Who Hugged Anura Kumara Dissanayake?
Although the government managed to get the Strategic Development Act passed in Parliament, the entire process created plenty of ripples within the ruling. The Jathika Hela Urumaya, a constituent party of the government, openly voted against the legislation while a large number of ruling party members were not present in Parliament when the vote was taken.
During the debate on the Strategic Development Act, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake launched a scathing attack on the government, saying the ruling party, for the first time since it came to power, has accepted ‘Casino’ as part of its strategic development plan.
“There are casinos in Sri Lanka and several businessmen are running them in and around Colombo legally or illegally. This particular Act makes it official that the government has identified ‘Casino’ as part of its ‘Strategic Development’ plan. That’s why this piece of legislation found its way into Parliament. Even the members of Parliament, representing the government, are helpless as they have to cast their votes ‘deals’ that have been done above their heads. They know the negative impact of these Acts more than any of us. They are afraid to come forward and speak up against such malpractices. I pity them!” Dissanayake said.
It is now widely known among political circles that some members of the ruling party, including a few Cabinet ministers, had hugged Dissanayake as he came out of the house after his speech. They had said the JVP Leader’s 15 minute speech was the best analysis of the Strategic Development Act and its negative ramifications. Some of them, reportedly, had stated that they were not in a position to openly appreciate the JVP Leader’s speech as they were compelled to vote against their own conscience.
The news of several ruling party members secretly hugging JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake reached the top rungs of the government within a matter of few hours. It was after this point that the ruling party decided to hold a special inquiry on the government MPs who did not turn up in Parliament when the crucial vote was taken. At the same time, the inquiry will also look into the conduct of the ruling party who expressed dissenting views about the Strategic Development Act.
Opposition within government
A serious question arises as to whether some members of the government attempted to distance their names from the Casino controversy by not being present in Parliament when the vote was taken. Government allies like the JHU, Jathika Nidahas Peramuna and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress openly stated that they had issues with the content of the Strategic Development Act and its negative implications. None of the SLFP MPs who skipped the vote on the Act made their position clear prior to the vote on the controversial regulation. That was one reason why the government had taken this matter into serious consideration.
The government is now trying to ascertain whether a section in the ruling camp is attempting to act as an opposition within the government, creating a new ‘power bloc’. Addressing the UPFA May Day rally at the Campbell Park on Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said to a large number of UPFA supporters that he didn’t expect government members to praise everything undertaken by the government.
“Ruling party members had freedom to take a different view. The coalition is working together though there are differences,” President Rajapaksa said, clearly referring to the situation that arose with regard to the Strategic Development Act.
A day after the May Day Rally, Investment Promotions Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha, addressing reporters in Colombo, fired cannon balls at government members who expressed negative viewpoints about the Strategic Development Act, stating their misinterpretations could affect potential foreign investments in Sri Lanka in the future. He categorically stated that the Act had nothing to do with Casinos, although some, who are also the members of the government, have painted the wrong picture about the entire process.
It is still not clear whether the Strategic Development Act will result in new Casino projects in Colombo as Australian media gave a different twist to the story over the past few days. Despite various claims made by Sri Lanka’s opposition, Australian newspapers and several international news agencies reported that the Sri Lankan government has “shot down” James Packer’s bid for Casino’s in Colombo. They suggested that James Packer’s casino plan in Sri Lanka had ended up being futile.
“James Packer’s plan to enter the Sri Lankan resort market appears to have hit a stumbling block with reports that the Sri Lankan government has refused to allow casinos at three super-luxury resorts planned in the capital because opponents said they would lead to prostitution,” Australia’s The Age reported last week. AFP and a section of Australian media said there was no immediate reaction from developers, including James Packer, to the casino ban. A few days later, Radio Australia reported that the Sri Lankan issue will not affect Crown Casino’s expansion drive in Asia.
“[In] Macau, he’s building another property over there, so that will be the principal focus,” said Brian Han, a senior research analyst with Fat Prophets, and added that Packer hopes to expand his lucrative high roller business around Asia.
Packer’s proposed 450-room Crown Sri Lanka resort, on its website, promises to offer “world-class gaming facilities” which includes Casinos. There is no indication on the website that the plan has actually been shot down by the government.
Australian and international media reports on Packer’s Casino plans being shot down by the government arise from Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s remarks in Parliament. “We will not allow casinos. That we say very clearly,” Rajapakse told Parliament. “They (the promoters) asked, we did not allow, nor will we allow (in the future),” the Economic Development Minister said. The bona fides of this statement have already been challenged by the opposition.
Mangala and UNP in firing mode
Opposition Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera, who is strongly critical of the human rights track record of the country, sent a letter to Commonwealth General Secretary Kamalesh Sharma, saying the government of Sri Lanka, whose head holds the highest chair in the Commonwealth, has infringed on all Commonwealth values and principles. His allegation is mainly based on the incident which took place in Hambanthota involving several UNP MPs who visited Hambanthota Port and Mattala International Airport on a “fact finding mission”.
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa not only failed to condemn this attack on elected representatives of the country’s national legislature, he defended the actions of the mob, claiming ‘the people’ of the area had been ‘angered’ by the Opposition’s denouncing of development projects in the region. President Rajapaksa’s state controlled press defended the attack on the Parliamentarians, claiming that Sri Lankan protestors pelting rotten eggs at Opposition legislators and vandalising their vehicle in the South were merely exercising the same right of democratic dissent as Britons who threw pies at UK MPs to signal their displeasure over policy,» Samaraweera said in his letter.
“Tragically, it now appears that there is no greater illustration of the disdain of the Chair of the Commonwealth for all these values.
“Your Chairman has blatantly disregarded all assurances provided to you personally and to the greater Commonwealth to change his Government’s brutish ways after assuming office last November.
“The truth is, Mr Secretary General, Sri Lanka’s democracy, once vibrant and proud, is under siege,” Samaraweera’s letter said. Meanwhile, the UNP, as a party, lashed out at the setting up of a special ‘Police Unit’ to look into matters concerning religious matters under the directives of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The decision to establish a special Police unit for religious matters was made public at the President’s meeting with newspaper editors and newsroom heads at Temple Trees one and a half weeks ago. A few days after the announcement was made, Police took immediate measures to set up the unit under the Religious Affairs Ministry.
The UNP, in response, questioned the legality as well as the morality behind establishing a new Police Unit to inquire into religious-related matters in a context where religious extremism is triggered in this country by groups that are allegedly backed by the government.
“No explanation was given with regard to the legal aspect of setting up a Police Unit for religious matters. It is still a question whether the Religious Affairs Ministry has a legal authority to operate a special Police unit under its watch. The setting up of the Police Unit also gave rise to two other questions – in addition to accepting complaints, does it have real investigative powers? Does it have the wherewithal and resources to apprehend perpetrators and prosecute them? Within the first two days, we came to know that the unit has received over 200 complaints. However, within a matter of few days, the fate of the 200 complaints will surely come under the public spotlight!” the UNP said.
“Various malicious groups who claim themselves ‘Buddhists’ took to the streets under the blessings of the government. As a result, law enforcement bodies cannot take actions against extremist hooligans who strive to perpetuate religious intolerance. For instance, one group of hooligans addressed media within the premises of the Slave Island Police station and then stormed a ministry in Colombo which is headed by a Muslim,” the main opposition party added.
The first complaint at the newly formed Police unit on religious related matters was lodged by Akmeemana Dayarathana Thera, the head of the Sinhala Ravaya organization, a hardcore Sinhala Buddhist organization. The complaint was made by Dayarathana Thera in less than an hour after the Police unit started its operations. In the first complaint, Sinhala Ravaya accused the Department of Police of disregarding three complaints lodged by the organization on insults to Buddhism.
It was after Sinhala Ravaya made the first move that Azath Salley, Leader of Tamil Muslim National Alliance and Member of the Central Provincial Council, lodged a complaint at the Police religious affairs unit about 284 incidents where Muslims and Muslim places of worship came under attack. It is interesting to see whether the Police unit has the ability and wherewithal to investigate into each and every incident and bring the perpetrators to books. No tangible action has been taken so far by the unit in the direction of apprehending culprits who are responsible for these attacks and to prosecute them before the court of law. This is a strong indication that the UNP’s observation about the Police unit and its establishment is slowly becoming a reality.
It is also interesting to note that the large majority of Sinhala-Buddhist hardcore groups have welcomed the government’s decision to set up a Police unit for religious matters while Muslim and Christian groups have expressed doubts about its genuineness. The Sinhala-Buddhist organizations who supported the setting up of the unit dubbed it as something that was “long-overdue”. It is still too early to jump into conclusions as to whether the Police unit will automatically gravitate towards groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) who already enjoy a great deal of impunity.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is on a study tour in the USA, had a conversation with a group of Indian students where he commended the standards of English education in Sri Lanka. The opposition leader, who is one of the most articulated English speakers in present-day Sri Lanka, drew the attention of Indian students by his oratory skills who then asked him how de developed his language skills.
The Opposition Leader explained that his language skills reflected the standard of education he received in Sri Lanka. “I studied in Sri Lanka and I received my English education in Sri Lanka. The standards of English education of Sri Lanka were extremely high when I completed my studies,” Wickremesinghe said. The Opposition Leader, an old boy of Royal College, Colombo, is one of the few politicians in Parliament who is capable of representing Sri Lanka at any international forum although he has his unique weaknesses where the administration of his party is concerned.