Sri Lanka’s Shame
The presentation of the 2012 budget last week in parliament resembled a scene out of a boxing ring or a rugger match gone rowdy when governing party lawmakers clashed with the protesting UNP legislators.
The attack on opposition UNP parliamentarians by the UPFA legislators during the budget speech delivered by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was an embarrassing sight for the foreign dignitaries who were following the proceedings from the gallery. The biggest shock was that the governing party members behaved in an unruly manner in front of the President, the head of the governing party.
Shouts by the President saying, “Our people go back to their seats,” fell on deaf ears. Some government ministers and deputy ministers in fact ran past the President into the well of the Chamber ignoring the Presidential directive.
The President’s mood however was worsened when a bottle of water thrown at the opposition side by a backbencher in the governing party side nearly hit him in the head. After a few minutes the President continued with the speech while the Sergeant-at-Arms and other parliament officials dispersed the unruly mob.
As for the officials, well wishers and media personnel witnessing the fracas from the gallery, it was yet another pathetic display of the caliber of public representatives who pass laws in this country.
The opposition members who protested by holding placards were in an uproar over the President’s threat to suspend parliament.
Rajapaksa’s announcement that he could dissolve the House and call for elections was the result of opposition legislators shouting anti government slogans in the Chamber.
UNP parliamentarians expressed shock and condemned the manner in which the governing party MPs as well as several ministers behaved during the budget. UNP Badulla District parliamentarian Harin Fernando, who was in the middle of the scuffle, said the opposition members commenced the protest when the President announced measures taken to benefit armed forces personnel.
“The President was speaking about benefits for the war heroes when the man who won the war was behind bars,” he told The Sunday Leader. “When the opposition continued with the protests, the UPFA backbenchers got agitated and tried to pull the placards out of our hands,” Fernando noted. When the backbenchers pulled the placard out of Fernando’s hands he simply pulled out another from his stash under the table.
It was at this point that UPFA Kandy District MP Lohan Ratwatte ran down the steps to grab the placard out of Chief Opposition Whip John Ameratunge’s hands. When Lohan was on his way back to the seat, Fernando knocked against him, which resulted in the whole commotion.
“The governing party members verbally abused the UNPers more than physical assault,” Fernando said, adding that UNP and UPFA members all thronged to where they were.
“The UNPers then started to ask the President how he planned to rule the country if he could not control his party members,” he observed. Meanwhile a governing party parliamentarian tried to confiscate UNP Matara District MP Mangala Samaraweera’s mobile phone when he was trying to take photographs of the commotion.
Samaraweera said the whole opposition started to shout when the President made a dictatorial statement that he could dissolve parliament any time he wanted.
When Samarawera clicked the first photograph from his mobile phone, Deputy Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratne had tried to grab the phone. Samaraweera had managed to grab the phone back after shouting at Jayaratne.
“Deputy Ports Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena stormed towards me and shouted at me in filth and threatened me,” he said.
“I also shouted back and Mahindananda Aluthgamage dragged Abeygunawardena away,” he added.
Parliamentarian Rosy Senanayake stated that even governing party members pushed her around during the scuffle. “Some of the governing party backbenchers whom I do not know even tried to grab the placards off our hands,” she said. UPFA MP Kamala Ranatunge had tried to grab Senanayake’s placard. “I told her that we were just holding a placard and there was no reason to get agitated,” she said. “It was a sad day when the ruling party tried to use its powers to attack the opposition for expressing its views,” Senanayake said.
However, governing party legislators said that although the opposition has the right to protest and express their views, it should be done in a proper manner. Ratwatte observed that there is protocol in parliament that needs to be followed.
“It was the budget where the President of the country was delivering the speech and the opposition cannot behave like Montessori children,” he said. He pointed out that there is a proper manner in which the opposition could protest even in parliament. “It should not be during a nationally important event like the budget,” he said.
Ratwatte denied claims of assault made by the UNP legislators. “There were words exchanged, but not blows,” he said. He admitted that he initiated the whole commotion after grabbing Ameratunge’s placard. “But I never assaulted him. I grabbed the poster because it was shocking to see a senior member like the Chief Opposition Whip initiating a protest,” Ratwatte noted.
As to why the UPFA members failed to heed the directive by the President for everyone to return to their seats, Ratwatte said that none of them heard it in the middle of the scuffle.
Another UPFA MP who was in the middle of the melee was Ruwan Ranatunge. Ranatunge also expressed a sentiment similar to Ratwatte’s.
”The opposition can protest, but not use bad language to protest during a budget,” he said. Ranatunge added that the governing party members had requested the UNPers to protest if they wanted to without making comments in filth.
“There was no assault although the UNP members claimed that the UPFA members had assaulted them. The opposition was clearly playing to the media,” he said.
Ranatunge also denied any physical intimidation of opposition members.
“I intervened to bring the situation under control. UNP’s Eran Wickremaratne and I tried to push both parties aside,” he said. He added that although even pushing each other around was not suitable parliamentary behavior, it was prompted by the actions of the opposition.