When Degeneration of Parliament exposed in Sri Lanka

A Member of Parliament cannot engage in any business transaction with the Government directly or indirectly and on behalf of him or any other member of his family.

by Victor Ivan

From an architectural point of view, Sri Lanka had a parliamentary building near Galle Face which looked majestic and fitting for a Parliament. The affairs of the old Parliament were carried out in this building in an optimum and dignified manner from 28 January 1930, when it was declared open, up until the time it was shifted to the new parliamentary complex at Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte on 24 March 1982.

The new Parliament complex, despite being equipped with modern amenities and having an artistic look, lacked the majestic appearance that a Parliament should have. Presumably, this difference can be said to have symbolically signified the decline of Parliament. A similar transition of symbolic significance occurred to the Judiciary as well.

From an architectural standpoint, Sri Lanka had an equally imposing judicial complex with an aura appropriate for an institution which metes out justice. But in the eighties, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal were shifted to a new court complex built in Hulftsdorp. Although it is equipped with modern facilities, its exterior can be said to resemble a beautiful Chinese lantern.

Japan cannot be regarded as a country which bears a strong record of democracy over its distant past; it was quite recently that it became a democratic country. Similarly, China does not possess a good history as far as the subject of the Judiciary is concerned. The shifting of buildings can be said to have served as symbolically depicting the subsequent decline of the two institutions.

What is more important in Parliament is the authority it exercises as the supreme institute of State rule, legislation and policy formulation, and above all to what extent it has discharged its responsibilities, rather than the buildings of the Parliament and the facilities and amenities available. Similarly, the importance of the Judiciary is dependent upon the extent to which it has performed its supervisory role in monitoring the activities of the Legislature and the Executive, in addition to effectively exercising justice in ordinary legal proceedings.

Attack on Parliament

Parliament came under major attack on two occasions. The first attack took place on 18 August 1981 while all the MPs of the ruling party, including the President and the Cabinet of Ministers, were engaged in a discussion on the Indo-Lanka Accord. The first grenade was hurled at the table at which President J.R. Jayawardene was seated. It rolled over the carpeted floor and exploded. The second grenade flew over the heads of those sitting at the table, fell on an empty seat on their left, rolled to the ground and exploded. Miraculously, President Jayewardene was unharmed. However, Kirti Abeywickrema, a District Minister, died while Lalith Athulathmudali, the then-National Defence Minister, was seriously injured.

It was an attack perpetrated by a supporter of the JVP aimed at destroying the group of ruling party MPs.

Twenty years later, on 21 January 2020, a Parliamentarian launched a frightening verbal onslaught from the floor of Parliament, disclosing the current deplorable state of the Parliament which can be considered a far more devastating assault than the previous grenade attack. The recent tirade delivered by MP Ranjan Ramanayake can be said to have robbed Parliament of its political legitimacy and sounded a death knell for the institution.

According to Ranjan, there are 100 liquor licenceholders, four ethanol licenceholders, 75 sand licenceholders and one horseracing licenceholder among the present batch of Parliamentarians.

The data presented by Ranjan is imperfect. There are MPs possessing more than one liquor licence. His list does not include the number of MPs possessing rubble permits, timber permits, passenger transport permits, the number who have acquired state lands, obtained re-export permits, filling stations and Government contracts in various ways and the number who have acquired licences for radio and TV frequencies. We gain a clearer picture of the extent to which Parliament has degenerated only when these deficiencies are completed and the list updated. Against this backdrop, the present Parliament can be described as an illegitimate institution comprised of a vast majority of MPs who are not entitled, both legally and ethically, to serve as parliamentarians.

Loss of conscience

Although the general public of Sri Lanka is unaware of the legal aspects of these issues, Ranjan’s speech seems to have left people flabbergasted. Surprisingly, parliamentary authorities seem not to be concerned or shaken by this speech. Neither the Speaker nor anyone representing Parliament has come forward demanding an inquiry into the matter to safeguard the dignity of Parliament. The Speaker has not stressed the need for an investigation. Similarly, both the ruling party and the Opposition have refrained from making such a request. In other words, none of the political parties, big or small, representing Parliament, made any attempt to present a proposal to investigate these serious allegations.

What does this indicate?

Although the degeneration of Parliament remains a secret to the country, it has not been so to the authorities of Parliament and the MPs.They all knew the extent of this degeneration. They have gotten used to it; the repulsive stink emanating from it and the putrid leachate oozing out of it. They have gotten themselves acclimatised to this ugly condition and acquired the ability to endure it without any sense of disgrace so long as it is kept a secret from the public. So much so, that what Ranjan has disclosed was nothing new to them. Perhaps it might have left them with a slight sense of shame as this disclosure was made in public. Yet, one cannot expect it to have shocked them.

Apparently, none of them had the courage to demand an inquiry as almost every one of them, to a lesser or greater degree, is likely to be affected and become guilty. This shows that Sri Lanka’s Parliament has not only degenerated but has lost its conscience as well.

Legal status

Although Sri Lanka had adopted two constitutions, one in 1972 and the other in 1978, subsequent to the enactment of the Soulbury Constitution, there was no legislation enacted by both these constitutions in relation to the contracts entered into with the Government by the MPs. However, both constitutions specifically state that the provisions in the Soulbury Constitution are valid unless and until new laws are enacted in regard to this issue. Therefore, Article 13 (3) (c) of the Soulbury Constitution is presumed to be the valid law for this subject. This position had been confirmed by two previous judgments passed by the Supreme Court - one in respect of MP Albert Silva (Dahanayake v. De Silva 1978/79/80 18 LR-41) and the other against MP Rajitha Senaratne (2000-2SLR-79).

Article 13 (3) (c) of the Soulbury Constitution is as follows: “A person shall be disqualified from being elected or appointed as a Senator or a member of the House of Representative or for sitting or voting in the Senate or House of Representative if he, directly or indirectly, by himself or by any person on his behalf or for his use or benefit, holds or enjoys any right or benefit under any contract made by on behalf of the Crown in respect of the Government of the Island for the furnishing or providing money to be remitted abroad or of goods or services to be used or employed in the service of the crown in the Island.”

Accordingly, a Member of Parliament cannot engage in any business transaction with the Government directly or indirectly and on behalf of him or any other member of his family. It is not possible for him to buy or lease State land or other State property; he cannot act as a Government contractor or one who sells goods to the Government or buys goods from the Government.

The ugly compromise

Anyone who does such things cannot contest Parliamentary Elections, cannot get elected to Parliament, cannot sit or vote in Parliament. Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka’s Parliament is in a serious crisis. The existence of the Parliament is totally unconstitutional. A vast majority of Members of Parliament can be regarded as those who have committed the offences outlined above. Therefore, the Parliament of Sri Lanka can be considered a Legislative Council comprised of a majority of parliamentarians who are not qualified to represent Parliament or sit and vote within this August institution.

This is not a situation which has arisen recently or by accident. It can be described as an outcome of repulsive and unconstitutional actions initiated deliberately, which have persisted over a considerable period of time, with the consequential degradation and distortion of the entire parliamentary system.

Another important characteristic inherent in this horrific cancer is the consensus with which all parties and individuals that represent Parliament act in the face of this ugly scenario, regardless of their position, class, ethnicity, religion or education. All of them can be said to have sprayed tons of perfume at the public’s expense to suppress the bad odour emanating from this putrid cancer.

The most surprising thing is the ignorance and appalling silence of the intelligentia and the public media over this ugly situation, let alone the general public.

The 19th Amendment was intended to transfer all powers of the President to Parliament while keeping the degenerated state of Parliament as it was. I ventured to point out this situation when the idea of the amendment was first brought to the fore; but the intellectuals who appeared for the amendment lacked even the basic political intelligence to properly comprehend the situation.

Just as the presidential system established by President Jayewardene was extremely corrupt, so too was the parliamentary system built into the presidential system of governance. Therefore, the transfer of presidential powers to Parliament or transfer of powers vested in Parliament back to the President, I should stress, will not be a solution to the degenerated situation of the system of governance.

JR’s role

President Jayewardene can be considered the one who triggered this horrible cancer within the country’s political body. Although he was not a greedy person inclined to amassing wealth, the role played by him in corrupting the political system was immense. He pushed Government MPs into a corrupt stream and in the process, he too had smeared himself with dirt. He enacted certain absurd changes in parliamentary traditions to please his fellow MPs. He increased the allowances of MPs and introduced a system to give better vehicles to them. The most popular method that he adopted to please his MPs was to create a system where they could obtain valuable State land at a nominal price.

The Government owned more than one million acres of estate land divested under the Land Reform Act. It was this reserve of public land that was used to make the MPs of the ruling party landed proprietors.

It would not be possible for him not to know that granting State land to MPs was contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and parliamentary ethics. This predatory program necessitated that its beneficiaries were stripped of their sense of shame and ethical values. Even if there was the slightest doubt or suspicion in them, President Jayewardene himself set an example, exchanging a barren coconut estate of 50 acres owned by him with a fertile coconut land of 50 acres belonging to the Land Reform Commission. That was how the disgraceful plunder of land commenced.

Following the footsteps of their big boss, the ministers and MPs of the ruling party earmarked fertile land that belonged to the Land Reform Commission and had it bought with the bungalows that stood on them at a nominal price, thereby becoming landed proprietors and planters. JR did a lot of things for the members of his family circle and his cronies, which were not superficially and immediately apparent. They too can be treated as unconstitutional and degrading acts. It was he who started the practice of setting up museums for himself or his family members at the State’s expense.

The successors of JR

The Presidents who succeeded JR pursued the corrupt system introduced by him, by protecting and nurturing it and adding new elements to it. It was President Premadasa who initiated a system of offering radio broadcasts frequencies to his friends. President Chandrika introduced the system of granting liquor licences to MPs. Thus, under this corrupt system, all Presidents, with or without their knowledge, allied themselves with ruling party MPs and adopted a policy of plundering public property in the country. The number of liquor licences issued to MPs during Chandrika’s rule numbered beyond 1,200.

There were certain MPs who had obtained four to five liquor licences. While a large number of Government MPs had become landed proprietors and planters under the regime of JR Jayewardene, a substantial number of Government MPs had become bar owners under Chandrika’s rule.

The Presidents and powerful MPs used huge development schemes, large-scale purchases and sales as important sources of income for them and earned large sums of money. The process of looting public property and wealth moved forward rapidly, leaving nothing to be looted anymore. The massive bond scam, which everyone knows about, is only one example. Paradoxically, when the country goes bankrupt, the political regime thrives, getting richer.

Against this backdrop, what is most tragic is the inability of the educated people of the country to understand the true nature of the plunder of public treasures. At least they were unaware that MPs transacting business with the Government was a violation of the Constitution. The solution they foresaw to this problem was to send educated people or professionals to Parliament. They failed to see the need for serious structural reforms to the system of governance.

Even after Ranjan’s shocking revelation, they do not seem to have entirely opened their eyes. They have not demanded an inquiry into the conduct of MPs who engaged in business with the Government. I have not seen a single editorial written about it.

In a crisis situation like this, the role of the Judiciary as well as the Auditor-General should also come under discussion.

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