A cabinet reshuffle, setting up a special authority to suppress strikes, disciplinary action against SLFPers who attended the Galle Face rally, the controversy surrounding Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s title as cabinet spokesperson and an imminent referendum; these were some of the pertinent questions raised during a discussion held with President Maithripala Sirisena recently. Excerpts of the interview follow:
- We need foreign investments, our foreign reserves should increase, our exports should increase and imports reduced
- All the trade unions organizing these strikes and protests can come for discussions with us
- just because people came in large numbers to a meeting does not mean that all their votes will be cast into ballot boxes
- I am maintaining my stance on the abolishing of the executive presidency and thereby strengthening the Parliament
- There was a discussion about the statements made by the Ministers and it was agreed to resolve these issues
There were reports hinting of a cabinet reshuffle before Vesak poya. Poya has now come and gone. Mr. President, will there be a cabinet reshuffle?
It will take place soon. You don’t have to worry. It will definitely happen and it is still the Vesak month.
Some are of the view that the cabinet reshuffle is being delayed as the UNP is opposed to the move.
What has been published in the media regarding the matter is untrue. The Prime Minister, myself and party representatives have all reached an agreement. It is the general view of everyone that a cabinet reshuffle should take place for the betterment of the country and no individual is against this. This is not something unusual or a spectacle. Since 1947, every government that came to power implemented cabinet reshuffles. Therefore, it is just a matter of course and not something new.
The Ministers in this government are making contradictory statements. Ministers Rajitha Senarathne, Mahinda Amaraweera and John Senevirathne are issuing diverse statements contradicting each other. Why do they hold differing views?
Yes. I instructed them during the cabinet meetings not to make such contradictory statements. When two parties are working together there are occasions where opinions could differ. But as a government, we should not give in to conflicts by creating issues. This happened during the earlier government as well. Do you remember the talk of an Economic Assassin? This is not something unique to this government. It has happened earlier too and it is always better to resolve these issues at discussions.
There was much hype recently about Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka being appointed to suppress strikes and protests by having a special brigade under him. Is the government contemplating such action?
This is completely incorrect. We never discussed such moves and it will never happen. Ours is a democratic government and we face these strikes and protests in the usual manner; winning public confidence on one hand, while working according to rules and regulations. During the recent garbage crisis, there were protests in some areas and we published emergency regulations that were in force through a gazette notification. These were presented to Parliament. These are not acts of suppression but what would normally happen in any country.
On the other hand, these strikes and protests are the work of a minority group which should not affect the majority. All the trade unions organizing these strikes and protests can come for discussions with us. But protests and strikes launched with political motivations to topple the government or disrupt day-to-day activities would be thwarted as a responsible government. We are firm in our standing. There is no decision to hand over such responsibilities to Sarath Fonseka or to have a separate task force to tackle such issues. These are all untruths which we reject as fabricated stories by our opponents.
The Cabinet spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senarathne said a cabinet decision had been taken about appointing Sarath Fonseka. Later Ministers Mahinda Amaraweera and John Senevirathne denied at a press briefing that no such decision was taken by the cabinet. Now a serious issue has surfaced about who is telling the truth.
It is better for all these Ministers to refrain from making comments on unnecessary topics and confusing people. It is necessary that all maintain collective responsibility.
The SLFP Ministers decided to request that Minister Rajitha Senarathne be removed from the post of Cabinet Spokesperson. They had even met you and made this request. Meanwhile the cabinet has decided to appoint a cabinet spokesperson from the SLFP as well. Do you think this issue can be resolved in this manner?
SLFP Ministers did not request the removal of Rajitha Senarathne from the post of Cabinet Spokesperson. There was a discussion about the statements made by the Ministers and it was agreed to resolve these issues and continue to act with collective responsibility.
The SLFP Ministers requested that an SLFP member should also be appointed as a Cabinet Spokesperson. There is already the Minister of Mass Media Gayantha Karunathilleke and Minister Rajitha Senarathne as the Co-spokesperson. Now we will appoint a Cabinet Spokesperson from the SLFP also. During the previous cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister and I discussed the matter and instructed them to deliver their statements in agreement. Therefore in future these three persons will hold the same view and statements will be made accordingly.
Q There is talk of a new constitution and Minister Rajitha Senarathne stated that the first election that would be held under this government is going to be a referendum.
No, we have not taken a decision about a referendum.
Minister Mahinda Amaraweera had said that the Provincial Council election will take place first followed by the local council elections. What is your position regarding these elections? I am not able to tell you exactly which election will come first. This year has been earmarked as an election year. But it depends on the statutory context and the government would have to follow an agenda. Therefore I am unable to tell you which election would come first, as it is necessary to act according to future developments.
Is the government gearing up for a new constitution?
Yes. Action is being taken with regard to the formulation of a new constitution. The draft should come to the cabinet and discussions will be held to assess its positive points and shortcomings. It will be presented to the Parliament only after we discuss it at the cabinet meetings. There is a vast amount of fabricated news about the constitution published in the media. In one national newspaper the headline recently intimated that the place given to Buddhism had been changed. It is a complete canard. I refute these allegations and reiterate that what is indicated in the 1972 constitution about Buddhism will not be changed.
Does this constitution include the abolition of the executive presidency and amendments to the electoral system?
Yes absolutely. It is the people’s request for a new electoral system and the ward system. Priority will be given in the new constitution for changes to the electoral system. I am maintaining my stance on the abolishing of the executive presidency and thereby strengthening the Parliament.
For the past two years there has been talk of local government elections. Is the government afraid of these elections?
We are not afraid of elections. I have already instructed Minister Faiszer Mustapha to expedite the process. However the government cannot be held responsible for the delay. There were issues connected with the delimitation. It took more than two years since our coming to power to rectify these shortcomings. I am keen to have these elections early.
There was so much said about the May Day rallies conducted by different parties. What is your impression of the SLFP rally?
In Getambe, we had a rally by both the SLFP and the UPFA. It was a victory rally. After I became the chairman of the party, we held the May Day rally in Hyde Park in 2015. There were only about 10,000 to 12,000 people present. In 2016 we held it in Galle and the ground could not accommodate all who attended. There was a big traffic problem because of the large crowd. This year we had it in Kandy. People walked 5 or 6 kms parading the streets. There was no parade for the so-called Galle Face meeting. There were people walking on several roads who could not enter the Getambe grounds. If all these people who came in processions were accommodated in the grounds it would not have been second to any. Those who know about May Day rallies know the difference between a procession and a meeting. People who come in processions do not attend the meeting.
There were sudden torrential showers in Kandy while the procession was going on. This prevented the people from congregating in one place. When these facts are taken into consideration, our rally was a very successful one. The SLFP has proved clearly what our position was in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Some appear to be highly thrilled by the attendance at Galle Face and had witnessed a mirage at a distance of toppling the government. That is the biggest deception. During the 2015 elections, there were very large crowds at the meetings of my rival. As a person with experience on meetings and rallies for the past 35 to 40 years, I know that just because people came in large numbers to a meeting does not mean that all their votes will be cast into ballot boxes. One should consider the internal affairs of the country, how the political parties conduct their affairs and the issues facing the country. We should not get carried away by the crowds that gather and expect that on the following day they could topple the government. Which is a mirage? We have witnessed many meetings like this. I have not yet divulged my future agenda for the country. I will be taking very firm decisions in the future. Anyone has the right to express his views. I wish to state clearly that our meeting in Kandy was a very successful one and I reject the analysis some people are making about it. We are confident that we have moved forward.
The Central Committee of your party took a decision to invite in writing SLFP parliamentarians, and local councillors. A decision had also been taken by the Central Committee against those who attended the Galle Face rally instead of coming to Getambe. What action would be taken against those who avoided coming to Getambe and instead went to Galle Face?
That will be decided by the Central Committee who will convene next week. They will take a decision after their discussions.
There are charges made against the government alleging that the Hambantota Port had been given to China and the Trincomalee oil tanks given to India and that there is a move to make Sri Lanka a colony of China and India. What is your response to these allegations?
Those who ask this should question what they were doing when they gave the Port City to China. The very same people who kept mum when these took place are now making much noise saying Hambantota will be given to China and Trincomalee will be given to India. A country needs foreign investments in order to develop. However, it should be noted that when such investments are encouraged, the country’s independence, its self-determination and national security are not threatened in any way nor will its culture or economy be affected. The question should not be about Hambantota or Trincomalee but about how the country could be developed. We need foreign investments, our foreign reserves should increase, our exports should increase and imports reduced. We need investments for this purpose and there is no possibility to hand over a portion of the country or give it as free hold property. It should be considered that every government, specially after 1977, obtained foreign investments and following this path is the best course available to our country. This is my stance as well. We are not going to give away our country to any other country and wash our hands. It will never be done in that manner. Though they allege that we have already given the country away, these very people should understand that we have not entered into any agreement of that nature. Discussions are underway over various proposals but I will never agree to give away ownership of our land to any investor.
Courtesy: Sunday Lankadeepa