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World Affairs








Bullet proof cars and failed strikes stir parliament 

Dinesh Gunawardena, Ravi Karunanayake and K.D. Lalkantha

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

IF anyone lost his head first, and then his face last week, that was JVP frontliner and trade union leader K. D. Lalkantha. Whatever the country's present perils may be, last week's singular legislative focus fell on the JVP's promised show of strength by striking work on July 10 and of course the provincial hustings that are showing a violent trend.

The JVP, fractured and struggling to stand on its feet needed the event to show that the Marxists are not yet ready to bite the dust despite painful defections of its star category members. And the government needed to prove that the people were with it and supported the war effort. There, the battle lines were drawn.

Naturally, the parliamentary debates throughout the week were either full of the pre event fear or euphoria, depending on the camp the speakers belonged to and the same sentiments, post event, with the JVP proper a little apologetic and the government riding the crest of a short lived wave.

It really was a baptism of fire for Lalkantha and a true test of his prowess, all the more accentuated by his boastful pledges to quit parliament if he fails to stop SLTB buses from plying on the roads.

So July 8 and July 10 set the mood differently. July 8, dedicated to debate the extension of emergency turned out to be the JVP's platform speech making day with the government whimpering protests.

The House temperature rose early when UNP legislator Ravi Karunanayake raised a pertinent oral question on the purchase of 31 bullet proof cars for VIPs and insinuating that one of them was given to a 'para military leader turned chief minister' that got the government in the raw.

Costly vehicles

Replying the query was the new Chief Government Whip, Dinesh Gunewardena. Giving a breakdown, he said 12 vehicles were imported at US$1.8 million, 15 others at US$3.7 million and four others at US$13.23 million.

Gunewardena said the vehicles were imported from a range of countries including the United Kingdom, India, Germany and the Czech Republic but when prodded about duty waivers, could not give figures, as the formalities were not completed.

"The make and other details cannot be disclosed due to security reasons," he said, to which Karunanayake agreed. But what he needed to know was whether Pillayan was given a vehicle.

"I can't say who would use the vehicles," but this angered Gunewardena who said until and unless the member learns to refer to an elected chief minister properly, he would say nothing. "I can call you by many other names. Would that be right?" demanded Gunewardena. Conceding, a cheeky Karunanayake then asked, "Then, was the paramilitary chief minister a beneficiary?"

An ambiguous Gunewardena said that the government was duty bound to provide a chief minister such a vehicle. "Details, type and date cannot be disclosed," he said.

During the emergency debate proper, it was less about security and more on trade union action and election violence.

War stats

Opening the debate was Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake who declared some 112 security personnel and 43 civilians were killed last month.

Sounding emotional, he said he disliked having to read figures of dead and wounded for he was referring to the brave sons who could have made a greater contribution to the nation, if not for the war. "All the more reason as to why we should see a quick end to this devouring war," he noted.

Besides the deaths, some 793 security personnel and 63 civilians were injured during the same period. "Sadly, we have information that some public officials have provided information to the enemy and these are people who are maintained by the tax payer's money," he observed.

Firing salvos early was UNP front liner Lakshman Seneviratne. First he scoffed at the many deadlines to end the war, and quoted with glee, the Defence Ministry website, the MCNS statistics, statements by the Army Chief and Defence Secretary. 

"They all are at variance. First some 5000 LTTE cadres were to be killed, and now according to Gen. Fonseka some mushrooming of cadres has happened. Or else, why would he claim that there are 4000 more and the war would not end soon," he sniped.

Next he engaged the Prime Minister who was listening intently and asked him whether deadlines were feasible, and pat came the reply. "I would like to set a deadline. But that's impractical," said the wisened politician.

Next, Seneviratne waxed eloquent about the many glories of Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera who is the UNP's NCP chief ministerial hope and said he was not only his personal hero but also an entire country's hero and his life had to be safeguarded.

Life under threat

Seneviratne noted that Janaka Perera's life was under grave threat for the many battles won against the LTTE and the government must secure his life.

"Janaka is our candidate. But he is our hero, the entire country's hero. Don't forget that the LTTE got to Gen. Lucky Algama in Ja-Ela," he warned.

The MP noted that as a retired senior officer he was entitled to two security personnel, but they too have been withdrawn.

"He is our candidate and he has no security. His life is under threat from the LTTE and from political opponents. Several motorbikes have been seen near his house. We have written to the IGP and requested for enhanced security. The UPFA candidate got 30 army escorts and our candidate, a former army chief of staff, none," complained the MP.

To defend the government stood Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, but instead of tearing the Opposition Leader to smithereens, something he has been doing regularly since his defection, he chose to strike middle ground.

Senaratne said Janaka Perera and Gen. Fonseka fought side by side and what Perera would have to say about the military success today would be of interest. "I can't understand why he would want to be in the UNP especially when his one time deputy is achieving the objective he too wished to achieve," the Minister said.

War with media

He next admitted that the government was embroiled in some 'warfare' with the media which was quite unnecessary. "It would be great if we did not have this conflict with the media. Earlier, they were all on Rajapakse's platform and we should keep them there," said he.

A self-confessed federalist, he said now he had to rethink because it appeared that the LTTE could never be committed to actual discussions. "So many have tried. Ranil Wickremesinghe did whatever he did bona fide. He wanted to win their trust. They defeated him and cut the arm of the single voter who supported him. Get us the international assurance that the LTTE would not conveniently abandon the discussion table and I shall go back to my devolution campaign," he said.

Bimal Ratnayake who followed made a string of references to the Rajapakses, and noted some catch phrases such as 'Rajapakse police' 'Rajapakshakaranaya' and 'Rajapakse bheeshanaya.'

He said there was a well-organised government machinery to suppress the dissenting voice. By using the armed forces for these dirty jobs, the government has discredited the forces. The Rajapakse police was kept there to assault monks, students and journalists, he added.

Stop media attacks

"Instead of appointing useless committees, stop attacking the media. We don't appreciate The Leader Publications' brand of journalism but we all know who was behind the arson attack. We also know why there are no investigations," he said. 

Chief Government Whip, Dinesh Gunewardena's opinion was that the emergency debate was being used to raise more political issues than security and scoffed at the JVP for its desire to hold a token strike.

"The JVP is splintered and is looking for political mileage. The UNP is desperate and can't organise a strike, hence latching on to the JVP, what is worse is that generally, trade union action is resorted to obtain workers rights. Instead of labour issues, the JVP's demands' to call off the strike are all political. Don't use the poor workers for your politics," thundered Gunewardena.

If anyone had the right to demand for a salary hike and call for strike action that lay with the valiant soldiers was the candid opinion of JHU Leader, Ven. Ellawala Medhananda.

The monk called the JVP's call to strike 'unfair and untimely' and said it undermined the effort to win the war. "If anyone should be making demands, that should be the soldier. It is wrong to go on strike when the country is faced with a war. Don't break the country instead," said he.

Two days later, on July 10, the tables were truly turned with union champion Lalkantha not turning up inside the chamber until late afternoon, only to face a barrage of insults and tongue in cheek questions, hoots and catcalls of gleeful government members.


There was a sense of victory as UPFA members took broadsides at Lalkantha.

Taking uncustomary broad swipes early morning was Deputy Finance Minister, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya. He scoffed that the JVP-UNP unholy alliance had failed to create any impact and theirs was a strike that failed.

He said it would indeed be sad to miss Lalkantha from the legislature as he would surely honour his word and resign his parliamentary seat. "We will miss him. In fact our next UPFA member is on his way to be sworn in," added he, much to the government's laughter.

"We have struck upon your strike," noted the member, well aided by Non Cabinet Minister for Power and Energy, Mahindananda Aluthgamage gleefully adding, "Illagena kewa." (You slapped your own faces, struck your own selves.)

When Lalkantha entered the House eventually, the government legislators gave him a welcome like no other. "No show, no show, boru show" they chimed, while thumps, hoots and catcalls were directed his way. For his part, the JVP trade union leader weathered the storm and said, "Shout as much as you like. Laugh as much as you like. But this is 70% successful and my target was reached," he said.

"Were you aiming very low," queried Aluthgamage innocently, only to earn a withering look from Lalkantha.

Until the next time

There were more theories than that. Non Cabinet Minister Jagath Pushpakumara gloated that the strike failed due to lack of public support. "Why would people support such opportunistic trade union action? They don't believe in the JVP's sinister attempt to whip up anti incumbency sentiments," he noted.

As for Lalkantha, he said he doesn't feel like a failure, or that his effort had failed. "We worked against all odds," he said, and the government began its chorus. "We did it amidst government suppression, police intimidation and state media going all out to make it a flop," he said.

But all the protesting and the statistics he discussed in the House could not make Lalkantha smile. Deep down, the JVP that is capable of crippling the state sector within hours, this time failed to have the desired impact. That's something that will make the pompous JVP union leader eat humble pie for a little while. At least until the next strike.

Entries and exits

There were entries and exits last week, different in nature. 

First, UPFA Puttalam District Parliamentarian Priyankara Jayaratne was unanimously elevated to the rank of Deputy Speaker. He replaced Geetanjana Gunewardena who resigned from the post citing conflict of interest after his party leader and sibling Dinesh Gunewardena was appointed Chief Government Whip.

The next day, Geetanjana Gunewardena was sworn in as Non Cabinet Minister of Housing.

JVP legislator Wasantha Samarasinghe's resignation was also announced last week. Samarasinghe is the JVP's chief ministerial candidate at the North Central Provincial Council election.

Returning to parliament on the SLMC National List was SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem. The MP who resigned from parliament to contest as chief ministerial candidate at the Eastern Provincial poll in May, was sworn in once again on Thursday.

More extensions

Parliament has made a habit of it now to extend the acting appointment of Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Kitulegoda by 14 days.

His services are extended every two weeks, but the government is showing no signs of reconstituting the Constitutional Council that can appoint a permanent secretary general. Instead, the practice now is to give a record-breaking number of extensions.

Sure power

Then there was JVP's new Parliamentary Group Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake making a special statement on Thursday morning (9). Suddenly his mike failed, and his face lit up. "Ah! Power failure, perhaps!," he said with such hope, only to have the government's raucous team shouting back, "No way. No power failures today!"


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