25th  April, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 4
1

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ISSUES

The 16th Speaker
of independent
Sri Lanka

"Though it was a hard-fought contest - now the vote is over and you belong to this House. It is your duty to ensure that the sovereignty of the people is safeguarded and upheld."

-Ranil Wickremesinghe to W.J.M. Lokubandara (CDN April 23, 2004)

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara

W. J. M. Lokubandara has become independent Sri Lanka's 16th Speaker after a bitter and closely contested election. He won with one vote (110-109) in a tussle that will go down as ashameful episode in the parliamentary history of this country. So disgraceful was the conduct of several legislators that an English newspaper observed in its editorial that all the waters of Diyawanna Oya cannot wash the black mark off.

The ignoble conduct of ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentarians hit an all-time low in the Speaker election. The sanctity and supremacy of parliament cannot be maintained by written law or procedure alone. It also depends on the behavioural norms of legislators. Constitutional conventions have contributed greatly to enhance and preserve the dignity of the Speaker's office.

There was a time when a newly elected Speaker upon assuming office would resign party membership promptly. This was to ensure his or her impartiality without being fettered by party affiliation or loyalty. Likewise there was also a tradition of letting an incumbent Speaker being uncontested in a parliamentary election. From such commendable heights of political decency we have reached disappointing depths now.

The tradition

One such tradition being followed even now is that of the proposer and seconder of the winner escorting the newly elected Speaker to his chair. So we saw Joseph Michael Perera and Rauf Hakeem escorting Lokubandara dutifully.

Our Speaker walked with his escorts promptly. He did not keep up the traditional 'pretence' of seeming to be reluctant in accepting office and being 'forced' to do so as is the custom in some Commonwealth democracies.

For one thing Lokubandara is no hypocrite and that particular tradition died a natural death after the second parliament. In any case, how could he even 'pretend' after such a hard fought contest! The history behind such a tradition is an honorable one and speaks volumes about the speaker's role in the past.

The speaker is in a sense the official parliamentary spokesperson. Thecustom of electing a speaker began in the British parliament during the 14th Century. The earlier speakers were those who conveyed the monarch's commands to parliament and parliament's wishes to the sovereign.

The speaker's role was hazardous in those days. Nine speakers lost their lives in the early days because of the emerging conflict between monarch and parliament. Several speakers were beheaded for bringing " bad news' from parliament to the monarch. Thus many speakers had to be forced in taking office.

Nowadays there is no such danger but newly elected speakers in some Western legislatures commemorate this tragic yet proud aspect of institutional history by pretending to struggle as they are led 'reluctantly' to the speaker's chair .

In Sri Lanka we still maintain the tradition of proposer and seconder 'escorting' the new speaker. With every hallowed tradition being eroded and electoral stakes to the speaker post becoming so intense the time may come when aspirants could race to the speaker's chair lest a pretender usurp it!

The speaker's role has evolved over the centuries in the mother of all parliaments. Though the monarch's servants in the earlier stages, the role of the speaker got transformed as a result of the power struggle between sovereign and legislature. The defining moment came in 1642 during Charles the first's reign.

King Charles entered parliament demanding the arrest of five parliamentarians opposing him. The Speaker William Lenthall knelt before the monarch respectfully but firmly refused to hand them over. He said that he was only the House's servant and would only follow its direction.

Today speakers face no danger as in those times. Their role has changed too. They remain at the centre of debate between opposing sides but are more like umpires. Their chief role is to enforce the rules of parliamentary procedure and oversee parliamentary administration. Speakers are also guardians and defenders of parliamentary privileges and the rights of parliamentarians.

Dashing personality

Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was known earlier has had Speakers from the time we got universal franchise and territorial representation in 1931. The first Speaker of the State Council in colonial Ceylon was Sir Alexander Francis Molamure. He was also the first speaker of independent Ceylon too.

Molamure was a dashing personality first elected uncontested to Dedigama in 1931. It is said that he captivated many a damsel's and dame's heart through his delightfully witty conversation. He is reported to have inquired once from  the British Governors'wife thus;

"May I light my cigarette with the light in my ladies eye?"

His Excellency was not amused and banned Molamure from all Governor's functions thereafter.

After Molamure from July 1931 to December 1934 was F.A. Obeyesekerawho functioned as speaker of the state council from December 1934 to December 1935. The new state council elected in March 1936 saw Sir Waithilingam Duraiswamy become speaker. He served as speaker of the second state council throughout its duration from 1936 to March to July 1847.

Duraswamy is the only Tamil to have served as speaker before or after independence. His election as speaker had an ulterior purpose. It was in 1936 that D.S. Senanayake and Sir Baron Jayatilleke mathematically manipulated the executive committee election system  through a permutation - combination formula and got a pan Sinhala board of ministers elected. Duraiswamy's stature entitled him to a ministry and appointing him speaker was the way to keep him out.

A.F. Molamure reentered the state council in 1943 through Balangoda. He won the same in 1947 and became the first speaker of independent Ceylon's elected parliament. Molamure died in January 1951 and Sir Albert Peiris of Nattandiya became speaker in February 1951 and continued till April 1952. He became speaker again in June 1952 after the second election and continued till 1956.

In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike rode the crest of a 'Sinhala only' wave to power. H.S. Ismail the independent MP from Puttalam became speaker and functioned as such during the Bandaranaike and Dahanayake governments.

March 1960 elections saw the UNP getting 50 and SLFP 46 seats. Dudley Senanayake became prime minister of a minority government in a situation somewhat similar to the present.

First trial

The speaker election was the first trial of parliamentary strength. Sir Alfred Peiris of the UNP got only 60 votes in a parliament of 157. Independent leftist MP from Katugampola T.B. Subasinghe was the united opposition candidate. After the speaker's election came the throne speech where the UNP was defeated with 85 votes to 61.

July 1960 saw the Kandyan stalwart R.S.Pelpola become speaker. In January 1964 he became cabinet minister in Mrs. Bandaranaike's government. He was succeeded by Hugh Fernando of Wennappuwa. The liberal Hugh Fernando who crossed over later to the UNP aroused the ire of the Bandaranaike government  during the last days of that government.

An issue arose when the speaker had to rule whether the sponsorship of a particular bill sent down to parliament from the senate was procedurally correct. After adjourning House on account of its unruliness Hugh Fernando convened parliament and ruled that it was correct.

 Mrs. Bandaranaike's government was irritated and proceeded to move a resolution that the speaker's ruling was wrong. Dr. N.M. Perera then finance minister, even threatened Hugh Fernando with a no confidence motion. Ministers Michael Siriwardene and D.S. Goonesekera invaded the speaker's chambers and tried to intimiidate Fernando. When Opposition Leader Dudley Senanayake raised a point of order the speaker ruled from his chair that a speaker's decision cannot be questioned.

Later Hugh Fernando was to say that this crisis period made him subject to the severest strain in his life. Hugh Fernando later crossed over to the UNP and contested the Nattandiya by election after Albert Peiris died. Fernando won and became a minister.

1965 saw Sir Albert Peiris become speaker again. After his death in 1967 Shirley Corea of Chilaw became speaker. The 1970 United Front government saw Stanley Tillekaratnerepresenting Kotte become speaker. It was rather ironic because Stanley though in the SLFP then had earlier been a Communist Party MP with a reputation for heckling. Now he had to maintain decorum in the House.

Subjected to bullying

Stanley Tillekaratne too was subjected to government bullying in 1973 when Dr. Colvin R .De. Silva warned him publicly that parliament could remove him for "some reason, any reason or no reason at all." Stanley too remained firm and gave his ruling on the press take over issue without fear or favour.

1977 saw Anandatissa de Alwis also representing Kotte become speaker. This was another  first time achievement as Anandatissa Alwis had never been elected to the legislature before. Earlier in 1965, he had become the first non-civil servant to be permanent secretary of a ministry under then state minister J.R. Jayewardene.

Anandatissa Alwis was the darling of the media but it was during his period as speaker that the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act was given new teeth. To demonstrate the power of the law two senior editors were summoned to the House over a mix up of a photo caption allegedly affecting then Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed, grilled exhaustively and fined.

Anandatissa Alwis assumed duties as state minister after the new constitution came into effect in 1978. Beruwela MP Abdul Bakeer Markar then became speaker. In 1983 sections of the Buddhist clergy exerted pressure on J.R. that a Sinhala Buddhist, E.L. Senanayake of Kandy should replace the Muslim Speaker. This was acceded to and the old trooper E.L. served as speaker from 1983 to 1988. Bakeer was made cabinet minister.

It was during Bakeer's tenure that the no confidence motion against opposition leader of the time, Appapillai Amirthalingam was moved by government MPs. Such a development was unheard of in parliamentary history. Not only did Bakeer allow it but also failed to restrain the "criminal" remarks made by MP's against an absent Amirthalingam. Bakeer also failed to check the vituperatively racist outpourings of Cyril Mathew on more than one occasion.

The 1989 to 1994 parliament saw veteran Muslim leader from Colombo,M. Haniffa Mohamed function as speaker. MH Mohamed's crisis hour came during the impeachment motion moves against Ranasinghe Premadasa by Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and G.M. Premachandra. After being initially favourable to the rebels Mohamed changed track and switched loyalties in favour of the President.

In 1994 it was the turn of  Rajarata's K.B. Ratnayake to be speaker. The former Anuradhapura MP was an old student of Hartley College, Point Pedro and spoke Tamil well. K.B. was perhaps the first Sinhala speaker to speak all three languages fluently. The Muslim speakers too were trilingual.

Year 2000 witnessed the rare spectacle of both government and opposition electing a consensus candidate as speaker. That singular honour went to President Kumaratunga's brother and Ranil Wickremesinghe's old school chum Anura Bandaranaike.

Rare compromise

Though Anura was then in the UNP and therefore the opposition, Chandrika and Ranil agreed to make Anura the speaker, much against the wishes of party stalwarts on both sides. A crisis arose when Kumaratunga prorogued parliament after she lost her majority. Efforts were on to impeach her and the Chief Justice. Bandaranaike was hesitant in asserting the rights of parliament. Later Anura crossed over to the PA after parliament was dissolved.

December 2001 saw the UNF win again. Former Ja Ela and present Gampaha District MP, Joseph Michael Perera was speaker. Though he could have been fielded as speaker candidate, a change was necessitated due to political exigencies. Perera is a Catholic. Given the rising tide of anti-Christian feeling among sections of the Buddhist clergy and laity a man like Lokubandara with full fledged Sinhala Buddhist credentials was seen as more suitable.

The phenomenon of nine Buddhist priest MPs holding the power balance in a hung parliament saw the need for an avowed nationalist like Lokubandara as candidate. He could win Jathika Hela Urumaya support or at least ensure their neutrality. The election and results indicate that the stratagem has succeeded to some extent.

Lokubandara is perceived as an ardent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. He is very much a son of the rural Uva soil. He first entered parliament in 1977 when he defeated former health minister W.P.G. Ariyadasa who was returned in successive elections to Haputale from 1956 to 1970. It is said that J.R. picked him as candidate after listening to him speak on Sinhala culture and Sigiriya frescoes.

Lokubandara known as Wije to his friends was born on August 5, 1941. An old student of Bandarawela Maha Vidyalaya, Lokubandara is a Peradeniya University arts graduate. He also has an external Bachelor's degree in arts from the University of London. He was in government service initially then became a lawyer and worked as assistant legal draftsman.

He was initially appointed Minister of Indigenous Medicine, considered a non cabinet portfolio. He was later appointed Cultural Affairs, Education and Media Minister in the President Ranasinghe Premadasa cabinet of 1989.

With the UNP being defeated in the 1994 general elections, he was appointed the chief opposition whip. With the return of the UNP in 2001, he was appointed Leader of the House and Minister of Justice, Law Reforms, National Integration and Buddha Sasana.

He is a Sinhala scholar and staunch Buddhist but is not a rabid communalist as some try to portray him. He speaks in Sinhala  generally, though fluent in English and adheres to simple rural values. His lack of an elitist background has made him like Premadasa, endure severe slander and ridicule.

Recently a canard was spread that Lokubandara was an ex-Buddhist priest who had discarded his robes. Though a devout Buddhist akin to an anagarika, Lokubandara was never a priest and it was left to his wife to write to newspapers refuting the canard in a dignified manner.

Sri sign issue

Despite his image of being a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist, Lokubandara has been pragmatic and fair in racial and religious issues. Few people know that it was Lokubandara who advised President Premadasa to resolve the "Sri" sign in vehicle number plates issue satisfactorily by introducing numerals and a dash sign. The sri issue had been a cruelly divisive one and paved the way for the 1958 riots.

Recently Lokubandara was required to engage in some delicate crisis management after the death of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero when there was much agitation for anti-conversion legislation. Lokubandara had to tread carefully in containing the ferocity of the demand.

As a true Buddhist he does not subscribe to the 'political Buddhism' ideology seeking to victimise and discriminate against minorities. At the same time he will not let the Sinhala language or Buddhism be deprived of their rightful place in the country He is somewhat like Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse in this respect.

Though a closely contested election, Lokubandara has obtained the support of not only the UNF and sections of the Buddhist clergy but also of the minority communities. The TNA, SLMC, CWC and UCPF have all supported him. It could be truly said that Lokubandara has a mandate from all the communities in his election as Speaker. Lokubandara has to hold the scales evenly and above all restore the dignity and respect of the speaker's office to the level maintained decades ago.

Given the difficult political climate prevailing in the country, the Speaker will be called upon to discharge his duties efficiently, courageously and impartially in the future. Lokubandara will have to face fierce challenges in carrying out his duties without favour. There is no doubt that this sturdy Sri Lankan patriot will overcome those challenges effectively.

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