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Pandemonium in parliament over Ranjan’s seat

Sri Lanka’s opposition MPs protest the 20th amendment to the constitution last year – File photo

ECONOMYNEXT – Pandemonium reigned in parliament today for a second day running as a heated exchange between opposition MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and former speaker Chamal Rajapaksa escalated to name-calling and fellow lawmakers trading colourful diatribes, followed by an impromptu musical number.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena suspended proceedings for five minutes as the chaotic back-and-forth reached a fever pitch, with government and opposition MPs heckling each other over Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Ranjan Ramanayake’s freshly and controversially vacated seat.

Tensions rose as the Speaker told parliament earlier this morning that the Secretary General of Parliament had acted in accordance with the constitution when he informed the National Election Commission yesterday that Ramanayake’s seat is rendered vacant owing to his extended absence.

Ramanayake is currently serving a four-year prison sentence over charges of contempt of court. The actor-turned-politician stood accused of making disparaging remarks about the judiciary at a press conference in 2017.

Last week the Court of Appeal dismissed a petition filed by the Gampaha district MP seeking a writ order preventing the annulment of his parliamentary seat. The court held that there was no legal basis in the petition. Speaker Abeywardena, SJB parliamentarians have repeatedly alleged, had declined multiple requests from the party to allow Ramanayake to attend parliament.

Responding to the Speaker’s statement today, opposition leader and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa said Ramanayake will challenge the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Supreme Court. Premadasa urged the Speaker to recognise his colleague’s right to contest the appeal court’s decision.

“Ranjan has every right to appeal the decision and until the appeal process commences and an ultimate final verdict is provided by the Supreme Court, [he should retain his seat],” he said.

“It is the decent thing to do, and it is the right thing to do, to ensure that he remains a member of parliament. Why are you all in a hurry to send this letter [to the Election Commisson]? When we proposed a leave of absence, you were very quick to point out that the motion would be denied since a court case was ongoing,” he said.

The Speaker maintained that the opposition’s argument was baseless as the parliament’s secretary general’s letter to the Election Commission was in line with the Court of Appeal decision and was not a violation of the constitution. He recommended that the SJB take another course of action instead.

“Without arguing and wasting time here, you should perhaps and get an injunction order against the Election Commission,” he said to Premadasa.

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Retorted Premadasa: “It’s okay for a person who has been convicted of murder to enter parliament –  and I do believe that that member has the right to appeal, but that same right is not afforded to Ranjan Ramanayake. And you tell me that my argument is baseless.”

“If you’re interested in supporting the agenda of the government, of course you can say it is baseless,” he added.

Premadasa was referring to government MP Premalal Jayasekara, who was in death row for a murder allegedly committed in 2015 of a United National Party (UNP) supporter, and was sworn in as an MP in the ninth parliament amid opposition protest. The Court of Appeal issued an interim order in September last year permitting the MP to attend parliamentary sittings.

Responding to Premadasa, the Speaker said Jayasekara had filed a writ petition before the Court of Appeal asking for relief, an option that he said is still available to Ramanayake.

“Let him go to courts and get himself cleared,” he said.

“If you accept his right of appeal, why are you denying his parliament membership? You are denying him a human right,” said Premadsa.

“Don’t mislead the country,” replied the Speaker.

Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena said: “As a democracy, whether we like it or not we have to obey the courts.”

The opposition leader went on to speak of a conspiracy hatched within the House with the knowledge of the Speaker and government MPs to get rid of Ramanayake, an outspoken MP known for his controversial speeches in parliament.

At this point, SJB MP Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka recalling his own experience of fighting for his parliamentary seat in 2010 claimed that then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa had tried to prevent him from entering parliament during the eight months he was in jail, despite filing appeals in three separate courts.

The allegation was hotly denied by Rajapaksa.

“I was the one who permitted you to come to parliament,” he said.

A war of words ensued, with a visibly irate Rajapaksa seemingly inviting Fonseka to fisticuffs outside the chamber.

“Nikan boruwata thamuse ge haiya pennanna enne. Booruwa thamuse, gahanawa parayata, eliyata enawa pennanna,” he said. (Loosely translated: “You’re just trying to assert your dominance. You’re the donkey. I’ll punch you. Why don’t you come out and see.”)

Chaos followed, with government and opposition MPs yelling the house down, forcing the speaker to suspend sittings for five minutes.

During the break, opposition MPs broke into song, belting out the late Vjiyara Kumaratunga’s hit “Alugosuwane Ellapan” – a song about unjust conviction. Kumaratunga, who was a relative of MP Ramanayake and himself an actor-turned-politician, was assassinated in 1988.

A number of SJB MPs continued to sing even as government MPs mocked and heckled them. Much of the commotion was captured by SJB MP Dr Harsha de Silva, whose smartphone footage was widely shared on social media.

Once proceedings recommenced, MP Chamal Rajapaksa apologised for his remarks and said he regretted any hurtful comments on his part. (Colombo/Apr08/2021)

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