Parliament of 2020: Old Arrack in new plastic bottles?

Mangala Samaraweera is another political maverick but he is not running in the election this time. The former qualified fashion designer virtually declared himself persona non grata in Sri Lankan politics when he publicly declared that Buddhist monks should keep out of politics. This was political hara-kiri by a Sinhala Buddhist politician from the deep south.

by Gamini Weerakoon

Elections, at times, are considered to be the best of times to ‘throw the rascals out’. But this is strictly not so in this country. Although governments have been thrown out regularly many of the same controversial mavericks keep coming back, some having jumped from one party to another before elections. It’s like the same old arrack in new plastic bottles.

The electoral lists for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, we are told, reveal that many such characters are in the recycling process although some entertain the fond belief that the 2020 parliamentary elections will dawn a splendid era.

Mervyn Silva , a political maverick if not outrageous politician whose antics embarrassed even the most accommodating members of the SLFP, has announced his candidature for the Anuradhapura District from the UNP. Long years ago, he won the Tissamaharama seat on the UNP ticket, later shifted to the SLFP and even became a minister in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. His star antics include crashing into a Rupavahini director’s office, attacking him physically for not giving due publicity to a speech of his and being subsequently driven out by irate employees; and tying up an official to a tree for not carrying out his orders. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the staid UNP leader consenting to his nomination is quite a surprise. Wickremesinghe ‘is upset’ say some but others say that Wickremesinghe’s strategy is to stage ‘an upset’ on others in the long run, predict political observers.

Another resilient and controversial politico wanting to be back in parliament is S.B. Dissanayake. He has been in and out of three political parties — the Communist Party, the SLFP and the UNP. He has also featured as a power broker, particularly after President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. Now ‘SB’ onetime cabinet minister of the UNP and its electoral organiser is once again in the thick of the campaign for the SLFP born again party — the Pohottuwa.

‘SB’ has another first in Sri Lankan politics: being sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment by a five-judge bench for defaming the Supreme Court in a speech made by him. It was revealed that ‘SB’ at one stage of his imprisonment he was not in the Welikada prison cells or its hospital where he was supposed to be confined to, but in the teak lined rooms of Colombo General Hospital’s comfortable Merchants Ward. ‘SB’ returned back to Welikada but walked out before serving his full sentence, being pardoned by his president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mangala: Staying out with bang

Mangala Samaraweera is another political maverick but he is not running in the election this time. The former qualified fashion designer virtually declared himself persona non grata in Sri Lankan politics when he publicly declared that Buddhist monks should keep out of politics. This was political hara-kiri by a Sinhala Buddhist politician from the deep south. Whatever the constitutional arguments may be against the participation of monks in politics in a supposedly secular state, Samaraweera was plainly sailing against the current of thousands of years of Sri Lankan history.

Samaraweera with his unorthodox views on sexual relations and LGBT has drawn the ire of the supposedly highly moral Sri Lankan society — Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. But he has every right to express his individual opinion and canvass for it.

Samaraweera’s scathing criticism of political monks is shared by non-political Buddhists who desire to retain the purity of Buddhism in accordance with the teaching of the Buddha. But this criticism is limited to private conversations because it is considered un-Buddhistic to criticise the Sangha publicly despite the deplorable behaviour of the offenders.

This immunity of political Buddhist monks from criticism now appears to be spreading to other religious dignitaries as well when considering the widespread criticism levelled against Harin Fernando, a Catholic himself, for his comments on the political statements made by the Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. The Cardinal’s comments and involvement in Sri Lankan politics can by no means be described as ‘apolitical’ as most of his illustrious predecessors. Categorising Sri Lanka as a secular state may not be acceptable in the context of the present state of politics but could it be categorised as a ‘theocracy’ of all religions prevalent here?

Samaraweera, who appears to have exiled himself from parliamentary politics, is the only politician who has dared to take on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the dressing-down he gave the nattily dressed Central Bankers albeit with their face masks on. The former Lt. Colonel directed all his verbal artillery on Sri Lanka’s top economists not only for the state of the economy after Covid-19 but also for the lack of economic progress since he was elected president eight months ago.

As a journalist listening to his verbal bashing, the thought that came to our mind was: Who is the Finance Minister of this country? Our experience in journalism for decades told us that during economic crises, it is the Finance Minister who should take the rap for the economy even if the fault lay with his underlings. That is the accepted practice in parliamentary democracy. But here the president appeared to have forgotten that his brother was not only the Finance Minister but the Prime Minister of the government as well.

In a letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa, Samaraweera has said: As the Finance Minister, the ‘Central Bank and Treasury charged with monetary and fiscal policy are under your charge. Constitutionally, you are the superintendent of our country’s economy. Of course, this authority is itself subservient to the Constitutional provision that the Cabinet of Ministers, not the President or Prime Minister, is ‘charged with the direction and control of the Republic’…” The tongue lashing of the governor of the Central Bank and his senior officials was unprecedented in seven decades of the history of the Central Bank, Samaraweera has asserted.

Government officials, he said, in certain instances should be chastised but never in public. Any semblance of independence ceased to be when two members of the Monetary Board were asked to resign and as a result all three members now on the board were appointed by the President.

Going into the monetary and fiscal issues raised by Samaraweera is beyond the scope of this column but we find it amusing that the two main opposition parties haven’t raised this issue of making the Central Bank, the whipping boy.

President’s criticism of the Central Bank is justified in one instance: the failure of the Central Bank to protect investments of the public in some private finance companies.

Parliamentary elections are now round the corner, come Covid-19 or not. The recycling of parliamentary mavericks seems to be part and parcel of the Sri Lankan system. Whether the predicted vistas of glorious vision will come or not, even astrologers are not saying. But if the Sri Kotha boxing bouts continue unabated the movement of stars and constellations are not needed to make the correct prediction. It may result in cries of ‘match fixing’ after the election and the Sri Lankan Karmic cycle will continue.

(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)

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