Joint march of the two main parties – Gayantha Karunathilaka
By Ranjith Kumara Samarakoon
?: The Government and the Prime Minister seem to be favouring you?
A: Why do you say so?
?: Look at the portfolios offered to you.
A: I have never asked for positions, I have never done that. But as you say, I have been given many opportunities. The two leaders seem to have a lot of trust in me. Once I asked for nomination, but was not granted because former Minister Rupa Karunathilaka was my uncle, and there was a Party decision, not to give nominations, to two members of the same family. Since then, I have never asked for any positions and all that was given later was what was offered to me.
?: But now you might have big dreams.
A: I was elected to Parliament with the highest preferential votes from the Southern Province. I was the media spokesman for the Party for some time. I have held the presidency of the party youth front. I was offered a Cabinet portfolio after the UNP Government came to power. After a very bad phase I came in as Minister of Media and had cordial relations with everyone. I was elected Chief Government Whip, to hold that position in a National Coalition is special. I was the Cabinet spokesman too. Now I am Minister of Land. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said publicly in Bentota that the Ministry had been given to the most suitable person. So, I have their blessings.
?: Its two years since the Government was formed, and some say it is a flavourless Govt. What do you think?
A: Whatever anyone may say, when I look back I feel very happy, what we achieved was a silent revolution. Without State power, funding power or media power, we won people power. Looking back on the two years we took over a difficult country. Our predecessors ruled like a monarchy and there was authoritarian family rule. We changed all that but some may have forgotten that, it was such a country that we changed.
We made some definite changes. 19th Amendment to the Constitution is a big change. We established Independent Commissions. We passed the Right to Information Act which was hated by Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime. Usually, governments don't like to bring such Bills. But we did it.
We do not have mega celebrations. We reduced the price of petrol by Rs. 30. We also reduced the price of gas, electricity, and pharmaceuticals. Nutrition packs are given to pregnant women, in all villages. Payments to Samurdhi recipients, elders and pensioners have been doubled. We increased the salary of the public employees by Rs 10,000. The economic experts of the previous regime said that a family of four could survive on a Rs.2,000 monthly income. People have not been reborn to forget all these.
Private sector got some relief after 40 years. Do you remember how the private sector employees were treated? Roshan's life was snatched at Katunayake. We are now on to an agenda of building a rich country by 2025. This is a new joint march of the two main parties.
?: Though you say so, the UNPers have not had a Government for 20 years. Aren't they still helpless?
A: Our party men suffered for 20 years, those are not forgotten. Everything was based on politics then. This government was elected by the UNP and they have many aspirations. We have passed the most difficult two years. This is not a 100 metres sprint. This is a marathon and the two leaders will not get exhausted. They are running with understanding about the journey and the destination.
We took over a knotted ball of string in terms of Geneva. Even our closest neighbour was not on good terms. We changed all that. Our leaders now receive invitations from all parts of the globe. We won GSP Plus and removed the term electric chair from the political dictionary. When we move forward as a country, we have to think of the people who are loyal to us. We will give benefits to the people within three years. People demand that corrupt elements be punished. Now that too has been accelerated.
?: Joint Opposition says that a large number will split from the Government as there are many frustrated UNPers.
A: That is their dream. These are only dreams; let them dream on, these lasts merely for two months. I get along well with everyone, so they tell me that they have to say such things for survival.
?: Three Ministers quit within two years. All three of them are UNPers. Are UNPers the only wrong doers?
A: Can you even think of such a thing happening during the previous government? Then State employees were tied to trees. Media institutions were vandalized. We have been exemplary. We do not pardon those who are wrong. These Ministers were not found guilty but they resigned.
?: But the allegations are always against the UNP Ministers.
A: Yes. We act in an exemplary manner. If any allegations are levelled then we act accordingly.
?: SLFP commemorated its 66th anniversary on a grand scale; the former President said that he did not participate because of the UNP. Is the UNP actually dividing the SLFP?
A: These are their yarns. How is it that the former President sat next to the President at the 64th Anniversary of the SLFP in Polonnaruwa. The two parties were together then too. Was the UNP good then? He took 17 MPs from our party and broke the UNP. Was UNP good for him then?
?: Tissa Attanayaka says that the UNP needs a strong candidate in 2020 but the party is still not ready.
A: We always decide on the candidate according to the times and according to suitability at the time. It was so in the last Presidential Election too. I remember, I as the Media Spokesman of the UNP and
Mr. Tissa Attanayaka as the Party Secretary faced the media, who often asked who the Presidential candidate was. Both of us repeated the answer that we would name our candidate when the election is called. Mr. Attanayaka changed his ideology in his move to support Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa but I have not changed.
?: Will the UNP open the door if he knocks?
A: He himself walked out, we never asked him to leave. After suffering for 20 years when victory was in sight, he left. I am sorry about that. When someone falls to feel sad is only human.
?: What is the task of the Cabinet spokesman?
A: To announce Cabinet decisions.
?: So why are three people doing it?
A: What is wrong with it? We are doing it right.
?: It is not wrong, but contradictory views are being expressed and it becomes a mere drama
A: Media can question freely now. But it is always, not questions, on Cabinet decisions that questions are raised, instead irrelevant questions are posed. This is a Coalition Government. Two parties that have never allied in the history of Sri Lankan politics have formed a coalition and we are working together and have no issues. On the other hand it is very easy for the media. They can ask questions at will and get the answers too. So, isn't it good?
?: Many things slipped by, looks like the same will happen to the new Constitution too.
A: No. That is a promise we made. We are doing everything in a proper manner. You are aware that after a Government is elected, the most beneficial election is the Local Government polls which is easily won by the Government. But we did not think of the advantages. Both our leaders are diplomats more than politicians. We decided to hold the LG elections on a divisional basis and we streamlined it. Now you will have a representative for your area.
We proposed the 20th Amendment not for our benefit. We promised it when we were in the Opposition and we honoured it. Mr Rajapaksa, the former President said, there is no need for a Right to Information Act, when he is there to answer any questions. We kept our promise and changed the retail method of holding elections. We wanted to change the system of campaigning for votes by misuse of public property, distribution of things like chicks, plants, spades and so on. Though the elections are delayed by a couple of months this is of national importance. We are now focussing on holding the General Election and the Presidential Election on the same day.
?: What is the situation at your Ministry?
A: I was given powerful portfolios in the Government. You know the situation of the media then. Media institutes were ransacked, journalists were tortured and killed. There were such black marks. We acted according to good governance principles. Now there is complete media freedom and those who left the country are returning. We built a new culture.
Then, I was given the Ministry of Land. The most attractive promise of our Government was to grant a plot of land to the people who do not own land. We are now delivering on that promise. Courts are overflowing with the land cases and the Divisional Secretaries are burdened with land issues which go back 30 , 40 years. There are some poor people who, leave alone deeds, do not even have a piece of paper, as a claim to their land.
?: Aren't the people suffering due to malpractices of some officials?
A: Yes. People from far away villages come and waste their time in offices in Colombo. There are lots of such malpractices. There are people who have had to pay several folds, of money required for lands, and some have not even been issued receipts. For land valued at Rs 4,000 some have paid as much as Rs 16,000 and not even been issued a receipt. There are officials who have exploited people. Now the officials are sent to the villages. We issued 4000 deeds within a couple of weeks. We are working speedily.
?: Some have lived on lands for generations but have no legal rights
A: Yes. We designed an accelerated programme to grant deeds. The deeds related to the Land Reclamation Commission can be obtained from the District Secretariat and the deeds related to State land can be obtained from the Divisional Secretariats. Land and deeds are sensitive affairs. We will relax the conditions for the permanent transfers of land. Now those who start a business on own land has to loiter around the Divisional Secretariats. We hope to change that. The previous regime offered land to the foreigners on permanent transfers. We transfer land to the innocent people of this country.
?: Government is blamed for the low price of the minor export crops, and the farmers are abandoned. As a politician who is specially sensitive to plantations, what do you think?
A: No. The price of tea is very good. A certified price of a kilo of tea leaves is Rs 90; we did it within the first 100 days of Government. In certain areas, the price is over Rs 100.
?: Your other portfolio is Parliamentary Affairs. It is a farce now.
A: Why do you say so?
?: Discipline is almost zero. It has become a comedy, a place for jokes.
A: That may be due to the pantomimes of the JO. We were so democratic that we tabled even the Agreements before they are signed. Did such things happen during the last regime?
Even the Cabinet was not aware of some of them. Some Ministers in the previous Cabinet are now with us. They describe how things happened then. There is freedom now.
?: It is not only that. There is much indiscipline now and even Provincial Councils have taken the bad examples from Parliament and they have resorted to breaking maces.
A: We have focused on this and will take action via the leader. Before this, even the Local Government members behaved very badly.
In my electorate the former chairman of the Local Government bribed the chairman of the adjacent Local Government. The one who was caught while soliciting the bribe is now in the Joint Opposition and he is an organizer there.
?: Some say this Government is not scientific in anything, from allocating ministerial portfolios to everything else.
A: Those who say these things were like rain soaked rats those days. Over 60 per cent were distributed among family and others got the rest. Those who held on to the scraps then, now crack jokes like this. Then some Ministers had to write letters to Namal asking for job opportunities. Even the Prime Minister had no power. The persons who grumble now lived like that, then.
?: Let us forget the criticism of others. Even those in the Government make contradictory statements and blame each other. People are asking is this good governance.
A: Then the Cabinet was like signal posts. Now they have been granted full freedom by the President and the Prime Minister. All are freely expressing views and debating now.
?: There are strikes everywhere. People suffer. Government is slow in finding solutions.
A: These agitations are not peoples' agitations they are led by the defeated elements who want to grab power. Those who were corrupt in the previous regime are inciting these political scapegoats.
?: No thief and corrupt element has been brought to book yet.
A: For various reasons those things got delayed. Now those have been solved. We found the cause for the inefficiency and now there will be more speedy actions.
?: Joint Opposition is hitting hard. Do you think the Government is ready to win an election?
A: An election is due soon and the Opposition too will have to face it. They will think of how to use their oratorical skills and how best to find better slogans against the Government, even though they may be empty. Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to topple the Government in two Vesak Poyas, if he did not say so the people will get distanced from them. Those are slogans necessary for the existence of a political party.
?: Wimal and his men call the past two years the inauspicious years.
A: For some, the Government is inauspicious because of what we have done in the past two years. They toured in foreign countries as families and teams on public money. They wasted billions of rupees for image building, corruption and malpractices were overwhelming. The ruling family lost helicopters they travelled in and mansions they lived in. They lost the opportunity to steal.
Though they may see the past two years as inauspicious years, the change and the true story is with the people.
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