By Saman Indrajith
MEP and Joint Opposition Parliament group Leader Dinesh Gunawardena who fought for the National Freedom Front’s right to function in the House as a separate party has been suspended for one week from parliament on grounds that his conduct was against dignity and decorum of Parliament yesterday.
The decision to suspend MP Gunawardena’s parliament sittings was taken after much uproar in the House and a vote taken on a motion moved by the government. The motion moved by Leader of the House Highways and Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella said that MP Gunawardena kept disturbing Parliament sittings against repeated warnings from the Chair and therefore he should be suspended for one week from attending Parliament. The Joint Opposition MPs demanded a division by name on the motion.
Accordingly, a vote was taken and 85 MPs voted for and 22 voted against. The JVP abstained from voting while 114 MPs were absent. The TNA and UPFA MPs in the government ranks voted with the government.
Earlier in the day when sittings commenced Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, announcing his ruling over the matter of NFF Leader Wimal Weerwansa’s request to accept him and his four MPs from his party as a separate group, said that there were only six parties recognised by Parliament. The parties were the UNP, the UPFA, the JVP, the ITAK, the EPDP and the SLMC.
The Speaker said: “On Feb 22, 2017 MP Wimal Weerawansa made a request that he and his party MPs be accepted as an independent group in the Opposition. He made the same request in a letter dated March 09, 2016. He raised this issue in this House on April 05, 2016. I have been asked to make a decision whether the NFF could be accepted as a separate party along with the UNP, UPFA, JVP, ITAK, EPDP and SLMC elected to this parliament at the general election held on August 17, 2015 and declared as parties which contested the same election by Elections Commissioner in a gazette No 1928/2 dated August 19, 2015. There have been many previous occasions where MPs opted to sit as MPs independent of the parties from which they had been elected. On those occasions my predecessors made various decisions. I studied all those decisions before making a decision. MP Weerawansa contested the last general election on the UPFA ticket. The eighth parliament which started sittings from Sept 01, 2015 comprised six parties. Perusing the agreements among political parties which contested the election as alliances is not subject to my scope. I made my decision on the basis of provisions in the constitution and the Standing Orders. If I accept various groups as separate parties each time an MP or a group of MPs makes a request to that effect it would pave the way for disruption of smooth functioning of Parliament and amount to abuse of parliament privileges. When a group of MPs belonging to the UPFA decided to sit in the Opposition, I took action to accommodate their request and permit them to make special statements under the Standing Order 23/2 and to allow their nominated leader MP Dinesh Gunawardena to attend the party leaders’ meeting. I as the Speaker cannot establish a new party in the House against the precedence, provisions of the Constitution. Accordingly, I can accept only the parties recognized by the Elections Commissioner in the gazette announcing the parties elected to Parliament at the last election. In any case, I would not hesitate to ensure the rights of each and every MP.”
NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa, raising a point of order, said he needed to explain his position on the issue.
Speaker Jayasuriya: I have given my ruling and that is all. There is no need for debates.
Leader of the House Minister Kiriella: The Speaker has given the ruling. We have to abide by that ruling.
MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena: MP Weerawansa should be permitted to speak.
MP Weerawansa: The Speaker is swayed by party agendas. He is nothing but a puppet in the hands of Batalanda killers. We are not ready to accept the diktats of Batalanda killers.
MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena said that the Prime Minister too had expressed his consent to accept the NFF as a separate party in the opposition.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe: I did not say that we would accept the NFF as a separate group but as a group of independent MPs. If they need to act as a group of independent MPs they should move it in a substantive motion.
MP Weerawansa: The JVP contested as a constituent of the People’s Alliance and later decided to leave the alliance. Then they were accepted as a separate party in Parliament and that precedence should be taken into consideration here. The Speaker should not be a puppet of the government. The Speaker should not be a disgrace to the House. The Speaker should be put up in a paddy field to chase away birds.
MPs Gunawardena, Weerawansa and Padma Udaya Shantha Gunasekera came to the Well and marched to the Chair, shouting slogans including ‘Shameless Speaker,’ ‘What a shame!,’ and ‘Speaker is a puppet’. Joint Opposition MPs Keheliya Rambukwella and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena were standing up near their tables but did not join the march. Government MPs booed at the protestors while Sergeant-at-Arms Anil Parakrama Samarasekera and his deputies rushed to the Mace. As the three MPs continued to shout, the Speaker suspended the sittings for ten minutes.
When sittings resumed again around 1.50 pm the number of JO members had increased and MP Weerawansa raising points of order demanded that he be given an opportunity to speak. MP Gunawardena backed his colleagues’ call.
Speaker Jayasuriya: Do not disturb. Please let me conduct this session. We have important works to do. I have given my ruling. Listen to me and obey the order from the Chair. MP Gunawardena is a senior MP and he should set an example. His conduct is disgraceful.
MP Gunawardena: Do not be biased and give MP Weerawansa time to speak.
Speaker Jayasuriya: I will give him time to speak.
MP Weerawansa: Then give us a date. Is it tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka: When I was in prison, I was permitted to attend Parliament. I was not given the chance to attend parliament committees. Now MP Weerawansa has been given that opportunity. How is that?
Speaker Jayasuriya: That permission has been given by the courts.
JO MPs continued to stand up and shout against the Chair.
The Speaker: Please sit down. Order in the House. Let me carry out my duties. I have noticed several MPs using unparliamentary language. I cannot permit you to repeat that conduct. It is against the dignity and decorum of the House.
MP Gunawardena: Is this Yahapalanaya. Let MP Weerawansa speak. We have a right to speak. Do not deprive us of our rights using the powers of the Chair.
The Speaker: Now you are talking of rights to speak. I remember when I attempted to move the Right to Information Bill as an MP in the opposition, you as the Chief Government Whip of the then Parliament did not let me even to stand up. Now you are talking of rights.
UNP MP Hector Appuhamy: We call upon the Chair to name MP Weerawansa and remove him from the Chamber. He does not allow us to proceed and conduct this session.
Speaker Jayasuriya: I would be compelled to name MP Gunawardena under the Section 74.1 of Standing Orders if he keeps disturbing us. Do not push me to take that decision. Do not make me do so.
As JO MPs continued to protest, the Speaker named MP Gunawardena, asked him to leave the Chamber and suspended sittings. All JO MPs shouted in protest and remained inside the chamber. When the House resumed sittings, the Speaker asked whether MP Gunawardena would leave the Chamber or not. JO MPs shouted at the Chair. The Speaker said that if the named MP did not leave the Chamber then he would have to order the Sergeant-at-Arms to remove the latter by force with the assistance of Police. As JO MPs continued to disrupt the session, the Speaker called on the Sergeant-at-Arms to remove MP Gunawardena and suspended sittings. The Sergeant-at-Arms and his deputies went up to MP Gunawardena’s seat but all JO MPs formed a circle around MP Gunawardena. After several minutes, policemen came into the chamber.
There were 21 policemen altogether in the chamber while the JO MPs shouted it was a police state. Some JO MPs questioned why some policemen did not have their insignia and numbers. Then a senior officer with complete uniform came forward and told protesting MPs that he would accept the responsibility for his men’s actions though they were not wearing their insignia. MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara warned policemen that if the police used force to remove MP Gunawardena they, too, would retaliate. The JO MPs pointed out that the policemen could not touch other MPs as the Speaker had ordered only MP Gunawardena be removed. The policemen looked on helplessly.
When the House resumed sittings policemen left the chamber and Leader of the House moved a motion demanding the suspension of MP Gunawardena and the vote was taken. When the vote result was announced MP Gunawardena walked out of the Chamber in protest.
Parliament sources said that last such incident took place on July 09, 1987 when Police led by Sergeant-at-arms came into the chamber and removed MP AHM Azwer, who disobeyed Chair’s orders. MP Azwer, too, had been suspended for one week subsequently, sources said.