By Sarath de Alwis –
To download this picture, I simply googled three words Johnston Fernando, Chair and Parliament”.
Up came this visual of Johnston memorable contribution to parliamentary procedure archived in cyberspace. It is only natural the Gotabaya Presidency would use the man’s exceptional knowledge of the niceties of parliamentary procedure to be the chief government whip in the house.
Cabinet Minister Johnston Fernando assured parliament that President Gotabaya will not resign. We do not know how events will unfold. History seems to endorse the confidence of the hooch maker turned road builder.
As I said in my earlier essay ‘Looking back without anger’ on Thursday 7th April, when the Bastille was stormed king Louis XVI made a diary entry” Today Nothing”.
The Bastille was stormed on 14th July 1792. The king was suspended in August 1792. The republic was proclaimed in September 1792. History flows but on its own in its own time.
Besides all those historical parallels, Johnston Fernando would not want the Rajapaksa family to fade away. Who else would recognize the brilliance of a mafiosi mind such as his?
Let us look back without anger. Until 1982, parliament was at Galle face. From about 1969 to 1974, as a reporter I covered parliament for the Evening Observer and the Daily News.
There was bus halt opposite the building. I remember parliamentarians Dr. W. Dahanayake and Anandasangaree waiting for a bus to take them back to ‘Sravasti’ – the then MP’s hostel.
I recall former Prime minister Dudley Senanayake driving away after parliament in a red Triumph Herald. If you headed towards Borella you could always get a ride with him, which I did occasionally as I was raising a family in a small annex in Nawala.
The parliament then was a place where they conducted “people’s business.” It was an accessible place. Members of parliament did not have bodyguards. They were people who represented people.
Of course, it wasn’t the case at the beginning. The 1948 parliament was a repository of feudal and mercantile interests. The people mattered but not quite.
Private interests mattered more. There was no “Transparency International” monitoring misuse of the public purse. Sir Oliver Gunathilake a Trincomalee Post Master’s son was a palpable presence in that dispensation. He was the proverbial fixer who acquired substantial wealth. Nobody bothered except R.G. Senanayake and I M R A Iriyagolla who I am proud to claim as my kinsman.
These two mavericks were ignored. Sir Oliver’s immense wealth was simply explained as ‘just bounty’ – rewards of a very clever mind.
It all changed in 1956. The year that Solomon Bandaranayake became Prime Minister while Don Alwin Rajapaksa member for Beliatta was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Lands and Land Development.
It was in 1956 that the people literally streamed into parliament. As Pieter Keuneman later recalled ‘they reverently and affectionately stroked the benches where their elected representatives would sit’.
One man watched this spectacle of people power quietly. JR Jayewardene had lost his seat in Kelaniya.
Napoleon Bonaparte was his historical role model. Just as Napoleon he believed that ‘there were only two forces that unite men – fear and interest’.
Just as Napoleon he had tremendous faith in his own abilities. ‘You become strong by defying defeat and by turning loss and failure into success.’
J.R Jayewardene in 1977 came to power with a five sixth majority. He changed the system that made him bite the dust in Kelaniya in 1956.
The 1978 constitution introduced this grotesque distortion of popular sovereignty which now masquerades as proportional representation. Introducing the system JRJ claimed that he was rolling up the electoral map of the country. He then proceeded to build a magnificent home for the representatives elected under the new system. It is in the middle of a lake. There is no bus halt opposite its gate. It is architecturally, conceptually, and spiritually removed from the people.
The new system makes the party whip matter more than personal conscience. Although he may not have read Thomas Babington Macaulay as did Junius Richard Jayewardene, the ‘Kaputa’ has outfoxed the good old ‘twentieth Century Fox’.
The proportional representation system masterminded by the old fox has enabled the ‘kaputa’ to build a political party whose raison d’etre is the perpetuation of the family fiefdom.
Today, the people demand an accessible parliament. In the absence of such as accessible parliament, a people’s parliament is quietly forming in the streets.
When the 1977 parliament was convened, I had slipped out of active journalism.
I recall the parliament returned in the 1970 watershed election that gave Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike a two thirds majority vividly. I covered its proceedings and those of the constituent assembly.
It is fashionable to dismiss Rohana Wijeweera as a historical nonentity. That is not correct. Rohana Wijeweera was tried and convicted for waging war against the queen.
He was released by a President of the Republic and subsequently died in a republic that declares that its sovereignty is vested in the people.
Just as 1956, the 1971 insurrection had its impact. The orthodox left condemned it for its conspiratorial origins and its demonstrated failure to capture the imagination of the broad mass of the working class.
But Leslie Goonewardene the textbook Marxist and the son of a Christian pastor took a more Christian view. “Our politics will never be the same he intoned”. He was right.
Following year comrade Colvin set up the constituent assembly and the quixotic Kandyan utopian introduced land reform that angered both landowners and the landless.
Looking back, I recall how my drinking buddy and neighbor Professor Mendis Rohandheera helped the young parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa to make his maiden speech moving the vote of thanks on the ‘throne speech’ delivered by the governor general.
This essay is written on personal recall. I have no access to archived records. Hence, I don’t recall what my friend Rohanadheera the Sinhala Scholar from the village of Pallathrara precisely said in his draft. The Hansard should have it.
But it was moving, elegant Sinhala prose that summed up the peasant world of the deep south that was still struggling to emerge from the harshness of an exploitative system that remained intact even in the seventies as was chronicled by Leonard Wolfe in an earlier age in another world.
Now there is a port, an airport, and a convention hall in Leonard Wolf country. There are highways that connect the south to the hill country.
Peacocks peck on the asphalt. Peasants chase wild elephants. The more things changed the more it remained the same.
On television I see agitated crowds surrounding a place called ‘Carlton’. The name is familiar. The better-known Carlton is the Carlton Club in London- the exclusive preserve of peers and gentleman of the conservative party.
This Carlton is at Tangalle in the south which my friend Mendis Rohandheera often recalled so fondly while crying in to his glass of ‘Pol or Gal. In those frugal days, we were happy with Gal almost daily keeping Pol for the few days immediately after pay day.
People cry wolf in Leonard Wolf country.