Commiserations, Mr. President: Korean Kim nuked your Nobel Peace Prize hopes
Compared to the 200- year- old mother of all parliaments, Britain’s Westminster, which blushes to be reminded of her age like any old Grande Dame would blush crimson to be told the candles will cost more than the cake, Lanka’s 70-year-old parliament looks like a teeny bopper still to come of age.
And, going by the recent wild antics enacted there in public glare, a delinquent kid at that. But can you really blame it if it sometimes acts punk and goes off its rocker, given the sort who habituate its hallowed environs?
But first a brief stroll down the streets of history.
The British parliament evolved to its present ennobled state with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 when the feudal chieftains rebelled against King John of England to wrest from him not the divine right to rule – that happened later with Cromwell -- but to subject its absolute authority to the principle that the king shall not levy or collect taxes without the Royal Council’s consent.
No one, not even the feudal barons of those medieval times, set out to create a parliament on that ‘ sceptred isle’ of England in the manner the Greeks of old had done in Athens? Like Hinduism evolved in India from the grassroots thousands of years ago -- the only major religion that has no founder -- parliamentary democracy in England evolved sans any messiah to proclaim its advent or outline its shape and form or declare its tenets. And, it took eight hundred years in the making to gain its present form, warts and all.
It took eight centuries of going through the furnace, where revolts were ablaze, where wars were common strife and invasions were but mares of the night to trouble the peace of every Englishman’s peace of mind, to make the British mettle of democracy to prove the sterling quality of its Sheffield steel. Not to forget, of course, that it also withstood and transcended serial divorcee King Henry the Eight’s tempestuous love life which resulted in a born again Catholicism in England’s royal courts and in its sleepy shires : Anglican Christianity.
The British earned their democracy with ‘blood, sweat, toil and tears’. They didn’t codify it and put articles and clauses in writing on paper. The struggles to earn their freedoms were writ in blood in the fleshy slab of their beating beefy British hearts. The Americans had to undergo a bitter battle to ratify the proposed American constitution to merit their Bill of Rights over two hundred years ago; and the part it played in dousing the flames of anguish the people bore during that dark period of the new found land’s infancy, when the new born nation was struggling to unite the vast land into one single entity and make it whole, has made the American people place it upon the nation’s altar and sing hosannas in praise of its sacrosanct value.
But unlike nations which had paid in blood to find the Holy Grail of Democracy and having found it, treasured, cherished and guarded it, and were even prepared to die for it, thrice blessed Lanka received its fourth blessing on a platter, even as she received her independence in 1948 -- a departing gift from the British left on a silver tray, silk wrapped with a polite note to the then local political elite to make the best of it.
If India’s greatest religious gift to Lanka was Buddhism, then the greatest political present the departing British left behind as a souvenir when it said its last farewell and took sail to England, was Democracy. History will judge
If there was one man in the world who deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize – next to America’s Trump of course – it would undoubtedly have been Sri Lanka’s Sirisena.
For the first time in the history of the Nobel Peace Awards a Sri Lankan President was nominated and short listed to win the prestigious prize which also carries with it a cash reward of approximately a million dollars for services rendered to world peace.
The Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) nominated President Sirisena and had shortlisted him to win this year’s coveted Nobel Peace Prize. For the last fifteen years, based on their independent assessments, this organization offers their personal assessment of persons or organisations that deserve to be shortlisted for the award. whether this nation had used it wisely or squandered it rashly.
How the people of Lanka has used both gifts, one an altruistic gift from a benevolent emperor of a neighboring country to enhance religious and moral values amongst the natives; the other a parting gift from a departing conqueror to make a slavish race break free from its feudal bondage and rise free to walk the land as free men, endowed with dignity on par with the rest of enlightened humanity, fortunate enough to be bestowed with the knowledge that all men are created equal: that Democracy levels all in its air like death does in the dust.
But whilst 2,300 years of Buddhism have sunk deep into the Sinhala sub conscience that to a great extent the noble philosophy, though attendant with a plethora of rituals, still influences the thoughts and guides the conduct of the majority of the masses, alas, the same cannot be said of the British gift of democracy.
Once, perhaps 70 years ago when the nation dropped out of its bassinet where it has been cradled for over 400 years by foreign domination, the toy the British left behind in 1948 for the new toddler to play with may have seemed fascinating, especially for the elders in the natives’ nursery who had sucked the British teat and drunk deep its milk and thus knew how to handle the plaything with care.
But down these last seventy years, it seems that Parliament, where Democracy is enshrined and resides incarnate, has somewhat lost its sheen of pristine virtue due to the invocations made at its altar by the privileged few allowed to worship therein, petitions made solely to better themselves and not the general welfare of the Lankan public, implorations made to seek more and more – both in terms of power and money – to better their own lot and feather their own nests to the almost total exclusion of the nation’s public.
And the fear is whether the shocked In their citation they said: “Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has initiated a comprehensive set of reconciliatory initiatives to heal the wounds of the civil war which culminated in a military onslaught by the state military on the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Sirisena’s insistence on inclusive reconciliation, therefore, stands out as an example to be followed, especially in a situation where support of the International Criminal Court and other transitional justice mechanisms is deteriorating. In early 2017, the Sri Lankan Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanism released its final report. This goes hand in hand with a range of other efforts, including a consultative process of constitutional reforms. Resistance from the political opposition is real, and so are the prospects for failure. The President himself is susceptible to criticism, having held position in the former government that overran the LTTE. A Nobel Peace Prize to President Sirisena would fit a tradition of honouring pragmatic leaders who show political courage and it would draw attention to reconciliation as a key to sustainable peace.”
Take a bow Mr. President for being the one and only lucky Lankan Head of State to be so nominated and so honoured. You have done Lanka proud, just by being shortlisted.
But, as they say “there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” And when the Nobel Committee decided on Friday and announced that this year’s Nobel peace Prize would go to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear and horrified reigning deity had fled the shrine in disgust; and whether, perhaps, the nation pays its respects and offers its flowers to a nonexistent God. Though those who hold the keys to this Oracle of Lanka’s Diyawanna make us believe in its omnipresence and exploit its omnipotence to achieve their own vile mercenary ends.
Consider a short list of how the sovereignty of Parliament has been used to further the power and the fortunes of politicians who dwelled in its chambers or exerted gripping control over it – all done, of course, for the nation’s good, for the public weal -- as they will tell us.
In 1972, after winning a record two thirds majority two years before, the SLFP- LSSP coalition government headed by Mrs. Bandaranaike and led by the leftist Dr. N. M. Perera used the awesome power the nation’s electorate had bestowed upon them, to promulgate a new constitution the people had never asked for. It cut the last string of the umbilical cord which had bound Ceylon to Britain, turned the colonial name to Sri Lanka -- the resplendent isle -- and severed the right of the citizens of the new named land from having access to England’s Privy Council and hold it as the final court of Appeal.
It cracked down on the freedom of free speech and nationalised the Wijewardena family owned Lake House group of newspapers by using its majority in Parliament to pass the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Special Provisions) Law No. 28 of 1973. It used the Emergency Regulations to seal, in 1974, the Davasa group of newspapers owned by the Gunasena family -- for which act its founder Sepala Gunasena was awarded the Commonwealth’s Astor Award for defense of press freedom in Sri Lanka -and used Parliament every month -- as the law demanded -- to ratify the state of emergency; and used the same emergen- Weapons (ICAN) it barely came as any surprise. With Trump and Kim engaged in a nuclear duel and with the existence of the world at stake, it was obvious that world interest – American interests - would soar above all else; and that the efforts a Lankan President made in trying to reconcile 15 million Sinhalese with 2 or 4 million Tamils in an island less than 25,000 square miles in size would pale into insignificance.
As the Nobel Committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize, funded by the fortune its founder Alfred Nobel earned as the inventor of dynamite, would put it “nothing personal but even a small NGO advocating nuclear disarmament must take precedence especially when American interests are at stake.”
Commiserations Mr. President. It seems that one of the long range missiles that Kim Jong-un aimed to fly over Japan and land near Guam off the American coast had gone out of control and veered its way to blast at your doorstep and blow your Nobel Peace prize hopes cy powers to extend their five-year term of office by a further two years.
Were these done, was Parliament power used to better the lot of the Lankan citizen or to sate the insatiable private megalomania of politicians?
In 1977, after the public had booted out the coalition in no uncertain terms muttering under their breath ‘good riddance of bad rubbish, UNP’s J. R. Jayewardene blew in from the cold with a massive five sixth majority in Parliament. He immediately proceeded to use his power in the House to radically change the supremacy of Parliament by throwing to the dustbin the previous regime’s constitution and, in its stead, promulgated a new one which proclaimed him as Executive President.
Perhaps it had been the need of the hour for a nation whose romance with democracy was still to bloom to lifelong matrimony, whose flirtation with democracy had proved dismal and whose hopes had sunk to the doldrums. After seven years of a winter of discontent under SLFP-LSSP rule, they awaited the sunshine JR promised he would bring with the new constitution.
With hindsight it can be safely said that it is JR’s constitution that pulled the nation from the brink. It laid the very legal basis for Lanka to come of age as a modern state. Whilst it permitted JR to avoid a presidential election in 1982 by using its provisions of a referendum to decide on the matter, neither JR nor his constitution can be blamed if the public of this country chose to vote for the lamp and not for the pot and thus enable JR to rule as president. Plus it has served successive presidents and governments very well.
Whilst enjoying all the powers of the executive presidency, it has served as a convenient scapegoat upon which to heap all the blame for their own failures. And called for its slaughter as the panacea for the nation’s malady
In 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa used his two third majority in Parliament – gained not from the electorate but with the help of jumping MPs who needed no ladders to cross over the fence – for the explicit purpose of perpetuating his reign as president for all time not only in the fervent belief in his own immortality but in the ardent trust that, having won the terrorist war – as he said - singlehanded, the Sinhalese held him as king and worshipped him as demi god and would always vote for him.
In the run up to the 2015 presidential election, the then joint opposition’s common candidate Maithripala Sirisena also vowed before the nation in 2014 to abolish the constitution within 100 days but when he gained the presidency on the 9th of January 2015, he found his own party divided with some in the Rajapaksa nest, flying to and fro from one nest to the other.
But it is to his credit that he managed to rally all forces and use Parliament to pass the 19th Amendment to the constitution with more than a two thirds majority; and, in the manner Sri Sangabo of the Jatakas cut off his head and handed it over to a passing stranger merely because he asked for it, voluntarily chose to emasculate his presidential powers purely because he believed the Lankan public wanted it.
But the sanctity of Parliament’s temple where the sovereignty of the people lie enshrined has not only been used – with the singular exception of Sirisena -- to enhance and consolidate the powers of successive presidents. It has also been abused to vulgarly increase the perks and privileges of its own members whilst callously taxing the commoner’s wallet.
And, if the Rajapaksa Government was guilty of doing so to keep the members happy and supportive of their regime at the expense of the taxpayer, so is the present Maithripala-Ranil regime guilty of the same offence. These last two and a half years, whilst the masses have been burdened by the escalating cost of living with no corresponding rise in pay, members of the present parliament have embarked upon an unprecedented earning spree. They have used their privileged position in Parliament to vote for themselves duty free cars which can be sold overnight to earn for themselves a neat cool 30 million bucks, granted themselves a hundred thousand bucks monthly allowance to spend as they wish, an increased allowance for fuel and mobile calls and many more too numerous to mention. One thing can be said to their credit: When it came to serving themselves with their own spoon, they haven’t stinted, but have used the parliamentary spoon as a trowel.
They have gained all this and more whilst appealing to the public to tighten their belts and practise austerity since the nation’s international debt of over 9000 billion demands the masses to live a Spartan existence. They have gained all this and more only because the people of this country had sent them to occupy the privileged seats of Parliament from which they had risen from both sides of the chamber to serve their plates full, go for seconds, top it up with dessert and still have room to hold audacity in their bellies to ask for more.
They are what they are today because of Parliament. The sad part is that they attend in full force when the canteen is open and shun it like the plague when the puffed pastries, cream tarts and the rich scones are not on offer for the day
Is it too much for the people to expect them to show an iota of gratitude to the House of the people’s representatives, the Parliament which has spoiled them with so much hospitality, to show up at the seventieth anniversary of its founding? Apparently yes, it seems.
This Tuesday whilst the nation celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the Sri Lankan Parliament – said to be the oldest in South Asia – one third of its members opted to give the birthday bash a convenient miss. Their conspicuous absence was not to make some silent political statement or to signal their protest over some bee in their parliamentary bonnet. It was purely indifference, apathy, a callous disregard for the edifice that embodies the people’s sovereignty. There was nothing to be gained financially, perhaps, that day, no chance to vote for another pay rise in their favour and so they stayed away.
On October 3rd Tuesday, the President of the nation was present as the chief guest on this celebratory occasion. Above in the Speaker’s gallery were the Speakers and Deputy Speakers of the Parliaments of SAARC nations invited by the Lankan Government as honoured guests to witness Lanka celebrate seventy years of her Parliament’s existence. Also present were members of the diplomatic corp.
On the floor of the House the Prime Minister of the nation Ranil Wicremesinghe touchingly spoke in the House, extolling the value of the Lankan Parliament and said: "Today we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of this assembly. We have not only safeguarded 70 years of democracy but also set a record. We have a parliamentary tradition that goes back 116 years.”
But wonder what the distinguished SAARC guests and the diplomatic corps, invited to witness democracy in action in Lanka and a brimming Parliament packed to the full on such an historic occasion, thought of the great “parliamentary tradition that goes back 116 years” that the PM spoke of, when they saw from their lofty perch the chamber below lay naked and bare with one third of its seats unoccupied by its members.
Those seventy odd members who did not turn up to grace the occasion had kept away on that World’s Temperance Day not for any political reason but purely because they had nothing personal to gain from attending it: in the self same manner of those given to drink who did not turn up at their regular water holes on October 3rd, World’s Temperance Day, because they knew the shutters were down and no drink would be available on the table.
Next time Parliament celebrates another milestone of its existence, the Prime Minister would be well advised to add a PS to the invitation to the MPs of the House: That after the ceremonies are over and the cake is cut and the candles blown with best wishes for the nation, a vote will be taken to increase the allowances to be given to every MP. That way, at last, he can ensure a full house.
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