Parliament is the house of elected representatives (even though there are a few nominated MPs by various parties). Along with the judiciary, it has a special place in Sri Lanka’s democratic governance culture as bastions of safeguarding people’s rights according to the rule of law. Among other duties, the parliament has the special responsibility of drafting laws that affect the whole country. Generally, it also sets an example to the people by the very behaviour of elected representatives while contributing to the preservation of international image as a torch bearer of people’s values and norms.
However, since the introduction of the executive President role in the late 70s, two centres of executive power emerged, i.e. one controlled by the President and the other by the Prime Minister and cabinet. Under the constitution introduced by previous President JR Jayewardene, the President acquired enormous powers to the extent of making the parliament a rubber stamp for governing coalitions. In time to come, various Presidents attempted to muscle the legislature by using party and constitutional powers or interpreting the constitution in their favour. Sri Lankans have experienced situations when the executive Presidents trampled on the jurisdictions of the parliament or the judiciary by measures adopted to intimidate parliamentarians and judges. Sometimes such intimidations were formal. Other times they were informal. If intimidation and harassment did not work, monetary and other incentives were offered to MPs behind closed doors (not so closed during the current phase?) in order to obtain favourable out comes from the parliament.
The entry of game kollo (village boys) to the parliament since the late 70s under the leadership of present generation of Rajapaksas ensured that the game chandi (village mafia) culture that was limited to the Hambantota district was incrementally nationalised. Instead of the rule of law, discipline, good behaviour, morality, respect for the other, or decency at workplace, show of power via various means including physical power, use of obscene words, manipulation of the truth and law, and use of the underworld became the mode of operation. Colourful paraphernalia was used by the state apparatus manned by the Rajapaksa extended family (numbering a couple of hundreds if not thousands) and close loyalists to promote the image of a puritanic leader blessed with supernatural powers. However, along with these exterior pretentions, Sri Lanka was transformed to a state where command and control from one family became the source of rule book –not the properly functioning parliament or the judiciary.
Behaviour where physical power is used to settle matters rather than discussion and consensus building has its origins during the colonial period where the local chieftains appointed by the colonial government used similar methods for tax collection, curb criminal activity, suppress public opinion/dissent, and create enforced consent/loyalty. Though senior Rajapaksas of the previous generation such as DM and DA ignored and even rejected such tactics and conformed to the Buddhist ethos and morality in their public behaviour, the present generation embraced anti-social attitudes and behaviour both for political and personal gain. They knew know boundaries in law, intellect, morality or public life when it came to the sheer greed for power. They established a deep state within the state for political and personal expediency. This is the only thesis applicable to Rajapaksa rule in its earlier incarnation. Unfortunately, Dayan Jayatilleka has conveniently excluded this from his ten theses (see Colombo Telegraph 19.11.2018).
Fortunately, in 2015 masses who came together against such a deep state constructed on the basis of a personality cult (similar to North Korea), centralisation of power within a circle of family and friends (in fact there were several circles such as inner, middle and outer) defeated the government led by Rajapaksas with much hope for a Yahapalanaya(virtuous) government led by a President who promised a virtuous rule. Though most of those who supported a Yahapalanaya government then were disappointed with the way that both President Sirisena and PM Wickramasinghe broke promises made during the national election campaigns, at least a semblance of rule of law existed in the country until October 26th 2018. The government did not curtail media freedom, freedom of movement and association, expression etc. People lived without fear in harmony except on a few occasions when ethnically motivated riots erupted. Judiciary functioned normally (though slowly). Parliament functioned without the interference from the executive President (gene was kept in the bottle). Opposition parties were not subjected to undue pressure, intimidation or harassment. Unexplained disappearances of journalists and others who opposed the government also ceased. There was no ruling family as such but only a dysfunctional government that did not understand either the meaning of 2015 people’s mandate or the danger of drifting and inaction in comparison to effecting change for the welfare of many. Under this scenario, the Rajapaksas themselves had no barrier to engage in politics and even establish a new party i.e. Podu Jana Peramuna (Common People’s Front). However, the tensions between two centres of executive power, i.e. the President and Prime Minister continued and even became public. On October 26th, suddenly the sub text became the text before the public eye. President Sirisena made his next ill-considered summersault.
When the President sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the Prime Minister on October 26th, supporters of the new purported PM were overjoyed. For them, it was an unexpected Christmas gift and a dream come true. But for the supporters of Wickramasinghe, it was more than a bad dream. Not only they lost the PM position by Presidential decree but they also lost cabinet positions by executive action for no understandable reason other than personal differences between PM Wickramasinghe and President Sirisena. In a matter of few days, supporters of Wickremesinghe and UNF that he led regrouped and launched counter action in a peaceful way as allowed by the country’s law. When the executive decisions started coming in rows – especially on Friday evenings – Wickrrmesinghe supporters and those of the minor parties went to the supreme courts to seek redress from unconstitutional dissolution of the parliament. The decision of the courts to put on hold President’s decision to dissolve the parliament until 7th December 2018 paved the way for the UNF led by Wickremesinghe and other parties such as the JVP, TNL to enter the parliament that had been prorogued by the President until 14th November 2018.
Everyone was watching who will occupy the seat reserved for the PM and the cabinet. Rajapaksa and his cabinet occupied them without difficulty. It looked like the parliament was going to proceed its business normally even though there was no clarity about the legitimate government, cabinet or the PM. To their credit, Wickremesnighe and others in the UNF took their seats in the opposition seats avoiding a clash with Rajapaksa allies on the first day itself. When the speaker decided to obtain a vote on confidence, all hell broke loose. More than who held the majority, for the Rajapaksa supporters the procedure adopted by the speaker to obtain the no confidence vote became the point of contention. Though the speaker had the right to call a vote by voice on special situations as such without going through a lengthy procedure adopted in normal circumstances, Rajapaksa troops did not want to accept this age old parliamentary practice. They instead launched war on the speaker and the UNF supporters in the parliament with the undeclared intention of stalling the process underway to declare lack of confidence in purported PM Rajapaksa.
In particular, what we witnessed on two consecutive days in the Sri Lankan parliament is ugly, animalistic and beyond comprehension. MPs belonging to the Government appointed by the President occupied the speaker’s seat, destroyed the sound system, hurled abuse, threw objects and water supposedly mixed with chilli powder, and prevented the speaker from conducting the parliamentary business in the normal way. Are these the signs of things to come under another Rajapaksa government installed through the backdoor? It seems that since the defeat at the last Presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his gangsters have not reformed at all. They seem to have learned no lessons from their previous defeat in 2015 after running a government with an iron fist and one-man rule. Instead they have adopted a strategy of bullying and harassment of the speaker to prevent him from exercising his authority to conduct the affairs of parliament according to the parliamentary procedure and wishes of the majority MPs. A situation has arisen where a minority is controlling the affairs of the majority. This appears to be the design of the President also. The intention of currently installed government seems to be to prevent the speaker from following the normal procedure in handling the No Confidence Motion(NCM). Yet these bullies accuse him for not following the normal procedure required for a NCM to be presented and approved. They use a perverse logic where the result is taken to be wrong but not their action that produced the result. Mahinda Rajapaksa has been watching with gee the unfolding drama in the house of representatives just like someone who has attained sainthood. By such actions, senior Rajapaksas today are setting a wrong example for the next generation of Rajas including Namal who have no life other than to depend on the public purse for all their joys. The process and style adopted by Mahinda led family and his supporters in parliament and beyond is to throw the rule book away and rule by decree. This resembles a theocracy(MaRacracy) –not democracy.
Mahinda Rajapaksa states that he will leave the government if a NCM is properly adopted i.e. by following normal procedure. However, his goons are preventing the parliament from adopting the NCM according to the normal procedure – on the pretext of a demand from the speaker to punish an opposition MP for carrying a butterknife the previous day. Under the tense atmosphere, the speaker decides to suspend the standing orders and call a vote on the NCM by voice which is allowed under parliamentary rules and procedures. But the President as well as Rajapaksa and his goons in the parliament are not willing to accept it. It is like asking someone to go to Colombo but preventing him/her going to Colombo by intimidation and harassment. Then blame the person who is trying to go to Colombo for not going to Colombo. Thus, a no win situation has been created for the majority. Whatever they do will be criticised for lack of authenticity or proper procedure.
This is a pathetic situation that has been intentionally created to show confusion and the inability of the speaker to conduct affairs of the parliament even though this situation has arisen due to the unruly behaviour of Rajapaksa followers in the parliament. Such a design and situation can lead to another intended destination by the parliamentary mafia led by Rajapaksa loyalists. That is to declare an emergency and take control of armed forces and the police to run the country without having to resort to normal laws (remember during the war with the LTTE, emergency rule was made normal by a monthly vote in the parliament). This way, both Sirisena and Rajapaksa can stay in office and their goons can rule a further period disregarding the parliamentary majority consisting of the United National Party led by Wickremesinghe and minor parties including those of the Tamils and Muslims. If and when an election is conducted, the Rajapaksa mafia can use state resources including the media, personnel and vehicles to their advantage. Basil can even distribute sil redi once again. In Sri Lanka’s post independent history, there has been situations when emergency rule prevailed and civil liberties were curtailed. Politicians like Sirisena and Rajapaksa are well aware of this historical experience and legacy because they tasted it, smelled it, touched it and lived by it when in power last time i.e. pre-Yahapalanaya period.
What the international response to such a purported design cannot be guessed at this time though there are early signs to understand where the wind is flowing. How the UNP led coalition of parties will respond to such a situation of emergency cannot be gauged either. Without doubt, Sri Lanka is being thrown into a pariah state yet again in the eyes of the international community and right-thinking Sri Lankans – even if the Sirisena installed government led by Mahinda attempts to stay in power with or without an emergency being declared. By the actions of President Sirisena since October 26th, he has brought the government to a paralysed state and the country into a dangerous point. They have brought about a chaotic situation in the parliament to show the public that it is not viable to rely on the parliament and to justify their own argument to go for a general election to resolve the crisis. If the unruly behaviour of Rajapaksa goons in the parliament leads to countrywide violence where opposing party supporters take the law into their hands, God help the country and its people.
All those who love peace, democracy and order in society and respect human values and norms for a rule based society need to get together at this critical juncture and not let this Sirisena-Rajapaksa junta to control their lives any further. They need to demand that the parliament be allowed to conduct its business without harassment, intimidation and bullying by the minority. President has to accept the majority will in the parliament conveyed on more than one occasion with signed letters and NCMs.
The hidden agenda of the Rajapaksas seem to be to stall and stifle high court cases running against them for the alleged corruption that took place during their rule. However, they are justifying their action –along with the President- on procedural grounds, i.e. saying the NCM was not approved following proper procedure or not punishing a UNP MP for carrying a butter knife in the parliament. These are lame excuses.
Rajapaksa goons should be kept in their place. Their behaviour in the last few days in the parliament is only a miniature act that the people outside it have to face daily when they come to power. The period up to 2015 change of government bear witness to the pathetic way that Rajapaksas run the country – even though some Buddhist monks close to him think he is the saviour of Sinhala Buddhists and their rights as sons of the land. Right thinking people cannot understand how Buddhist religion and corrupt political culture can go together? More importantly, how yellow Sivura (monks’ robe) and Satakaya (maroon colour cloth worn around neck) can go together for a reconciled nation? It will only create a hegemonic deep state the levers of which will be controlled by a few for the few – not for the many. The majority-whether inside the parliament or outside it- has to awaken to this reality in order to save the nation from corrupt and unruly politicians who say one thing and do another in office.