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Enforcing the law against lawbreaking lawmakers

6 months ago

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During a discussion on the privileges applicable to MPs on Wednesday (10), Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena asserted that all MPs are subject to the country’s criminal law as every other citizen. This discussion commenced with regard to a recent statement made by Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Bandula Gunawardena, to the effect that incidents involving property damage occurring within Parliament cannot be dealt with under the ordinary laws of the country. Notably, this was in a context where sources close to former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, and also the main Parliamentary Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, having blamed unwarranted pressure from top political powers for hindering the investigations into the November 2018 clashes in Parliament that resulted in damage to the properties of Parliament – which however went without legal action being taken against any MP responsible for the said damages, despite a Parliamentary committee finding a number of MPs guilty of various related offences. This discussion is interesting due to two reasons. First of all, regardless of the political interests, seeing MPs, or lawmakers, speaking about how they too should be answerable to the law is a progressive situation. In a country where politicians act as if they are exempt from the law, such a discussion is indeed one that the people would like to see.  Secondly, it is such discussions that reveal the extent of MPs’ privileges – about which the general public know very little. However, overall, MPs, or politicians in general, tending to show a sense of entitlement when it comes to dealing with the law is not new in Sri Lanka.  In fact, politicians are known as a group that the people say have the ability to “bend the law”. However, despite it being a widespread notion, this poor reputation does not seem to bother our MPs, despite the fact that it should – those who make the law should not have a reputation for breaking it with impunity.  Not too long ago, posts were shared on social media comparing two incidents – one where a local politician refuses to show his national identity card (NIC) to a Police officer who asks for it and goes on to reprimand the officer over the said request, and another where former US President Barack Obama shows his driving license to a voting centre officer who asks for identification documents. It highlighted how entitled politicians in a country like Sri Lanka feel, where an act as simple as showing their NIC is considered too much, whereas the Head of State of the country regarded as the world’s most powerful is humble enough to co-operate when he had to prove his identity as per the procedures applicable in a voting centre.  Sadly, the situation has not changed. Ironically, even though authorities have failed to take action against the MPs responsible for the destruction to Parliament property, they have proven ruthlessly efficient when hunting down and arresting those identified as having damaged property during the recent anti-Government protests that occupied the Presidential Secretariat, the Presidential residence, and Temple Trees. The main concern is not the fact that ordinary citizens were arrested for deeds that are technically minor offences, but that the same efficiency was not applied against MPs who did the same thing, if not worse. The aforementioned statement coming from the Head of Parliament is important for a country like Sri Lanka, where MPs or lawmakers act as if they are above the law. However, that is not nearly enough to give the people a sense of assurance with regard to accountability on the part of MPs; proper legal action is required in this regard despite the various privileges to which the MPs are entitled. The truth that even the Speaker did not acknowledge is that even though exemption from legal action may not be a recognised privilege a MP is entitled to, there is a long list of unofficial privileges enjoyed by MPs, one of which is the ability to influence legal action using their status. Actions are what speak to the hearts of the people, and the main law-making institution’s failure to take legal action against MPs who tarnished the reputation of Parliament, despite it being years since that incident, is disgraceful. What is more concerning is the fact that the situation does not seem to have changed, with politicians acting as if the country’s legal system is at their disposal. This situation must change, and such changes should receive great attention in the efforts to bring about the “system change” that the citizens keep demanding.  

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