, the year the UNP came into power, after seven years of rule by an SLFP-led government.

“This path was overshadowed by neo liberal economic policies on the one hand and separatist terrorist activities on the other. This caused tremendous hardships to the general public. The whole nation became a victim of terrorism. Democratic values eroded. A revengeful culture came into being,” the President said, which led to some objections from UNP members.

It was soon afterwards, that several UNP parliamentarians stood holding up posters with the word “Shame” and a few other slogans, but even they were taken by surprise by the angry and violent reaction from several Government members.

Unruly scenes that took place while the President was reading out the Budget. Pic by Indika Handuwala.

Deputy Minister Lalith Dissanayaka was the first to walk across the Well of the House to grab a poster from a UNP frontbencher, while several Government backbenchers, many of who are seated at the rear of the opposition side, rushed towards the UNP MPs and began to pull the posters away. What followed was an attack on the UNP MPs from two fronts, with several Government members crossing the aisle to take on some senior MPs on the opposite side, while some of the younger parliamentarians from the two sides were seen getting boisterous, with a few of the cool headed MPs trying to separate them.

While the two sides clashed, a water bottle came flying from the rear of the Government side, obviously directed at the UNP benches, but fell close to thePresident, leading to more commotion.

A helpless Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa tried his utmost to get the MPs back to their seats, but it proved ineffective, and things quietened down only after the UNP MPs walked out of the House in protest. The President spoke for another two hours, announcing several new welfare plans for different segments of society, with members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) remaining behind to hear his speech to the end.

While Government members had every right to be angered by the UNP action, as customarily, a Budget speech is not interrupted in any manner, whether it is presented by the President in this case, in his capacity as the Minister of Finance or, even the minister in charge of the subject, the reaction by some of the government MPs seemed excessive, compared with the mode of protest adopted by the UNP.

The main Opposition party has been sorely failing in its role to put pressure on the Government, allowing it to breeze its way through its legislative activities including passing Bills or, even in discussion on other matters of public importance. So, it cannot be faulted for wanting to make an impact on the day the Budget was presented, knowing that live television coverage is allowed on that day, along with the presence of a large number of media personnel in the press galleries, including photographers who are barred from taking pictures inside the Chambers, except on such special occasions.

Government members, some of who seemed more eager to impress the President than anything else, would have been better served if the UNP MPs were allowed to hold up the posters as long as they wanted to. And given the lengthy Budget speech, its very likely they would have worn themselves out and left quietly.

The Speaker said the next day that he would inquire into the unruly incidents on Budget day, but blamed the Opposition for provoking the Government action.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the incidents that day, they have only contributed more towards the growing public distaste for politics and politicians in the country. No inquiry will be able to undo the harm that has already been done.

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