“We came here to join the kerosene queue at about 5:30 a.m. We do not have gas to cook. That is why we are so desperate to buy a bottle of kerosene, so we can cook something for our children. We waited for more than 10 hours without any shelter. Why cannot the Government ensure us having our basic needs? Now they say, kerosene will not arrive today. Why they make us suffer like this? It would have been better if they line up us and shoot. Death is better than this endless suffering. What did we do to deserve this?”
This is what a woman said, weeping in front of her camera. Her comment went viral this week. This is not just one story. Majority of Sri Lankans feel the same. People are forced to waste precious time in long queues to buy essentials like fuel and gas, just because of the inability of the leadership to take the right decisions at the right time.
The public, once in every four years, elect MPs to represent them in Parliament. Parliament sittings are held two weeks every month. However, the recent behaviour of MPs has come under fire as the people clearly see their representatives continuously failing to address their grievances. The public does not see genuine attempts to solve their problems and as a result, they question whether these ‘people’s representatives’ are actually capable of rescuing the country from the dark economic abyss it is in now.
The country is also witnessing a severe medicinal drug shortage as well. People are searching for drugs by posting prescriptions on social media for several weeks. Parents cannot even find children’s syrup to treat fever. Doctors and medical professionals repeatedly warned about this situation. However, the authorities did not take enough action to solve the crisis. In such a backdrop, the Government only appointed a Health Minister on Friday (20).
What is the point of having a Parliament?
“It does not seem that the MPs care about our suffering at all. They waste our money at Parliament. How many fruitful discussions they had since now? They are keener to engage in mudslinging and speak about their own problems. No one speaks on behalf of us in that place. If they fail to do that, what is the point of having a Parliament?” a person at a petrol queue said.
Illankai Tamil Arasu Katch (ITAK) MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam also raised the same question on Tuesday (17) in the House.
He raised this concern, following the allegation that Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena stopped him chairing the Parliamentary Sitting and instead invited Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Shantha Bandara to preside, when he was invited to the chair by the staff. Gunawradena who refused to provide a clarification, said Rasamanickam should learn certain things in Parliament.
“This is a matter of my privilege. Before Shantha Bandara came to the Chair, a staff member at Serjeant-at-Arms’ Department called me and told me that the Speaker needs to leave his chair and requested me to preside over the Sitting. Following that request, I took the chair.
At that time, I saw Gunawardena sending several messages to the Secretary General and then sent a message asking Shantha Bandara to take the chair instead of me. I saw it very clearly. When I inquired, the Secretary General told me ‘Don’t ask me’. I am a member of the Speaker’s panel. I hope Parliament is an independent institution. This is not the SLPP’s Parliament. All MPs have equal rights.”
If you do not want me to preside over because I speak against the Government and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘deals’, what is the point of this Parliament?” he queried.
What happened in Parliament this week?
This week’s Parliament sittings mainly focused on expressing the agitations of the MPs after the property of nearly 70 representatives came under arson attacks by riots sparked on 9 May, following SLPP supporters’ attack on peaceful protesters at MynaGoGama and GotaGoGama the same day. At least eight persons, including MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala and his driver were killed in the riots. Among the death was a 19-year-old youth. Many persons among the hundreds who sustained injuries are still receiving treatment. Conditions of several persons are critical, according to doctors.
On Tuesday (17), a secret ballot to appoint a Deputy Speaker was held as the MPs failed to reach a common ground for a single name.
The Opposition proposed Samagi Janabalawegaya (SJB) MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna. Her name was nominated by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and was seconded by Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella. After that, the SLPP MP Ajith Rajapakse was proposed by Prof. G.L. Peiris and seconded by Samanpriya Herath.
Wimal Weerawansa on behalf of the 10 coalition parties that became independent in Parliament recently urged the House to come up with one name for the post. SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena and MP Chandima Weerakkody also expressed similar sentiments. They said that this election was being held at a huge expense and urged to suggest only one name without opting for a secret ballot. The MPs said they would make the votes invalid in protest of making the appointment of the Deputy Speaker a soap opera while the pubic openly rejected Parliament.
SJB MPs Chaminda Wijesiri, Nalin Bandara, Mujibur Rahuman and several other MPs noted,
“Wijerathna is the most suitable person for this post. The Prime Minister also said that a female MP should be appointed. That is why we proposed her name. She is a renowned lady, a children’s rights activist and an active member of the House.”
MP Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle also said that Wijerathna was suitable for the post.
Following the arguments, the Speaker announced that unless one of the proposed names may be withdrawn, a vote has to be called for.
Accordingly, a secret ballot was taken in Parliament and 109 votes were cast in favour of Ajith Rajapakse and 78 favouring Rohini Kumari Wijerathna. There were 23 invalid votes and 13 MPs were recorded as absent.
Deputy Speaker of the Ninth Parliament Ranjith Siyambalapitiya recently resigned from his position and was re-elected to the post. Siyambalapitiya submitted his resignation again on 6 May, following wide public criticism.
“When I was subjected to verbal sexual harassment back then, Rajapaksa was chairing the sittings. It is sad that a woman cannot hold main positions in Parliament even now. The Constitution states that gender equality must be ensured. But this Parliament is yet to adhere to that. The Rajapaksa family called for my defeat because I spoke against their corruption. I thank all the MPs who voted for me. The Prime Minister also proposed a female MP as the Deputy Speaker. His proposal was defeated. This is the first defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe after he accepted the post of PM. He will experience lots of failures in the future. It is clear that Rajapaksa family is still carrying out their agendas without respecting the people’s will,” Wijerathna, addressing the House after the defeat alleged.
This saga of electing a Deputy Speaker was vehemently condemned by the public. Electing Siyambalapitiya took several hours of the Parliamentary sitting. The same scenario repeated this week prompting the question; if Parliament cannot come to a common ground to select a Deputy Speaker unanimously, could they really get together and address the crisis in the country, which is now becoming a time bomb?
Furthermore, all the sitting days were allocated to discuss the damages to MPs’ property. Providing answers for the Oral Questions were postponed as a full Cabinet has not been appointed yet.
“These questions need to be asked. We need the answers and the public need answers. But now, it has been postponed for two weeks. The Government has a responsibility to inform the House about a timeframe of appointing a full Cabinet and when Parliament can follow original agenda for the sitting days,” Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka said.
“This is hilarious. Actually we should blame ourselves for electing these people. There are so many problems. We cannot eat properly. We cannot give our children what they need. It is okay if they discuss about their property because we know the pain of losing our belongings. But why allocate the entire week for discussing just that? Aren’t they have any shame?” a social media activist queried.
Meanwhile, several MPs also raised similar concerns. Among them independent MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe made an impulsive comment on Thursday (20) pointing out that, if an MP could possibly be killed by people if he goes new a fuel queue.
“An innocent MP was killed. Amarakeerthi Athukorala was a person who has not wronged anyone. All the 225 MPs who act like donkeys should take the responsibility for that murder. The people hate us. Every time Parliament meets that hatred grows. If we go near a fuel queue, each and every one of us will be killed by the people. They hate us that much. I warned you that MPs would have to face this situation in about a month or two. This Parliament has been spreading hate for the past few months. We are experiencing the results now,” he said.
Moreover, many MPs tried to divert the blame for recent riots on one political party just like 1983. It is questionable whether they are trying to repeat that blood stained history which led the country into three decades of war instead of finding solid solutions for the people’s problems.
Public has lost faith in Parliament
Owing to this pathetic situation in Parliament, where according to the public and political analysts a crippled public representation is displayed, the people have already lost their faith in their leaders. The perfect example for this is the long fuel queues.
Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekara requested the public several times not to line up at filling stations due to the shortage. He said that to normalise fuel supply would take at least three days following the arrival of several shipments. However, the people did not listen and waited at filling stations day and night, resulting in long queues. The situation was same with the gas shortage.
Releasing frustration on journalists and Media
Two lobby correspondents were assaulted and harassed on Monday (17), by SLPP MPs while they were filming ruling party MPs coming out of the Parliament Committee Room after a group meeting in the morning of the same day.
The journalists, Kasun Samaraweera and Prageeth Perera were using mobile phones to video the moment.
SLPP MPs Indika Anuruddha and D. Weerasinghe, are accused of harassing the Parliament correspondents and snatching their phones too, as they were leaving after the meeting.
According to the journalists, Anurudhdha and Weerasinghe assaulted them stating, “You are the reason for everything.” They later snatched the mobile phones of the two journalists.
Commenting on the matter, Premadasa called on Speaker Abeywardena to conduct an inquiry into the incident.
He also urged the Speaker to instruct MPs to respect media freedom and not to obstruct the duties of journalists.
MP Channa Jayasumana labelled the journalists as ‘unidentified persons’ and said filming MPs via mobile phones is a threat to their security.
The MPs had handed the phones over to the Speaker’s Office later. The journalists managed to get their phones back after several hours. The relevant video footage had been deleted by then.
The journalists lodged a complaint at Welikada Police on the incident in the evening. It is alleged that the said MPs demanded them to withdraw the complaint if they want their phones back. However, the journalists who refused to obey the demand said that they would not withdraw the complaint and if the MPs could have the phones if they want them.
On Thursday (19), the Speaker indirectly justified the assault claiming that the two lobby correspondents were in a restricted area according to an internal circular. He advised lobby correspondents not to film or interview MPs at that particular area again. He said that given the current circumstances, it is natural for MPs to react that way.
Many government MPs were seen blaming the media, alleging that it is the media that sparked hatred’ against Parliament and MPs. Assaulting lobby correspondents saying ‘you are the reason for everything’ clearly portray the hatred they have against media for reporting the country’s sad reality. Even the Prime Minister too, blamed the media for bringing Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President.
However, it is not the media that make decisions on the country’s economy. It was not the media that ignored repeated warnings of experts. It was not the media that behaved arrogantly when the public were expressing their agitations. Blaming the media for everything means Parliament has not understood the ground reality of Sri Lanka yet.
Since the inception of the Ninth Parliament, many government MPs and ministers behaved arrogantly avoiding advices given by experts and professionals. When there were warnings last year that the country could default and foreign reserves are drying, some ministers shot the messengers, saying the country has enough foreign reserves. When the people started to express their frustrations, some ministers said ‘if one crow is killed and displayed, other crows would be silenced.’
According to the Finance Division of Parliament, Rs. 2.2 billion had been spent in 2019 on Parliament operations. This is public money. If Parliament cannot fulfil the true wishes of the public and spend days talking only about themselves and their families, more severe public riots would be inevitable. The MPs should come out, at least now, from their comfortable bubbles and truly understand and empathise the people’s sorrows. The people send you to the House on behalf of them. You failed miserably and it led the entire country into this crisis. It is high time for you to pull yourselves together and do your job right!
By Methmalie Dissanayake