A physical altercation, coupled with verbal abuses, took place in the well of the House on Tuesday over the reduction of Army security provided to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The disturbance took place at a time when a Code of Conduct was being considered by parliamentary authorities for adoption to maintain dignity and decorum of the House.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, in early April, tabled the copies of the proposed Code of Conduct and asked all MPs to submit their views for improvement or modifications in it. Tuesday’s melee happened at a time when the MPs were supposed to give their opinion on the proposed code.
The MPs of the Joint Opposition (Mahinda Rajapaksa faction) of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in a statement protested that Minister Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka was trying to establish that the present security situation in the country did not warrant military protection for both Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Fonseka was responding to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s request to explain the intricacies of security matters.
“I am a civilian and I am not well versed on security matters. So, I am asking Sarath Fonseka who is an expert on it, to elaborate on the intricacies involved,” the Prime Minister said.
But when Fonseka started reading a statement, it provoked the MPs loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa. They trooped into the Well of the House and headed in a body towards the Speaker’s Chair. They were demonstrating there when MP Prasanna Ranaweera (of the Joint Opposition) and Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs Palitha Thewarapperuma began to exchange blows. Later, Kegalle District UNP MP Sandith Samarasinghe who got beaten up in the melee was referred for medical treatment.
The Speaker convened an immediate party leaders’ meeting after suspending sittings for the day to discuss the matter. On behalf of the Joint Opposition, its parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardane attended the discussion together with Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella, and others.
It is learnt that both Kiriella and Sampanthan, while condemning the incident, pressed for punishment against the errant members whoever they might be. Dinesh Gunawardane intervened at this point and said although one of his MPs was injured after the rumpus, one side should not be blamed for the furor that included the trading of blows and that it has to be ascertained who triggered the violence.
“We had an MP who was bleeding. The MP who started the fight is not the one injured finally,” he said.
Speaker Jayasuriya said he wanted to watch the video footage of the incident before making any conclusion. All the participants agreed to it. But again, a heated exchange of words ensued between Kiriella and Gunawardane when the former accused the latter of setting the stage for the rowdy scenes by raising the Rajapaksa security issue. In response, Gunawardane said that the Leader of the House lied in Parliament last month when he said that Rajapaksa’s security would not be curtailed at any cost.
“You made a commitment to the House when I raised it first in April . But, you did not keep it,” Gunawardane accused Kiriella.
The meeting was tense due to the verbal exchange between the two. Anyway Gunawardane registered his protest against the opportunity granted to Fonseka to make a written statement in the House, critical of Mahinda Rajapaksa and was alleged to have been provocative to members of the Joint Opposition.
“The Prime Minister should have spoken. After that, it was not meant for a ministerial statement to be made. I made impromptu remarks. The Prime Minister did not read out a statement. Instead, Fonseka read out a statement prepared in advance I think, that was critical of Rajapaksa. That is the reason for the whole episode. Otherwise, the problem would have ended after the Prime Minister expressed his views,” he said.
The government leaders have taken up the position that trained personnel from the Police and the Special Task Force (STF) could provide security to Rajapaksa as decided by the Security Council. Accordingly, Army officers, attached to Rajapaksa’s security detail were recalled on May 2.
Afterwards, Dinesh Gunawardane contacted his classmate Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena over the matter on Monday itself. In fact, he delivered letters asking for the restoration of security to Rajapaksa whose life was at risk after the defeat of LTTE.
The President is reported to have told Gunawardane that decisions of this nature are taken after the assessment of the security situation in the country, and that Army personnel are no longer required for VIP security . The President said it was not a decision taken solely by him but promised to raise it at the Security Council meeting again.
Afterwards, Gunawardane briefed his group on the outcome of his engagements with the two leaders of the government.
The government holds the view that the Police and the STF could provide VIP security at the moment, and that it had been the international practice with former US President George Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair despite their role in fighting global terrorism .
However, the Joint Opposition and other organisations loyal to Mahiinda Rajapaksa argue otherwise and say the former President was always under threat from the pro- LTTE elements.
SLFP unlikely to initiate action against Joint Opposition
Before May Day, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) warned its members against the participation in the rally of the Joint Opposition in Kiruloponne, Colombo. It vowed to take stern disciplinary action against those defying those instructions. Nonetheless, a large chunk of the SLFP membership attended the Joint Opposition rally.
In the aftermath of the event, the SLFP section of President Sirisena is reviewing the political situation. But, the party does not look keen to initiate disciplinary action, probably bearing in mind that such drastic decision would only precipitate the split of the party.
In all probability, the formation of a new political party seems to be dependent on action to be taken by the SLFP hierarchy against those involved in politics with the Joint Opposition.
Asked about the present situation, Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, a close confidant of President Sirisena, said it would take at least a week for the party to file a report on the May Day rally issue and submit it to the Central Committee for discussion. However, he did not talk about any urgency for disciplinary action against Rajapaksa loyalists.
“We are tired after May Day events; we will discuss matters next week,” he said.
For the main SLFP rally in Galle under the auspices of the President, it is reported that Amaraweera, Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake, Petroleum and Petroleum Gas Minister Chandima Weerakkody and Power and Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya were able to bring sizeable crowds from their respective constituencies.
People from the North and the East also attended the event in Galle. Yet, it is learnt that the crowds brought by Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara and some others could not enter the grounds in which the rally was conducted, due to a vehicle jam at the Galle exit point of the Southern Expressway.
The Joint Opposition attracted people from different parts of the country, such as Ratnapura , Matara, Galle and Anuradhapura. Former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa played a role in organising crowds for the May Day procession and rally. However, he did not get onto the stage because other party leaders of the Joint Opposition disliked it.
Joint Opposition leaders such as Wimal Weerawansa of the National Freedom Party (NFF) resent the public role being played by Basil Rajapaksa in the activities of the Joint Opposition. Instead, it is reported that Basil Rajapaksa has been asked to play a role behind the scenes rallying the support of minority communities.
Economic matters take a back seat
Political issues dominate news these days with less focus on economic matters that have a direct bearing on public life.
The proposed tax reforms- the increase of Value Added Tax (VAT) and the Nation Building Tax (NBT)- may lead to complications, but an enlightened debate is yet absent because attention is drawn more towards political matters sensational in nature but trivial in reality.
The liable limit for VAT payment is reduced from Rs.100 million to Rs. 12 million per quarter in the wholesale and retail trade alone. It means more and more people, engaged in trade will have to pay increased taxes. The NBT threshold has been also increased likewise. VAT exemptions on telecommunication services and private healthcare services have been removed.
The government initially planned to remove VAT exemption on private education. Later, it was excluded. Actually, the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) also passed a resolution calling for ,among others, the continuation with VAT exemption on private education.