The Chamber Door

 

Mr Speaker, 

I am glad to join in this debate today in support of the extension of the Emergency, for I think we can note a sea change in the manner in which the Opposition has approached the debate. It was instructive I believe that one of the Hon Members for Jaffna raised a Point of Order to the effect that this debate was happening too soon. 

In the past Mr Speaker, Members of the Opposition were delighted to use the opportunity of an Emergency Debate to abuse the government, to claim that all sorts of wrongs were taking place under cover of the Emergency. Although old habits die hard, like indeed Emergency Regulations, since we cannot expect total change immediately, today’s debate suggested that the Opposition no longer feels the same sense of urgency, and would have been perfectly happy if this debate had not taken place today. 

Thus the Leader of the Opposition talked about what he sees as erosion of the financial powers of Parliament, he and a Member from Colombo talked of problems with regard to court martials, a Member from Kegalle complained about the 18th Amendment and a Member from Jaffna referred to the situation of the people who had been displaced and abused for the LTTE for so long, and urged that more be done for them. 

And then the Member who spoke just before me joined all this up together, but he rightly drew attention to the excesses of his leader – at least I think he is still their leader – when the Prevention of Terrorism Act was piled on top of the Emergency, when as he eloquently put it, trade union and students were beaten up ruthlessly, when as he seems to have forgotten, Tamils were assaulted all over the country. That style of government led to an increase in terror, terror that lasted a quarter of a century and more, whereas I am sure the Honourable member will grant that this government was actually able to put an end to terror in Sri Lanka. 

But we should be more concerned, Mr Speaker, with the points raised by the Members from Jaffna. These are issues of some importance and could be considered relevant to the Emergency. Their requests for more attention in particular areas were perfectly reasonable, and of course government will do its best to alleviate the situation of those who suffered for so long through no fault of their own. The same indeed is true of the country as a whole and, as we have seen, the development that is happening all over the country, the restoration of confidence, the spread of business opportunities, these are the best remedies that can be provided, laying the groundwork so that our people can help themselves. 

In this context I would like to mention a very pleasant experience last night, when I found one of my former students from Sabaragamuwa University on the plane back from London. He came from Jaffna initially to university amongst us, in I think the year 2000, but he later had to leave Jaffna because of pressures to contribute to the LTTE, perhaps even to be conscripted. His and his widowed mother had had to flee to Colombo, and while there he had managed to get a student visa for Britain. Now however he feels confident enough to return, a situation that would have been unimaginable for able youngsters who were the prey of terrorists for too long. 

It is important Mr Speaker that we make things better for people like that. We need to cooperate for this, and I must therefore pay tribute to the Member for Gampaha, who provided a model of how an Opposition should behave today when he brought a Private Members Bill. The idea he advanced was a good one and, as mentioned, government had been working on this already. It is best that such a Bill, which is in the national interest, be proposed by government after due consultation, and it was heartening that there was agreement to discuss the matter further, and expedite action on the basis of consensus. 

I hope this can be done too with regard to the Oversight Committees, which he was kind enough to note I had suggested some time back, and which I am glad to see the Opposition too thinks is a good idea. Parliamentary promotion of accountability and transparency is essential, and the ability of government and opposition to work together on the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises will I hope be a precursor also to cooperation for national development. 

But while we move on, Mr Speaker, we must also be aware that there are still dangers that we must overcome. Though within this country I believe most of us recognize the need to respect the mandate His Excellency and his government received, there are still forces abroad that seek to disrupt us. We need therefore to be vigilant, and it will therefore be necessary to maintain the Emergency for a few months more, though I hope that its provisions will be liberalized gradually. 

I was sorry in this regard that one Honourable Member assumed that the Emergency would be used to destroy Free Education. This is the type of argument that makes a mockery both of the dangers that we need to secure ourselves against, and the importance of introducing to the service sector too the economic liberalization that his party so proudly claims it brought in 1977. Incidentally he also got his history wrong when he claimed that the opposition accused President Jayewardene of excessive powers, that was President Jayewardene’s own proud boast. 

I hope that, instead of being oppositional for the sake of opposition, instead of seeking to denigrate the country internationally in the hope of subverting the democratic will of the people, the opposition as a whole will at last accept that an elected government must be allowed to govern. An opposition has a role to play in oversight, in ensuring accountability, in promoting good ideas that government can then develop and institutionalize as with a Freedom of Information Act. It is not meant to criticize everything government does, and it only makes itself a joke when it denigrates what this government has achieved through its determination to destroy terrorism whilst promoting a better future for all Sri Lankans. 

Today’s debate, when government for practical reasons offered the opportunity to the Opposition to debate the Emergency early, should then be a prelude to a healthier relationship. In not responding hysterically as in the past, the Opposition has shown itself prepared to move forward. Constructive criticism, along with support to ensure security, will be welcome, and I hope the Opposition will continue to develop to a mature understanding of its role, and support the Government to take the country forward.

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