25th July, 2004  Volume 11, Issue
2

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ISSUES

The Rs. 12 million comedy of errors

An EPDP vehicle with a message to the SLMM (left) and a Norwegian embassy official surrounded by the police speaks to EPDP members outside the embassy in Colombo (right)

By The Sunday Leader parliament desk:
Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Shezna Shums and Amantha Perera

According to rough estimates on parliamentary expenditure, the daily running cost of the House exceeds Rs. 1.5 million, quite a sizeable chunk of money that is spent on the maintenance of an institution that has fallen way below standards and public expectations.

For the eight days that sessions have been held since the April election, the bill is Rs 12 million.

The House's performance has been dismal, particularly since the new government took over three months ago with the legislature often resembling a boxing ring. So much so that it has become a cause for celebration if a session falls short of being ugly or violent. The 13th Parliament for the first time had a complete session of sittings - of four days last week - which was praiseworthy for that fact alone, but the pertinent query is as to what the House actually came up with after four days of extensive discussion and debate.

Pathetic

During the sittings that preceded, the public was repeatedly treated to unholy spectacles and Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara taking no chances, simply ordered the public galleries shut in case it further infuriates and injures the sentiments of an already disgusted populace having to maintain an institution that produces very little in terms of legislative productivity, but much in terms of fisticuffs and unholy conduct.

Nevertheless, with the government concentrating fully on how to show a majority in the House than on legislating, the week's agenda proved pathetic. The week witnessed three adjournment motions with Friday being private members' day.

By Friday, the House concluded monthly sittings in pursuance of the best traditions of democracy, having ensured much baloney, trading of charges and little else. All at the cost of well over Rs. 6 million - just the daily maintenance cost of the hallowed talk shop's for days of sittings where not a single bill was tabled yet alone debated and passed.

Six parliamentarians made their exits while six others entered. W. P. S. Pushpakumara, Ismail Mohomed Kuddus of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Reginald Cooray, Mahipala Herath and Philip Kumarasinghe Sri Liyanage of the Freedom Alliance and Ali Zahir Moulana bowed out.

Three Alliance members who were denied the opportunity to become members during the June 8 stormy sessions that witnessed the spectacle of the monk assault, H. R. Mithrapala, Nirmala Kothalawela and Mohomed Javid Muzamil took their oaths as members. From the SLMC, Basheer Segu Dawood and Shyabdeen Nijamudeen along with UNP's M. M. Mustapha made their collective entry.

Lacking focus

During one of the most unproductive weeks, three adjournment motions were debated. Two opposition motions - one on the recent conduct of mass media which turned into a heavy exercise of trading charges and the other on the spreading of the dengue epidemic were discussed. This led Galle member Hemakumara Nanayakkara to haughtily declare at a press meet that it was the opposition that ensured debates and thereby regular parliamentary sittings while the government simply lacked planned business. The UPFA too moved a self-congratulatory motion to endorse its own socio-economic programme and the progress achieved so far.

The entire debate nevertheless lacked focus with the UNP keen to palm off blame to the UPFA for economic downturn and the government in turn condemning the UNP for snuffing the life out of 70% of the population - the very poor - through its imprudent and servile economic policies that saw its quick ouster. The only silver lining was Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama's account which outlines the UPFA's economic thrust in what he called a "pro growth, pro poor" policy. He said that the UNP's biggest faux pas was in believing that being poor friendly would amount to being anti growth. "It could be balanced, despite the subsidies," asserted Amunugama claiming that the government has achieved several key objectives already.

The motion was moved by Mervyn Silva who invited the opposition to tour the country together with government members to ascertain whether the quality of life has improved since the UPFA came into office. The opposition chorus of "Rata perata-ala kilowa asoowata" fell on the government's deaf ears.

Issues and five star meals

Making their speeches a reflection of their regional requirements were the two women legislators of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). Pathmini Sithamparanathan, the first ever woman legislator to have represented the Jaffna District made an impressive speech in which she illustrated how the economically significant places were destroyed during the war. "We were engulfed in complete darkness when even the limited power supply we had was denied with the bombing of the Chunnakkam power plant. We still use kerosene oil largely and we have failed to dispel the darkness that descended upon this nation since we resorted to war," she noted.

She was ably backed by her Batticaloa counterpart, Thangeshwari Kadirgamar who noted with concern that the county was inching towards war once more.

These debates, largely academic exercises to fill the pages of the Hansard as proof of having raised significant issues, though no decisions are based on them or legislation created, cannot be the cumulative work of weeklong sessions.

Following some critical electronic and print media reports on the costly exercise of maintaining a parliament that holds no debates, but has burly members who partake five star quality meals at a fraction of the cost had Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle irked. He raised a matter of privilege concerning a television programme telecast on Swarnavahini on the gastronomic delights of the members merely for Rs. 5. Having waxed eloquent, he wished to have the matter referred to the privileges committee for inquiry and urged the meal prices be substantially increased to reflect regular prices, a suggestion hailed by both Chief Opposition Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe and Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero.

Entertainment

While the MPs appear to be embarrassed by the media placing their food under the microscope, that is not the singular waste the House commits.

Just a few speeches like that of Sithamparanathan's, Kadirgamar's and Amunugama's would be remembered for their content after a week long session - or Minister Anura Bandaranaike's for his sugar coated barbs, downright insults and shameless admission of the government's right to abuse the state media. And that's the sum total of a house that accounts for a considerable chunk of the country's expenditure - more entertaining than a theatre showing a third rate comedy. All at a cool sum of Rs. 1.5 million per day - the poor tax payer's hard earned money.

In search of a majority

Efforts to achieve a majority by the UPFA continued well into last week. The task on behalf of the government fell on Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and JVP Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa. The two have been lobbying CWC Leader Arumugam Thondaman to support the government. Weeks of cajoling and three days of continuous efforts paid off last week when they were able to secure Thondaman's attendance to a meeting with President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

At 8.30 on Thursday night, Thondaman met with the President at President's House in the company of the two MPs. The CWC was offered two ministries, Education and Health. Both of which were rejected by Thondaman who said that he did not know any thing about health or education and that what he would consider would be the ministries of plantation, infrastructure development and airport and aviation. The government remained noncommittal.

This is the second time these portfolios were offered to the CWC. The first offer was made over the telephone some three weeks ago.

Thondaman also said that the CWC would not support any moves to oust Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara or to amend the constitution. The meeting concluded without any decision. Thondaman was due to leave the country on Friday night.

The poor result has not meant that efforts have been given up. With one Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) member Gajen Ponnambalam making a speech last week that has been largely condemned as being "totally insulting" to the Sri Lankan Army, the government is latching on to the JHU hoping that the bhikku members would help them show - majority in the House.

Both the UPFA and the JHU were quick to denounce the ITAK MP's controversial speech in parliament. Desperate to show 113 signatures on any piece of paper, the UPFA resorted to canvassing the monks in earnest to issue a joint statement condemning the MP's speech. "It is one sure way to even temporarily destroy the so called joint opposition," said a deputy minister who is lobbying for support and was also instrumental in solemnising the PA-JVP marriage.

The enthusiasm died a natural death when the MP concerned tendered an apology in the House.

 *  *  *

Coffin greets the Norwegians 

The EPDP on Friday took its grievances literally to the doorstep of the Norwegians when they took the body of murdered Alayadivenbu Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman, Velauthan Raveendran alias Kamalan, to the Norwegian Embassy at Ward Place, Colombo. EPDP supporters almost took the coffin into the embassy compound when police stopped them at the gate.

The body  was brought to Colombo last Thursday night from Batticaloa. The  body was again taken back to Batticaloa last Friday evening to bury Kamalan at his birthplace in Akkaraipattu. It was his wish to be buried at his birth place.

Family members who accompanied the body to Colombo also went to the Norwegian embassy.

Kamalan's wife, Sunitha Raveendran, his mother, father, three sisters and one brother were there, while his three-year-old daughter Virgini did not make the trip to the embassy.

The body was kept at a house down Park Road last Friday for people to pay their respects and by 11 that morning supporters clad in black bandana's and black armbands and carrying black flags got into around 20 vehicles including buses and vans and accompanied the coffin to the Norwegian embassy.

At the embassy wreathes including one sent by the EPRLF were set up against the higher part of the embassy's wall whilst the coffin was also carried to the entrance of the embassy and kept there for a while.

The placards as well as the wreathes were left by the supporters to be taken down by the police. The supporters were shouting 'Prabakana means terrorist' and another stated 'Save the Tamil people from the LTTE'. Another said 'SLMM open your eyes.'

At the embassy, Spokesperson, EPDP, V. Thavarajah handed over a letter where the violations committed by the government as well as the LTTE were listed, including this recent murder and that of the previous chairman Marimuthu Rasalingam's.

The letter said that the facilitators should do everything possible to put an end to the "endless terrorism of the LTTE." And that the time has come for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka to be saved from the scourge that is the LTTE. This letter was signed by Secretary General and Member of Parliament K. N. Douglas Devananda.

Meanwhile, V. Thavarajah told The Sunday Leader at the funeral that "there is no doubt that it is the LTTE, which has carried out this gruesome murder. Because this is not the first attempt of the LTTE."

Stressing that this is the second Pradeshiya Sabha chairman they have lost within two years he said that in Jaffna a number of members have been killed.

The protest outside the Norwegian embassy lasted around an hour and once the coffin was taken away the protestors too got into the vehicles and retuned to Park Road, where that evening the body was taken to Kamalan's birthplace.

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