19 November 2018

Karu Jayasuriya — a man beseiged

He’s the man on the spot. Right now. He’s the boss in Parliament. He’s required by the dictates of his office to remain neutral. He is required to know the distinctions between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of the state. He’s experienced enough to know all this. 

He may have got caught off-guard when President Sirisena sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26, 2018. That’s fine because the entire country, almost, was surprised by the move. Initially he decided that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the newly appointed Prime Minister would sit on the seat reserved for the post. 

All of a sudden he had a change of heart. All of a sudden Karu the Speaker became Karu the would-be executive. The contentious move by Sirisena to dissolve parliament probably impacted his thinking, but only he would really know. All we know is that once court gave petitioners who filed against dissolution leave to proceed, Karu shed all notions of neutrality. 

At some level, Karu can be forgiven. He can be forgiven because Sirisena did the dirty on everyone, especially those who voted for him in January 2015, by sacking Wickremesinghe and worse, replacing him with Rajapaksa. He can be forgiven because MPs supporting the new alliance between Sirisena and Rajapaksa were utterly disgraceful in the way they conducted themselves.  There were fisticuffs (and yes, the UNPers were also guilty of hooliganism). Objects were thrown. Karu had to enter Parliament with a police escort. It would have been hard for anyone to maintain any degree of composure. Karu did his best.  

And yet, there are matters where Karu was way out of order. He decided to play executive. He decided that he can decide who is Prime Minister and who is not. He decided that standing orders can be shoved in the proverbial wastepaper basket. He decided that it is fine not to entertain complaints from Members about other Members brandishing knives in Parliament. He decided that he could ‘count’ votes in the House by checking out loudness of shout. He decided to accept dubious affidavits signed by Members of Parliament.

Let’s discuss the man in the larger context of his life and the political moment. 

Karu. Karu Jayasuriya. Deshabandu Karu Jayasuriya. Deshabandu Karu Jayasuriya, the 20th and incumbent Speaker of the Parliament.  He has an impressive curriculum vitae, having served as a Commissioned Office of the Sri Lanka Army and serving on dozens of boards in the corporate sector. By all accounts and from what I personally know, he has conducted himself with dignity and has remained humble to a fault, both in his public and private lives.  

Karu is identified as a man who has the courage of his convictions. He crossed over to the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to support the Rajapaksa regime’s drive to eliminate the terrorist threat. He crossed back to the United National Party (UNP) when that story ended, explaining that he could not condone the various wrongdoings of the government. He stood against his leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, accepted defeat gracefully, accepted also, later on, the leadership of the UNP’s ‘Leadership Council’ and campaigned fiercely to bring down the Rajapaksa regime. He was unanimously elected Speaker on September 1, 2015.

No one is perfect. His detractors could point out his criss-crossing as being prompted by the possibility of personal gain and even a certain political fickleness. Let’s get to the flaws later. For now, let us applaud the man.

Back to Parliament. Karu would be tested, naturally. He stood his ground, taking hits from all corners. That’s admirable. And he, unintentionally of course, helped certain diplomatic missions and diplomats, mostly Western (no surprises there!), trip over their own convoluted and laughable notions of democracy.  

Let’s start (and end) with the US Ambassador, for that post has, in practice, been voice not just for the United States of America but her political allies in all crimes of omission, commission, rank ignorance and political subterfuge.  

Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz took office on November 1, 2018, less than a week after Sirisena surprised all his backers, the US Embassy included. On November 6, she met Karu ‘to discuss the importance of Parliament reconvening to put an end to this political crisis’ and said these democratic institutions should serve the people of Sri Lanka.’ She insisted that elected representatives have their say. 

On November 9, she waxed eloquent on ‘democracy’: ‘Democracies rest on rule of law.  Sri Lanka’s constitution provides the framework for resolving political disputes, just like ours does.’ The waxing continued for on November 10, she said ‘The US is deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka Parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis.  As a committed partner of Sri Lanka, we believe democratic institutions and processes need to be respected to ensure stability and prosperity.’

All this sudden interest in democracy is fascinating, coming from the representative of a country that is struggling to come up with the basics of representational democracy and bombs other countries to the middle ages in the name of democracy. 

The use of words and terms such as ‘democratic institutions and processes’ is also interesting considering the fact that the prompt came from dissolution and because the word ‘people’ has been thrown in as well. Well, if it’s about democracy and representation, and if people count, what’s wrong in an election? Why is she is worried about letting the people decide?

Ms Teplitz hasn’t been here long, but I’m sure she’s been briefed. She would know that the US Embassy and the State Department have interfered with the democratic process in the country by funding political campaigns. She would know that neither the Embassy nor the State Department showed even an iota of interest in democracy (institutions or processes) when a) Ranil Wickremesinghe was illegally appointed Prime Minister in January 2015, b) when parliament was dissolved on the very day that the parliamentary report on biggest financial scam in history was to be presented, c) when local government elections were repeatedly postponed, and d) there’s no sign of postponed provincial council elections would be held.  

And yet, the good Ambassador was worried about democracy. She was so worried that when Parliament convened on November 14 following the Supreme Court stay order on dissolution, she went to watch democracy unfold, first hand.  

Here’s her tweet: ‘Honored to attend reconvening of Sri Lanka Parliament this morning to see democracy in action.  Very lively but glad this institution is once again fulfilling constitutional role.’

Karu Jayasuriya gave her a show to write home about, that much is clear. Teplitz saw how her democratic darlings operated ‘on the floor’ and would have seen much more had she gone to Parliament the following day as well, for on the 15th, the guardians of democracy (sic) were seen brandishing knives. She may have gone, I don’t know, but had she not she would have seen the footage. 

Anyway, Karu did the democratic honors on the 14th. The Speaker thumbed his nose at established procedures (minimum period before including motions by a non-cabinet member in the order paper, debate before vote etc), ‘counted’ a vote by noise-levels, accepted a dubious document submitted by the UNP, TNA and JVP in lieu of an official vote count, arrogated exective power on himself by declaring he would not recognize the Prime Minister and in this and other ways, showered disgrace on the office of ‘The Speaker’.  

Karu was out of order. This does not mean, let us emphasize, that the way in which the ‘government’ MPs behaved can be condoned.  They were acting like rowdies, but then again the likes of Teplitz would not have expected them to behave in any other way. They were not their darlings, after all (shhh….it’s not only the UNP that they love, they adore the TNA and the JVP too!). 

Karu didn’t have an easy time. A lot of pressure was put on him. In the rush of things he forgot his office and his mandate. He slipped. It’s not enough to say ‘I was besieged first by the President and then by my party.’

This drama is not over. Karu has, one would believe, ample time to recover composure and be the gentleman he is known to be. Others have done much worse. He scarred himself though. That’s a pity.


From DS to RW: The Decline of the United National Party

Selective tear-shedding in seasons of demagoguery

Malinda Seneviratne is a political analyst and freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com