The Speaker’s comment that he might have to expunge the term ‘failed state’ which he thought the opposition leader had used in his speech triggered a heated argument over Parliamentarians’ right to express their opinion. This happened on Friday after Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa made the opening remarks on the state of the economy during [...]


War of words over MPs’ right to free speech, defence, economy, Mahara and COVID-19


The Speaker’s comment that he might have to expunge the term ‘failed state’ which he thought the opposition leader had used in his speech triggered a heated argument over Parliamentarians’ right to express their opinion.

This happened on Friday after Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa made the opening remarks on the state of the economy during the committee stage debate.

The Speaker requested the Opposition Leader’s consent to remove from Hansard the term “failed state”. But the Opposition Leader vehemently objected to it, saying he did not use the term.

Mr. Premadasa insisted that at no stage he criticized the country but his criticism was aimed at the government. “I know my English,” he asserted, while also complaining his right to express his views was being disrupted by those who handle the switches to his microphone.

Standing up to uphold the MPs’ right to express their views even if the criticism was aimed at the state was the Tamil National Progressive Front Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. He asked the Speaker on what grounds he would expunge the term “failed state” and argued that he had the right to use the term since it was “my opinion and perception”. Using this as an opportunity to take a swipe at the opposition leader, State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera called Mr. Ponnambalam’s statement as a supportive comment as “they wanted to say Sri Lanka is a failed state.” Mr. Premadasa replied that he did not need any support as he has a “strong backbone.”

“National financial issues have a direct bearing on industrial and trade policies of our country,” the opposition leader noted, adding that he hoped to “articulate” the country’s economic situation by way of a reply to the State Finance Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s statement.

Mr. Premadasa drew attention to Mr. Cabraal’s replies to 27 questions he raised a few days ago regarding the downgrading of Sri Lanka’s economy by Fitch. He described the replies as an essay on financial and economic policy of the country.

Mr. Premadasa accused the government of failing to present to the country the second and third quarter figures for the economic growth rates. The country recorded a negative growth rate of 1.6 percent in the first quarter and the Government “woefully” failed to present the figures for the second and third quarter, thus creating a negative impression in the financial markets, he alleged.    The Government was predicting that the state income would rise from 9 to 14 percent, he said. “This is preposterous and absolute humbug,” noted Mr. Premadasa, describing the Government’s claim as an attempt to “deceive both Parliament and the people of our country.”

The Opposition Leader was also critical of the Government’s policy of imposing restrictions on imports from the European Union region, the destination of the bulk of the country’s exports, he said. The restrictive economic model of the Government stifled international trade, he pointed out. “We are somewhat moving towards an economy akin to North Korea, a failed state,” he said.   Joining the debate, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa said the previous government had neglected local businesses and local industry and that was why the people rejected them at the last two elections. Mr. Rajapaksa noted that while protecting the local manufacturers, foreign investments also should be encouraged while keeping in mind the employment opportunities they would provide. He said that one of the main challenges of the Government was to create job opportunities for the youth, but this could not be done by giving temporary jobs just as Mr. Premadasa had done while he was a senior minister in the previous government. The youth unemployment was around 20 percent when the new government took over, though it was only around 12 in 2015. Pointing out that about 850,000 youths were without hobs, he stressed the need to find a sustainable solution.

The Mahara Prison riots echoed in the chambers throughout the week with opposition MPs expressing their deep concern over the safety of the inmates. Justice Minister Ali Sabry said a full report on the incident would be presented to Parliament within a month and an interim report within a week.

On Thursday, SJB MP Hector Appuhamy questioned as to how the Mahara prisoners were afflicted with the coronavirus? He said that some infected prisoners had been brought from Welikada and that led to a situation where Mahara remand prisoners demanded that PCR tests be done for inmates. But instead the Government used brutal force to kill several inmates, he charged.

Mr. Appuhamy said he wanted to know how could the inmates became violent if they had used sedatives pills. How could the prisoners gain access to the pills before they broke themselves free? The

SJB frontliner Patali Champika Ranawaka asked the government to make the Navy stronger to ensure public security. He made this request while taking part in the committee stage debate on the vote on the State Ministry of Public Security, Provincial Councils and Local Government.

Then he explained the geopolitics of the region and insisted the importance of being non-aligned, when the United States, India and Australia were forming an anti-China alliance, which he described as “the Asian NATO”. He pointed out that the LTTE terrorists had an advantage during the Cold War period because Sri Lanka had aligned itself with the US, antagonising the then Soviet Union and its regional allies.

He also emphasised the importance of keeping the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. Then he called on the Government to develop and use hi-tech to combat terrorism instead of using it to spy on the opposition.

The investigations into Zahran’s attack should not be undermined and should not be forgotten but should be investigated into its very roots. The Government exploited the attack to come to power. However, what was of utmost importance in terms of national security was to find the god fathers of terrorism that exploded on Easter Sunday last year.

Mr. Ranawaka said the independence of the Police had become questionable as it was being brought under the Defence Ministry. “This move alone is enough to define the country as half-militarised,” he said.

Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera said he would create a conducive environment for Sri Lankans to live in peacefully with the Police being deployed on many fronts to deal with issues such as drug trafficking and violence, especially against women and children. He said a new hotline 116 had been set up to inform his ministry if police officers sought bribes or to complain about incidents of violence.    There had been a heated argument between Minister Weerasekera and SJB MP Sarath Feonseka, as to whether it was the generals or the politicians who were instrumental in winning the war. The minister stressed it was the politicians who lead the war to win, by citing the famous quote “war is an extension of politics”. He said it was Winston Churchill who won WW2 not Hitler. But Mr. Fonseka argued it was the soldiers who fought the war and made the sacrifices.

Mr. Ponnambalam joining the debate alleged that the Government in 2009 sent supplies only for 70,000 whereas 460,000 people were trapped inside the war zone without food.

He claimed that of the 20 divisions of the army 16 were based in the north. “You are oppressing the Tamil people,” he charged, adding that “yesterday it could be Tamils, today Muslims and tomorrow it will be against your own people”.

On Monday, the committee stage debate focused on the vote on the Health Ministry, Pharmaceutical Production Supply and Regulation State Ministry, and the Indigenous Medicine Promotion, Rural and Ayurvedic Hospitals Development and Community Health State Ministry.

Starting the debate SJB MP and former Health Minister Rajitha Senarathne said he would focus mainly on the global COVID pandemic. The allocation was not adequate to face the challenges the Health Ministry face. Only 0.003% of the state revenue had been spent on the pandemic whereas other countries had spent much more.

“Give it some more money as suggested by the opposition Leader. We won’t complain,” Dr. Senaratne urged the government.”

He also asked the Government to control the prices of face masks, hand sanitizers because traders had arbitrarily hiked the prices. He urged Health Minister Pavitra Wanniarachchic not to give into the political pressure.

Then he took the Government on the controversial removal of the board of the Sri Lanka Medical

Council. He said he had appointed the members of the Medical Council, irrespective of their political affiliations or viewpoints. He said Health Minister had not been vested with powers to remove the board members of the Medical Council. “This sends a wrong message to the world. No Health Minister ever since 1926 has touched the Medical Council,” he said.

Indigenous Medicine Promotion State Minister Sisira Jayakody said the Government had plans to establish an Ayurveda Medical Council. “Indigenous medicine has worked for centuries,” he noted, adding that plans were underway to establish a medical council consisting of traditional medical practitioners.

Pharmaceutical Production, Supply, and Regulation State Minister Channa Jayasumana said the Government would establish facilities to manufacture drugs for export market.

He said the State Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC) was planning to set up five factories to produce medicine and medicinal equipment, including stents and contact lenses.

Virologist and SLPP MP Tissa Vitarana said the World Health Organisation had promised to provide 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s COVID vaccine requirements and these vaccines should be first given to the elderly and vulnerable persons.  SJB MP Thalatha Atukorale urged the Government to make sure that PCR testing equipment and lab facilities were available in every district to control the pandemic. She also urged the

Government to provide more facilities and incentives to frontline health workers.

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