Hunger strike is the ultimate political weapon for any activist in the democratic political stream. There are many activists across the world who have used this weapon quite effectively to resist oppression and achieve their desired goals, from time to time.
In the context of international politics, Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Nelson Mandela made use of this weapon quite effectively, in their freedom struggles.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India’s freedom fight, carried out 17 hunger strikes, during the period between 1913 and 1947. Hundreds of thousands of people hailed him as a hero for enduring hunger, demanding peace, justice and democracy for his own people.
But, there is one man, in the Sri Lankan political sphere, who has made a mockery of the terms ‘hunger strike’ and ‘fast unto death’.
He is none other than Wimal Weerawansa, the UPFA Parliamentarian and the Leader of the National Freedom Front, who is currently in remand for misusing state vehicles and distributing them among his family, friends and political supporters.
Weerawansa, last week, launched a hunger strike in his prison cell in protest of the High Court’s decision to reject his bail application. He started the hunger strike by refusing his breakfast one morning and then informed the prison authorities that he would continue his fast until bail is granted.
In fact, Weerawansa is no stranger to hunger strikes and fast unto death campaigns. In 2010, Weerawansa launched a famous fast unto death campaign against the UN advisory panel on Sri Lanka, appointed by the then Secretary General Ban ki Moon.
Although Weerawansa pledged to sacrifice his life against Ban ki Moon’s Panel, he later gave up the hunger strike when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa offered him a glass of orange juice, making a mockery of his own fast unto death campaign.
This botched hunger strike attempt was ridiculed by many in the local political domain. When he realized that the UN Secretary General did not move an inch from his position on Sri Lanka, Weerawansa, a Cabinet Minister of the then UPFA government, abandoned the strike, turning the entire government into a laughing stock in the eyes of the international community.
The second episode of Weerawansa’s hunger strike drama was no different.
He launched the hunger strike against a decision by the Colombo High Court to reject his bail application.
The judiciary cannot reverse its verdict based on hunger strikes and other forms of drama. The judiciary needs sound arguments and reasoning. What Weerawansa tried to do, therefore, is to emotionally blackmail those making decisions in the judicial system.
A day after he launched a hunger strike, Weerawansa’s lawyers filed a fresh bail application before the Colombo Fort Magistrate seeking bail for the Parliamentarian based on his daughter’s health condition.
They urged the Magistrate to grant Weerawansa bail under any condition as his daughter, a 16-year-old girl, was under severe mental duress.
In the bail application, the lawyers stated that the Parliamentarian’s daughter was being treated at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital, Colombo, under the supervision of a Psychiatrist.
Obviously, Weerawansa is not the only imprisoned father whose children are under mental duress. It is highly doubtful whether any judiciary can consider it a valid reason to grant someone bail for an unbailable offence such as, misappropriation of public properties.
However, the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s decision on Weerawansa’s fresh bail application is due on April 3.
In the final analysis, like many other high profile figures who went to jail recently, Weerawansa too ended up in the prison hospital. The only exception, however, was that Weerawansa’s path to the prison hospital was a little dramatic.
While being treated at the prison hospital, Weerawansa refused to eat any food. The doctors, however, gave him liquid diet and saline. A few days later, he was transferred to the Colombo National Hospital for further treatment.
What Weerawansa wanted, as he launched his hunger strike, was a massive wave of public sympathy and a chain of street protests. He assumed that the Joint Opposition would take to the streets, turning the hunger strike into a political volcano.
Unfortunately for him, the Joint Opposition group had other priorities. They were not interested in taking to the streets and holding massive rallies in support of Weerawansa. Even former President Rajapaksa, the de facto leader of the Joint Opposition group, did not make a decisive intervention to bail Weerawansa out of his precarious situation.
This left Weerawansa and his allies in a quandary as his hunger strike rapidly lost momentum.
In this context, while Weerawansa was at the Colombo National Hospital, the National Freedom Front stalwarts approached several senior Buddhist monks to issue a statement urging the Parliamentarian to end his hunger strike. It was later revealed that a prominent Mahanayake Thera turned down a request by Weerawansa supporters to issue a statement in support of the protesting Parliamentarian.
Several Anunayake Theras, however, responded to their request favourably and agreed to intervene in the matter.
What the Weerawansa supporters needed was some escape route – an excuse for Weerawansa to end his hunger strike and save his face.
It was against this backdrop that several Buddhist monks, including Pallaththara Sumanajothi Thera and Kirama Wimalajothi Thera (Founding leader of Bodu Bala Sena), visited Weerawansa at the Colombo National Hospital.
Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader and UPFA MP Udaya Gammanpila, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, Parliamentarians Bandula Gunawardena, Jayantha Samaraweera and Padma Udaya Shantha Gunasekera were also present at the hospital.
When the group entered the ward, Weerawansa was lying on the bed, covering his whole body with a white sheet.
Flanked by Weerawansa’s supporters, Sumanajothi Thera offered the Parliamentarian a glass of milk, urging him to end the fast, “on behalf of the country.”
Weerawansa then drank the glass of milk, ending his nine day fast. His supporters said, Weerawansa decided to give up the fast considering the requests by Buddhist monks.
“Weerawansa ended the fast as he was not in a position to turn down the requests by senior Buddhist monks. They insisted that Weerawansa should continue his struggle against the current government. We fear that the proposed new Constitution will divide the country. At the same time, there is an attempt to incarcerate our war heroes by setting up a hybrid court. So, Weerawansa can’t die at this juncture,” Jayantha Samaraweera, a stalwart of the National Freedom Front, told media after the Parliamentarian ended the hunger strike.
Weerawansa’s hunger strike showed the kind of theatrics the political sphere of Sri Lanka is characterized with. The politicians have no qualms about insulting the collective intelligence of the public by staging various kinds of drama, from time to time.
Be that as it may, Weerawansa’s hunger strike drama gave rise to a serious debate over privileges enjoyed by Parliamentarians before the law enforcement bodies.
It all started with a remark by UPFA Parliamentarian and Mahajana Eksath Peramuna Leader, Dinesh Gunawardena at a press conference held by the Joint Opposition, in Colombo, earlier this week.
He indicated that MPs should be given a ‘better treatment’ before the law enforcement authorities and the judiciary, as several speakers in the past had declared that Parliament was above the law.
Gunawardena made this remark when asked about former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement on Wimal Weerawansa’s hunger strike and the rejection of his bail application.
Rajapaksa said Weeerawansa was a Member of Parliament and not a carpenter or a labourer. What he meant was that the government, prison authorities and the judiciary should have given Weerawansa what he wanted, simply on the grounds that the latter was a Parliamentarian.
It is important to examine whether the idea of Parliament’s supremacy comes into play when MPs are taken into Police custody for criminal offences.
Gunawardena’s remark was probably based on the famous ruling in this regard given by former Speaker Anura Bandaranaike, in 2001. What set the backdrop from the ruling was a resolution the Speaker received from MPs seeking the appointment of a Select Committee of Parliament to inquire into a complaint of misbehaviour against the then Chief Justice Sarath Silva.
The Supreme Court made an interim order seeking to prevent the Speaker from dealing with that resolution until the Court had heard and determined a fundamental rights application filed before it.
The Speaker ruled that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to issue the interim order, and therefore, he had no legal obligation to comply with it.
This ruling, however, does not give immunity to individual members of Parliament, as Gunawardena indicated.
Some quarters argue that Members of Parliament are above the law and are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Courts.
This misconceived notion was probably derived from a provision that was included in the 1972 Constitution, which reads as follows:
“30. No court or other institution administering justice shall have power or jurisdiction in respect of the proceedings of the National State Assembly or of anything done, purported to be done, or omitted to be done by or in the National State Assembly.”
That provision was included in the context of the National State Assembly being “the supreme instrument of state power” under the 1972 Constitution.
It is important to understand that there is no provision similar to Article 30 in the present Constitution. Under the present Constitution, it is highly doubtful whether Parliament enjoys the same status.
Be that as it may, Weerawansa, or other MPs who went to jail in the recent past do not get protection from such legal provisions. Most of them were taken into custody for offences committed against the Public Property Act – a strong legislation seeking to protect the abuse of state properties.
Any misappropriation exceeding Rs. 25,000 is considered an unbailable offence, under this legislation.
That was why Weerawansa and several others, including MPs Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Namal Rajapaksa and Johnston Fernando, had to languish in remand in the recent past.
When it comes to offences of this nature, everyone is equal, in the eyes of the judiciary, irrespective of their positions or status. No one can expect special treatment based on their positions in Parliament or health conditions of their family members.
In this context, it can be analyzed that Gunawardena’s statement was aimed at painting a wrong picture and justifying the unjustifiable statement by former President Rajapaksa, which drew a false line between ‘Parliamentarians’ and the citizenry.