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Sunday, 26 April 2015

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'Paduru party' in the House

The photographs of parliamentarians rolling orgiastically about on the carpet in the chamber of Parliament as they supposedly held their 'protest' sit-in in Parliament must surely drive home the extent to which the national legislature has been undermined and devalued in recent years.

It is important to note that those MPs who abused the norms of Parliament in this crude manner last week are no more than just one faction of a single parliamentary group in the national legislature.

This bunch of politicians have set themselves apart from virtually all other political groups represented in the national legislature in the political positions they are currently espousing on the most vital piece of legislation in decades - the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

In terms of the collective opinion of the citizenry as expressed in successive elections in recent decades, these politicians are going completely against the trend of national thinking - the 'jaathika chinthanaya' - that has acknowledged the harmful nature of the all-powerful executive presidency.

Successive parliamentary and presidential elections in recent decades have seen major political parties, including electorally victorious ones, espouse the cause of drastic constitutional reform - if not complete constitutional change - to either abolish the current executive presidential system or, at least, severely prune its concentration of power in one individual.

Today, we have a government that comprises the leaderships of both major mainstream parties as well as all other political parties across the ideological spectrum united in one single objective of reforming the executive presidency.

Even if the UPFA rebels still want to buck the electoral trend for whatever reason - nefarious, selfish, misguided or otherwise - their act of taking over the entire chamber and overnighting with revelry and casual camping out violates not only parliamentary procedure and regulations but also the dignity and significance of the national legislature, the epicentre of Sri Lankan democracy and polity.

The dictatorial executive presidency, taken to its logical nepotistic and autocratic extreme under the Rajapaksa regime, inevitably devalued the chamber of elected legislators to a degree that it came to be regarded as a place for posturing and vote-catching histrionics and little else.

This degrading of the legislature has reached a point when, today, the combined political forces that unseated the Rajapaksa regime, have devised another, ad hoc, body for serious deliberations and consensus-building in the management of the current complex and sensitive transition from the old system to a better one.

Thus, with a legitimacy that drew little criticism, the victorious National Unity Alliance government has set up and ably manages a 'national executive council' that currently steers the nation through one of its most crucial, historic periods of reform of constitution and change of political ethos.

The NEC, which has absolutely no formal legitimacy, has such a political legitimacy that far more attention is paid to its deliberations and adopted policies than to the proceedings in Parliament - unless there is a rumpus in the House. The decline of Parliament, then, is seen in all its sharpness with the antics of these MPs.

This is all the more reason for urgent constitutional reform that re-creates the national legislature not only in the significance of its usage but also in the type of future parliamentarians who will be elected to the House.

The nation will watch and count those who act according to their conscience and adopted party policy rather than according to their wild surmises about political possibilities and their escape from retribution.

The flag

The self-flagellation by some politicians last week over their waving of a flag is worthy of note. These politicians came under public criticism for apparently protesting on the street in front of the Bribery Commission waving flags bearing the lion symbol minus the other symbolism, namely, the coloured strips that represent the country's main ethnic minorities.

Various minority rights groups and activists have complained that the 'national flag' had been desecrated by these politicians. Following these complaints, these politicians, most of whom are not known for championing ethnic minority rights, were suddenly contrite and one even claimed that an unidentified 'NGO' had surreptitiously put this seemingly offending flag in the hands of protestors.

It is indeed ironic that these politicians, known for their constant NGO-bashing as well as their usual ethno-centrism, now claim that, despite their avowed anti-NGO 'vigilance', they had unwittingly been pawns of an NGO!

The furore over this flag seems precipitous, though. The act of waving the flag in question would become a 'desecration' and a violation of constitutional protocol only if this flag is explicitly described as the national flag of the country. If not so described, it could be simply just another flag which could symbolise anything.

For example, there are several traditional regional flags of Sri Lanka that depict solely the lion symbol. Cannot anyone wave a flag that bears the picture of a lion - whether rampant or not - without being accused of 'desecrating' the officially designated national flag? Cannot the Sinhalese, for example, wave a flag with the symbol that they believe most represents their ethnic identity and mythological origin? Or, the people of a part of Sri Lanka wave a flag that depicts the lion symbol that traditionally represented the heraldry of that region? Likewise, cannot the Tamils and Moors of Sri Lanka freely wave flags that represent their specifically Sri Lankan identity - regional or otherwise?

After all, no one has complained when solely the lion in the form depicted in the national flag is used to symbolise Sri Lanka's national cricket team. All Sri Lankans are happy to wear caps and t-shirts championing the Sri Lankan cricketing cause with only the lion depicted. Those 'lion only' Sri Lanka Cricket merchandise are not seen as a 'desecration'.

Seen in this light, the flag-waving issue flags the underlying need for freedom of expression in terms of cultural identity and traditional symbolism that naturally reflects a multi-culturalist and pluralist patriotism rather than an exclusivist and majoritarian one that then engenders reactive ethnic secessionism.

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