The occasion was the annual Budget Speech in Parliament. Unlike in the Westminster- system days, and
in terms of age-old traditions of parliamentary practices, the Finance Minister, in this instance His Excellency the President of Sri Lanka (as he could not trust to give this vital portfolio away to any other member of his sixty one-strong Cabinet) was in the process of presenting his Budget in an unusually halting manner, exposing his lack of familiarity with the gravity of the occasion and the seriousness of the contents of his presentation. In the well of the House, the Opposition MPs, mostly UNPers, held placards that read “Shame” etc. Some government MPs, including some Cabinet Members like Mervyn Silva started advancing towards the placard-holding UNP MPs and manhandling them in the assembly.
The misfortune was not the attack by the likes of Mervyn Silva, Rohitha Abeygoonawardene, Dilum Amunugama and Lohan Ratwatte etc from whom one simply cannot expect any decent conduct, The real tragedy was that both the Speaker, the elder brother of the President who was presiding over the
proceedings and the President, the younger brother who’s the Chief Executive of the nation, who was speaking chose not to avert a serious breach of Parliamentary proceedings. The right action would have been for the Speaker of the House, Honourable Chamal Rajapaksa to name those UNP MPs and instruct Sergeant-at-Arms to remove those MPs from the well of the House. It did not happen. The graver misconduct was in fact committed by the Speaker and the President by choosing to ignore the attacks by the government MPs. They were either condoning what was taking place or they were rendered into inaction by not knowing what course of action was open to them. Both choices are not acceptable to a decent society.
The occasion was unique in that the Chief Executive in his capacity as Minister of Finance was on the floor of the Legislature, one of the three arms of the tripod on which the country’s destiny rests. He was
addressing the Members of Parliament. I am sure some members of the other arm, the Judiciary, were present, at least in the Gallery of Parliament, watching the tragic drama that was unfolding.
This writer can very well recall a precedent to this rowdy episode in Parliament. Sometime in 1976, after the LSSP had left the then coalition government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the House was debating the “Weerasuriya student saga” where a student was killed in the then Peradeniya campus. Mr. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, MP for Eheliyagoda laid a wreath of flowers on the table top near the Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike. Mr. Stanley Tilakaratne, the Speaker immediately named Mr. Nanayakkara and when the Sergeant-at-Arms moved towards the Eheliyagoda MP, the LSSP MPs led by Dr. N M Perera, and Dr. Colvin R de Silva surrounded Mr. Nanayakkara and led him out of the well of the House without a murmur.
What happened in Parliament, the temple of Democracy, on November 21, 2011 on the occasion of the
presentation of 2012 Budget by President Rajapaksa, stands out as one of the most unsavoury episodes in the entire history of Parliamentary proceedings in Sri Lanka. What is despicable is not merely the acts of hooliganism-including the throwing of water bottles-on the part of some government MPs. The fact that it happened while the Chief Executive was making his yearly Budget Speech and the Speaker of the House looked on without resorting to the traditional discipline-oriented action is a telling indictment on those who govern us.
The President must realize that although he was elected President as the candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, once elected, he is the President of all people. He is the President of those who voted for the UPFA as well as for the UNP, JVP, TNA and Independents; and this he needs to realize whether he likes it or not. And the fact that he was making his presentation in the House of Parliament which is the very temple of democracy, he simply cannot shirk his responsibility and render encouragement to his lowly cohorts to run amok. The President failed and failed miserably in his primary responsibility of leading the people or even his party. The Speaker too has the same onus. He too fell short of taking any action. Both of them left the asylum to be run by its inmates. The result was a demonstrably sad episode of fisticuffs.
Where does this leave us? Where does this leave the country or Parliament? When Mervyn Silva played the merry devil inside the Rupavahini premises sometime ago, the writer mistakenly believed that Mahinda Rajapaksa would take some meaningful disciplinary action and put this petty thug in place. But it did not happen. When Mervyn tied a Grama Niladhari to a tree and exhibited him to the whole wide world, the President did not do anything either other than palming the job over to a committee that strangely found the perpetrator not guilty. What an insult to those hundreds of thousands who saw the entire comedy on their television screens? Some attribute this to a “change of political culture”. It is not debatable that our political culture has taken a steep decline. Money and muscle power are the sole requisites for electioneering. Conduct of meetings that include free meals and drinks amounts to mass-scale bribing on the part of the sponsor. Use of state property is taken for granted whilst election-day thuggery, as seen in the Bharatha Lakshman murder, is the norm. If that is our new political culture, what was displayed on the floor of the House during the recent Budget Speech was only a confirmation of the obvious.
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