Explanations, charges and counter charges, challenges and counter challenges, condemnations and vilifications are galore over the subject of duty-free vehicles. Despite all these demonstrations before the media the subject is becoming murkier by the hour. This issue has now come to the fore submerging all other burning public problems thus providing further proof of mixed priorities in this country.
The issue took a dramatic turn when Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe sprang a surprise by arriving at Sambodhi Viharaya on Thursday using the luxury Mercedes Benz car that Ven Ellawala Medananda Thera had purchased with the duty-free entiltlement permit issued to him and which had later allegedly been bought by businessman Hemantha Nishantha.
A criminal element was also introduced into the drama when an alleged abduction was reported and criminal charges came to be hurled against the opposition leader on several counts including a charge of vehicle theft. The scene of the drama is likely to move into a courtroom soon.
Although this is purely a political issue it is unfortunate that some politicians are making an attempt to interpret it as a religious issue. These politicians who pose as devout Buddhists show that they are deeply hurt over the alleged disrespect to Ven Ellawala Medananda Thera and to Buddhism. Identifying it as an anti-Buddhist move some of them plead with the leaders of the Sangha to issue an edict on Wickremesinghe for the alleged sacrilege committed against Buddhism. While the opposition leader now demands a parliamentary select committee to probe the issue, the JHU vows to take Wickremesinghe to courts on several criminal charges. In addition, the JHU is to file action in courts for defamation claiming Rs.500 million as damages.
Judging from the complicated proportions that the issue has assumed, it appears that nothing short of a full probe into it by a parliamentary select committee could bring out the true details of this luxury car transaction. A dispassionate and impartial inquiry by a PSC would be able to unravel the complicated and even contradictory statements that various spokesmen for parties involved in this issue have made. The threatened defamation suit could, meanwhile, be proceeded with.
It would also be helpful if the terms of the proposed parliamentary select committee are expanded to include a clause requiring the PSC to present a full report on the whole sordid question of providing duty-free vehicles to parliamentarians and state officials. It appears that the recipients of this concession have continuously flouted the strict laws relating to this facility. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle`s statement that most of the MPs including himself had sold their car permits corroborates this assertion. The minister is reported to have said in Kurunegala that 90 percent of UNP MPs and 75 percent of government MPs have sold their permits by now. Apparently they have made good business. The question of luxury vehicles for parliamentarians has throughout engaged the attention of successive governments. All political parties, while in opposition, condemn the abuse of power and privilege by using luxury vehicles and vow to do away with the practice. And when these criticizing parties assume power, they first make a demonstration of their commitment to their pledges by disposing of such vehicles through lotteries etc. But soon they abandon their commitment to high principles and lapse into the ways of the previous government and they often outdo their predecessors. This is the depth of duplicity to which our political parties have descended.
The desire for comfort, no doubt, is a human impulse. And no one bothers if such comfort is acquired through individual perseverance and honest effort. But when persons who have come forward to serve people because of their concern for human suffering choose to acquire such comforts at the expense of the suffering people, the wrath that is generated in them cannot be easily assuaged. It is indeed a paradox that these politicians most of whom wear the simple cloth and banian garb to identify themselves with the common people opt to travel in luxurious comfort and lead ostentatious lives consuming the limited resources of a poor country. Their behaviour becomes all the more contemptible when viewed against the struggle for life that most people have to contend with today.