The recent shenanigans in Parliament that left one Member of Parliament in hospital and two others suspended for one week are a reflection of the depths the legislature has descended to in recent decades. Worse still, there is no sign of that trend being reversed either.
The entire episode could have been called a comedy of errors if not for the fact that these were individuals who were chosen to represent the people. That they were acting like they did in the most hallowed of assemblies in the country was most disgraceful.
It all began when the matter of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s security was raised by the so-called ‘Joint Opposition’. It was a sensitive issue and when Rajapaksa’s bête noire, Former Army Commander turned Minister Sarath Fonseka took the floor to lambast Rajapaksa, all hell broke loose.
Members of the ‘Joint Opposition’ walked into the well of the House and began chanting slogans in an attempt to drown out Fonseka’s speech. Perhaps Speaker Karu Jayasuriya missed a trick at that point. Instead of suspending sittings, he insisted that Fonseka be heard, perhaps believing in the right for freedom of expression. Inadvertently he was allowing the ruckus to continue as tempers were getting frayed.
It was disgraceful to see a senior parliamentarian of the calibre of Dinesh Gunewardena behaving as he did hurling indecent insults at the Chair. Members of the calibre of Udaya Gammanpila were gleefully in the supporting cast, chanting slogans and grinning from ear to ear, clearly enjoying the spectacle and seeing nothing wrong in it.
That is when the fisticuffs occurred between United National Party (UNP) maverick and recently appointed deputy minister Palitha Thevarapperuma and neophyte ‘Joint Opposition’ parliamentarian Prasanna Ranaweera. Caught somewhere in the middle, the UNP’s Sandith Samarasinghe was injured.
What followed was even more farcical. A committee was quickly appointed which, with the speed of greased lightning, conducted deliberations and handed down its recommendations: one week suspensions for Thevarapperuma and Ranaweera.
The ‘punishments’ meted out, if they could be called that, are not worth the paper they are written on. It does not even specify that they are barred from seven sitting days of Parliament. As many have pointed out, if the incident occurred outside Parliament, the offenders would have been charged with assault and affray. Because it happened within the walls of the House, they get off scot free.
So, the penalties are worse than the offence itself. Clearly, neither of the two MPs has been chastised. They have quickly taken to the media, issuing statements to justify their actions. Ranaweera goes to the extent of saying he is ‘innocent’ while Thevarapperuma accepts guilt but appears to justify his actions.
And hardly a week goes by and what do we see? Thevarapperuma storming a popular school in Kalutara and, Mervyn Silva style, forcing a principal to admit a child who had been rejected admission! Now Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasan has to launch a separate inquiry into that incident too.
It will be recalled that during the presidential election campaign, much was made of the declining standards of behaviour in Parliament and a Code of Conduct for MPs was promised. We are yet to see such a guideline, let alone the standards of behaviour improving in Parliament.
It is not that Parliament needs to always be a genteel place where only extremely ‘proper’ behaviour is adhered to. There is plenty of room for protest but there are always ways of protesting decently. It needs to be done with class and style, maybe with filibustering rather than fisticuffs, placards rather than punches.
There is nothing to suggest that the behaviour seen last week will abate. The penalties imposed on the offenders were not deterrent enough and would in fact encourage such behaviour. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya should have imposed harsher punishments.
These incidents do not augur well for Sri Lanka’s august assembly. It has been said that this is a unique Parliament because both major parties are sharing government. Now, it is also unique because it is also the first Parliament which sent an MP to hospital because of injuries sustained during its sessions.