A joke making the rounds on social media over the past few weeks notes, that earlier the Government’s excuse for failure to resolve the many crises facing the country was because it did not secure enough power. After obtaining a two thirds majority and passing the 20th Amendment, its new excuse has been that there [...]


Enter the 7th Rajapaksa as pitched battles rage over crackdown on protesters


Taking oaths as an SLPP parliamentarian

A joke making the rounds on social media over the past few weeks notes, that earlier the Government’s excuse for failure to resolve the many crises facing the country was because it did not secure enough power. After obtaining a two thirds majority and passing the 20th Amendment, its new excuse has been that there weren’t enough Rajapaksas in the Government to get things done!

For a majority of MPs in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led Government, it did not appear to be a joking matter, as many had been clamouring for a while now for SLPP founder and former minister Basil Rajapaksa to enter Parliament. The resignation of SLPP National List MP Jayantha Ketagoda this week paved the way for him to be sworn in as an MP at a time when the Government is under increasing pressure to turn the country’s dire situation around.

By the time he took oaths as an MP on Thursday, Basil Rohana Rajapaksa had already been sworn in as the new Minister of Finance, the portfolio earlier held by his elder brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The PM was allocated a newly created Ministry of Economic Policies and Plan Implementation. The SLPP founder received a standing ovation from Government MPs as he made his way to take oaths as an MP for the third time in his life. He clasped his hands and bent low to pay his respects to elder brothers Mahinda and Chamal as he passed them. After taking oaths, the new MP took his allocated ninth seat on the front row of the Government ranks, next to Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi.

Basil Rajapaksa is the seventh member of the extended Rajapaksa family to now have a seat in the current Parliament. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also has a seat allocated to him next to his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda for occasions where he attends sessions. The other members of the Rajapaksa family in Parliament are Ministers Chamal and Namal Rajapaksa, State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa and Matara District SLPP MP Nipuna Ranawaka.

While the Government was trying to project new found confidence through the entrance of Basil Rajapaksa, Opposition MPs attacked what they saw as the Government’s increasingly authoritarian conduct hiding behind the cover of quarantine regulations imposed owing to COVID-19. Police arrested dozens of activists at several protests this week, citing that protesters violated a directive issued by the Director General (DG) of Health Services banning all public gatherings and protests owing to the pandemic. Moves by police to arrest over 30 activists at a protest held near the Polduwa Roundabout on the way to Parliament on Thursday came in for particular criticism. The protest had been organised against the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill, which was being debated in Parliament that day.

Opposition MPs rounded on Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara on Friday when he justified the arrests and subsequent actions to forcibly take some of the protesters, who had all been granted bail by the Colombo Magistrate’s Court, to an airforce-run quarantine centre in Mullaitivu.

United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had questioned on what grounds the protesters, including Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin, had been arrested and taken to quarantine.

“The ban has not been imposed by police but by the DG of Health Services. He has given clear instructions to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to take action against those holding public gatherings and protests as they contribute to the spread of the pandemic. Police are only carrying out the DG’s instructions. It doesn’t matter what position they hold. Police will continue to arrest such persons who violate quarantine laws in future as well,” Minister Weerasekera told the House.

Mr Wickremesinghe argued that there are no provisions under the Quarantine Ordinance to forcibly take people who protest to quarantine centres. “Quarantine regulations do not override fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. (If that is to be allowed) You have to change the law then,” he asserted.

The competent authority on enforcing quarantine regulations is the DG of Health Services, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa pointed out. He charged that no PCR or Rapid Antigen Tests were conducted on the protesters who were given bail by court. “No health officials were present outside the court. Police forcibly took these individuals to quarantine not only in violation of the Quarantine Ordinance, but also in violation of their fundamental rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. How is this lawful? It showed that it is the law of the jungle that prevails in the country now.”

The ban on public gatherings and protests has not been taken in consideration of the health of the public in the face of the pandemic, but is a directive issued with the sole aim of curbing the people’s right to protest, National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake charged. “We saw yesterday how various public gatherings were held to celebrate Basil Rajapaksa’s entry into Parliament. No action was taken against those. This shows that this is a political law and that this is a political witch-hunt,” Mr Dissanayake said, charging that police actions to forcibly take individuals to quarantine after they had been given bail by court amounted to “abductions.”

Minister Weerasekara claimed that it was not the police who decided to take the individuals to quarantine. It is the area Public Health Inspector (PHI) who decides on the matter. “It is on his instructions that the police took these individuals to Mullaitivu.”

Opposition Leader Premadasa, though, said he was stating with responsibility that there were no health officials present when police took the individuals to quarantine.

Parliament will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, July 19, where the No-Confidence Motion on Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila will be taken up for debate.

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