The Sunday Leader

Donkey Acts And Opposition Ponies

“If the opposition wants, I am ready to go for any election.”

The main opposition, the United National Party, opened three new battle fronts last week against the government. The first battle front was its protest over the Strategic Development Act, which, according to the UNP, will lead to the setting up of Casinos in Colombo with tax exemptions. The Strategic Development Act was passed in Parliament on Thursday (24) with a majority of 71 as 113 members of the house voted in favour of the act. Hours before the vote was taken, the UNP staged a protest along D R Wijewardena Mawatha where the government was planning to “construct a gaming zone.”

Basil Rajapaksa, Ven Aturaliye Rathana thera, Shasheendra Rajapaksa and Harin Fernando

The protest was a success and a large number of supporters participated. The protesters marched towards a building owned by a well known businessman and expressed their dissatisfaction over his alleged involvement in the Casino business in Sri Lanka. They also claimed that Casinos would eventually lead to prostitution, drugs and erosion of long-established socio cultural values. The UNP dubbed the Strategic Development Act as ‘Buuru panatha’ (Donkey Act) during the protest which was held in Colombo on Thursday.

To symbolize the donkey act, the UNP attempted to bring a couple of ‘real’ donkeys into the protest. They later realized that it was not a viable option due to practical difficulties. Then they chose to bring a few ponies into the protest as they would resemble donkeys and thereby the ‘Donkey Act’. It was an eye-catching and innovative move as everyone was thrilled by the presence of ponies. It is unclear whether the same excitement was there on the part of the ponies as one of them went berserk in the middle of the protest, probably due to the noise and bustle.

The UNP was well aware of the fact that the protest would not lead to a withdrawal of the Strategic Development Act. Its sole intention was to create some ‘hype’ and make the country aware of negative implications of the regulation introduced by the government. Speaking to The Sunday Leader soon after the protest, a senior UNP Parliamentarian who was instrumental in organizing the protest said the UNP’s initiative really served the purpose.

Later in the day, the Act was presented to Parliament and it received 113 votes in favour and 42 votes against. Opposition political parties such as the UNP, DNA and TNA voted against the regulation along with JHU member Ven Aturaliye Rathana thera, who voted against the regulation from the government camp. Rathana Thera has been strongly critical of the legislation from the time it saw the light of day. Rathana Thera’s move to vote against the regulation did not come as a surprise to many.
68 MPs skip “Casino Vote”

The highlight of the day was 68 members of Parliament – who represented both the government and the Opposition – skipping the vote. This came in a context where the government had strictly instructed all its members be present in Parliament on Thursday as the vote could have taken a crucial turn in the face of heavy protest from the opposition.

Among those who were not present in Parliament during the vote were Gamini Lokuge, Rishad Bathiudeen, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Sumedha G Jayasena, Susil Premjayantha, Athauda Seneviratne, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, Rauf Hakeem, Basheer Segu Dawood, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Wimal Weerawansa, Premalal Jayasekera, Weerakumara Dissanayake, Neomal Perera, Muththu Sivalingham, M L M Hisbullah, Hassen Ali, Mohammed Aslam, Sajin Vas Gunawardena, Palani Digambaram, Manusha Nanayakkara, Ramesh Pathirana, N Basnayake, Chamika Buddadasa, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda thera, Roshan Ranasinghe, Ruwan Ranatunga, Lohan Ratwatte, Namal Rajapaksa, P Radhakrishnan, Udith Lokubandara, Vidura Wickremanayake, Neranjan Wickremesinghe, Erik Prasanna, Shehan Semasinghe, M Faris, Kanaka Herath and J Farook.

One can come to the assumption that Muslim Parliamentarians avoided the vote on the Strategic Development Act as gaming is deemed ‘haram’ according to Islam. Three Muslim Parliamentarians representing the SLFP, namely A H M Azwer, Faizer Mustapha and A H M Fowzie voted in favour of the act. Hambanthota District Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, on the other hand, was leading the Sri Lankan Team at the Asian Five Nations. He could not attend Parliament on Thursday to cast his vote on the controversial act.

The government managed to get it passed in Parliament without much trouble. Even during the debate prior to the vote, members of the government categorically stated that the Act will not result in any new Casinos in Colombo. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who spoke on behalf of the government, assured that the government had no hidden agenda to legalize casino under the regulations of the Strategic Development Act.

Harin informs UNP WC Of  CM Candidacy

The forthcoming Uva Provincial Council election is another battle front for the UNP where its strength will be tested to a great extent. Many are of the view that the main opposition party should field a Chief Ministerial Candidate for Uva to lead the election campaign of the party as the ruling party will also field Shasheendra Rajapaksa, son of Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, as its Chief Ministerial Candidate. In Western and Southern Provincial Council elections, the government did not name its Chief Ministerial candidates to keep the intra-party contest among UPFA candidates open.

Badulla District UNP Parliamentarian Harin Fernando, last week, verbally informed the UNP Working Committee that he was willing to contest the Uva PC as the Chief Ministerial Candidate of the party. However, he said he would contest the PC election on one condition. Fernando made it clear that the party should secure his Parliamentary seat, if the UNP wants him to join the PC election fray. The UNP has no reason to reject Fernando’s request as the party volunteered to do the same for Harsha De Silva while offering him candidacy to contest the Western Provincial Council election a few months ago. De Silva, however, was reluctant to take the offer.

The biggest challenge lying ahead of Fernando is the presence of Shasheendra Rajapaksa who obviously has the benefit arising from the ‘Rajapaksa Factor’ wedded to his name. Rajapaksa, in 2009, won the election with a resounding margin and his preferential vote percentage was a new record in the political history of Sri Lanka. Fernando is of the belief that he will be able to make a difference in Uva.

“My biggest strength is the support I have from the people in Badulla and that will give me an edge over Shasheendra Rajapaksa who will be contesting from Monaragala. When it comes to the final result of the province, the result of Badulla will make a much bigger impact than that of Monaragala District. I am of the belief that the UNP will be able to show a remarkable progress in the Uva Provincial Council election,” Fernando told The Sunday Leader. The UNP Working Committee and the Leadership Council is yet to make a final decision on the Chief Ministerial Candidate for Uva.

UNP boycotts Commonwealth cultural event

Meanwhile, the Leadership Council of the UNP made another important decision on Friday (25) by deciding to boycott a cultural event hosted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Saturday (26). The purpose of the event was to “celebrate the cultural diversity of the Commonwealth to mark the Sinhala and Tamil New year” and the President invited all members of Parliament for the occasion.

After a round of discussions, the Leadership council of the party decided to instruct all UNP Parliamentarians to boycott the event on the grounds that “the present government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has grossly violated all values and principles governing the Commonwealth of Nations.”

“The UNP is of the strong belief that the government has no right to host events related to Commonwealth when its own actions continuously contravene basic tenets of democracy and good governance that it is bound to uphold as Chair in Office. No UNP member will be present at the ceremony and the party will boycott the event without any reservations,” the Leadership Council said on Friday.

President’s meeting with editors

After a hiatus of several months, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with editors and heads of the print and electronic media at Temple Trees on Thursday – hours before the Strategic Development Act was presented to Parliament. The President, who entered the meeting room smiling, wished everyone a happy New Year. The President indicated that he was surprised at the less than usual numbers present for the meeting, quipping “Maybe because you’ll have enough news these days!”

One of the hot topics during the meeting was the conduct of Bodu Bala Sena which has created many controversies in the country. Commenting on the matter, the President said that no one was above the law and he would not allow anyone to take the law into their hands. It was at this point that the President directed to instruct a special Police unit to investigate into incidents involving religious matters. Police Chief N K Illangakoon was also present at the meeting. President Rajapaksa also said that he will be meeting with all relevant groups individually in order to ascertain grievances and offer solutions.

The exact mandate of the ‘Police Unit’ is not yet clear. However, the President made it clear that it would be akin to tourism and environmental police units that are presently functioning. The Police unit, the President said, will operate under the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Editors also asked about the President’s viewpoints on the attack against a group of UNP Parliamentarian in Hambanthota – the traditional stronghold of the Rajapaksas. When answering the question, the President referred to a number of incidents where politicians, including him, had undergone attacks.

“The Speaker was attacked at Deduru Oya when he was a Minister. I myself have been beaten up and subjected to tear gas attacks. Dinesh Gunawardena was beaten up. It was the Police that carried out these attacks. Colvin was also beaten up by the Slave Island police during the UNP Period. Then there was an ex-Minister, who got people beaten up by thugs wielding cinnamon poles,” the President said. He denied the allegation that the UNP MPs were beaten up in a high security zone, saying Hambanthota was not a high security area.

Resurgence of the LTTE and heavy military presence in the North also gained ground as a topic during the meeting. President Mahinda Rajapaksa made his position clear about the military presence in the North saying, “We have clearly stated that we will not remove these camps. Whether or not there’s LTTE resurgence, these camps will remain,” the President said.

“More than 70 camps have been dismantled. The ones that remain are necessary. Where do you want me to put them?” he asked. He also added that the government has taken a risk by releasing over 13000 ex-LTTE members to the society after rehabilitation.
“Yes! We took a risk there. But is a risk that we have to take,” the President asserted. He also did not forget to keep the media guessing about the next national level election. President Rajapaksa said he was not in a hurry to go for a Presidential election as he had a few more years.

“If the opposition wants, I am ready to go for any election,” the President said. At that point, an editor posed a question.
“Will it be a presidential election or parliamentary election?”

“Whatever they want,” the President said without giving a straight answer to the question. Many are of the belief that the President will use ‘Presidential Election’ as a trump card against opposition probably in early 2015. While these serious conversations were going on, there were several light moments too. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who was also present at the meeting, said some foreign parties are coming up with strange conditions for Sri Lanka pertaining to foreign aid. He said some want the country to introduce gay rights laws in order to have access to foreign aid. At this point, President Rajapaksa quipped, saying “it must be for the opposition, not for us.”

1 Comment for “Donkey Acts And Opposition Ponies”

  1. Sylvia Haik

    The most conspicuous absentee in the mass protest against the Casino Bill was the BBS. Perhaps it was the payback for the government turning a blind eye to their gross illegal activities.

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