Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As pro-Rajapaksa parliamentarians threw water lethally spiced with red chillie into the eyes of police officers valiantly guarding Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the seventy-eight year old Speaker may take heart from the fact that his grace under fire will stand out as the most remarkable example of steadfastness in parliamentary history. Images of him resolutely facing down parts of a chair, a copy of the Bible and the Constitution aimed at his head, as the House (euphemistically) ‘sat’ this Friday will be indelibly imprinted in the nation’s memory for a long time.
Both the calling of police into the Chamber and the use of chillie water, ironically a favourite torture tactic against alleged (Sinhalese) criminals and (Tamil) ‘terrorists’ in Sri Lanka’s detention centres, were a first in the legislative assembly.
Enduring several vulgar indignities
Shamefully Speaker Jayasuriya was prevented from sitting in the Chair and had to sit on a bench at a lower level as more than twenty police officers and parliamentary staff stood their ground against the deadly rush of the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) supporters, many of them regularly traipsing to court in ongoing corruption cases.
As several vulgar indignities were visited on him, Kipling’s words came to mind; ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…’
This was the second day running that the Speaker endured abuse. On Thursday, dustbins and other sundry objects were thrown at him. Why do we waste public funds on sittings of the House and in elections to send back reprehensible profligates who strut about in the chamber of Parliament shouting vulgarities, sit on chairs of parliamentary officials to comb their hair and sneakily pour bottles of water on the Speaker’s Chair? What will it take for their constituencies to send a powerful message of rejection to these ‘un-worthies’?
Meanwhile former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, alleged to be choreographing this drama, was chuckling in the Prime Minister’s seat unmoved by votes of no confidence. But even strong supporters of the ‘Rajapaksa’ brand in rural Sinhala Buddhist constituencies must balk at the ugliness on display as in fact, did many Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarians.
At no point even in the past was defiance so open, so crude and so contemptuous of parliamentary democracy as evidenced here. If this is the show of brute strength now, the nation should surely shudder in expectation of what lies ahead once power is seized de jure.
A serious question for the President to answer
The SLPP/SLFP objection to the Speaker is that he had acted partially to the United National Party (UNP). Taking that objection on, is the answer to let its members run riot in the House? In fact, the issue here is very simple.
Besides the UNP, the majority in the House consists of members of smaller political parties including minority parties and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) whose members were also attacked with chillie water by the Rajapaksa camp. As the Speaker reminded President Maithripala Sirisena in their famously acerbic exchange of letters, it was his duty to heed their call to uphold the authority of Parliament. Is the Speaker to blame for the fact that the Rajapaksa camp could not succeed in compelling cross-overs despite monumental bribes and ‘Cabinet’ positions to change that majority?
Affirming a vote of no-confidence ‘by voice’ is perfectly allowable by Standing Orders. Yet as one Sirisena loyalist and a lawyer to boot quite nonsensically insisted, this must be done in ‘the proper way.’ That insistence may be valid if his colleagues did not boisterously prevent order in the House, refuse to collaborate in its proceedings and obstruct the Speaker even sitting in the Chair. In that background, the educative primer put out by the Office of ‘Prime Minister’ Rajapaksa as to the procedure on a no-confidence motion should be tossed forthwith into the garbage bin.
So as Sri Lanka continues to lack a duly constituted ‘Cabinet, a ‘Prime Minister’and an effective ‘Government’, a serious question arises. In his exchange of letters to the Speaker and earlier, President Sirisena reiterated that he had acted constitutionally and upon the advice of ‘legal experts.’
Ordinarily, the President may be guided in his interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court as expressly provided for or by the Attorney General. He has not done that on all accounts. Instead, he keeps referring to shadowy ‘legal experts.’ Surely the President must answer as to who these ‘expert/s’ are, as Sri Lankans struggle in the grip of the worst democratic ordeal since independence seemingly due to this very ‘advice’?
Paying for past mistakes
But the enormity of constitutional subversion by the SLFP/SLPP aside, the leadership of the UNP bears singular responsibility for what is taking place. Those who marveled as to why the Rajapaksa clan inexplicably went home without a murmur following the January 8th election in 2015 need to understand that the naked grab of power occurring now is precisely what should have happened then. On both occasions, the Rajapaksa phenomenon was characterised by the same imperviousness to the law.
Four years ago however, that reaction was prevented by the enormous surge of popular will against which the anti-democratic forces retreated strategically, nursing their wounds and waiting for a comeback. The victory was however taken lightly and casually by the ‘yahapalanaya’ coalition with the most costly and counter productive gamble being to delay corruption cases against the Rajapaksa regime in the hope that this would splinter the SLFP. The Central Bank bond scan and typically ‘blind, deaf and dumb’ decision-making by a select few in Colombo across constitutional, economic and social fronts created a perfect political storm that we are now in the eye of.
So while the UNP may indulge in histronics as to the death of democracy, there is a history lesson that must be learnt. Certainly the SLFP has split or as is the case, more ‘swallowed up’ by the SLPP but at what enormous cost to the country? And the awakening of dormant provincial and rural bases of the UNP in the past few days will mean precious little if solid democratic re-organisation of that party’s decision-making hierarchy does not follow.
Independent institutions, the last defence
But leaving alone party politics, there is reason to hope. The Rajapaksa-return has acted as a critical mass to inspire popular resistance. Most importantly, the country’s painfully recovering democratic institutions have withstood challenges so far. Amidst feverish speculation, the Supreme Court handed down a stay of the President’s dissolution of the House until the matter is determined on its merits. The redoubtable Speaker has stood his ground against very heavy fire, physical and verbal. Both deserve the unstinting admiration of the nation. Meanwhile, the police and the military have kept their distance from a vicious political tangle that may have worked out very differently elsewhere in the region.
All this is to the good, even as we recoil in response to the palpable horror that is taking place in the House by the Diyawanna.