Q:Your cabinet portfolio, the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management has a direct impact on the lives of all citizens of the country. What is your plan to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in rice and other food crops that can be grown in Sri Lanka?
As far as paddy production is concerned, Sri Lanka has achieved self sufficiency for the first time in its history in rice, thanks to the policies adopted by the government.
The fertiliser subsidy has made the paddy cultivation profitable. Despite many challenges and weather patterns we have been able to provide ample water to farmers round the year as my Ministry has taken steps to rehabilitate all small and major tanks and anicuts in the farming districts of the country and therefore farmers do not have to worry about water any more. This has helped not only to bring Sri Lanka to self sufficiency in rice but we have an excess stock of paddy which the government expects to export.
The Irrigation and Water Resources Management Ministry under my preview has provided water and other vital facilities to 10,000 acres of chena cultivation which contributed to increase the production of paddy, fruits, vegetable and minor crops.
Q: You stood with the SLFP test of time and battled against many a vicissitude to bring the SLFP to the present position. Can you elaborate on that please?
I joined the SLFP when I was a young law student in 1965 and established the ‘SLFP Law Students Forum’ at the Law College. During the most difficult times I stood with the SLFP and participated in many party campaigns held against the tyrannical regimes of the late Presidents J.R.Jayewardene and R.Premadasa.
As a lawyer I was responsible for filing petitions against President Jayewardene on behalf of Hector Kobbekaduwa and against President R. Premadasa representing Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Then for the petition for the 13th Amendment, I was her registered attorney. I have appeared on behalf of the SLFP in many election petitions and some of them like the ones filed for Mahara, Moneragala, Beliatta and Hakmana and Akmeemana constituencies were hotly contested in courts. I appeared for these election petitions and for other court cases on behalf of the party entirely free of charge.
Apart from that, I contested as the mayoral candidate of the SLFP in the Colombo Municipal Council against Sirisena Cooray. As a party worker I worked in several by-elections and in 1989 I was elected to Parliament. My national level political career started as an opposition member of Parliament and it was not an easy task to confront a regime headed by an individual like President Premadasa.
However, through sheer dedication, courage and determination we were able to build a formidable opposition and raise tremendous pressure on the government in and out of parliament, raising questions of nepotism, corruption, violence and issues of human rights.
I still remember the debate on Journalist Richard Soyza’s death. I argued long hours as the government raised a Point-of-Order saying it was sub-judice but we won the day.
I have never tried or thought to cross over and betray my party for political or any other gains. There can be shortcomings, pains and disappointments but if and when you dedicatedly and loyally stick with your party and follow its vision and mission, the party will repay you for your dedication and trust. I have no doubt about it.
Q: The SLFP has come under severe criticism by the public, the media and Maha Sangha lately for having a lukewarm attitude on its errant members. Not only Pradeshiya Sabha and Provincial Council members but certain Parliamentarians and Ministers have been charged for many unlawful acts from bribe-taking, to hooliganism and murder. Don’t you think the government must address this grave issue immediately?
I do not accept the notion that our government is undemocratic. It is true that the opposition is so divided that they cannot show a formidable work programme or challenge to the government. People have lost faith in the opposition and the UNP and the JVP is divided to several groups. I do not think people in this country will vote for them.
I consider, having a weak and disintegrated opposition is not good for a healthy democracy. There must be check and balance for democratic governance. There must be constant watch on the activities of the government. Without a strong opposition any political party in power can make mistakes, can be negligent and sometimes can be over-riding principles of good governance. The prying eyes of a strong opposition will naturally prevent a government from wrong deeds and direct it on the right path and the government will think twice before resorting to any misdeed.
Q:The presumption among many, including the international community is that the government has failed to deliver the dividends of peace and restore ethnic harmony in the country since the eradication of terrorism in May 2009. Your comments?
I do not agree with the proposition. The government has done enormous amounts of work in respect of development, resettlement, reconstruction and reconciliation. As far as resettlement and reconciliation are concerned, no one can find loopholes and criticise us. The International community, the UN and other global organisations had commended us for the amount of work we have done in the last four years.
I challenge those who criticise the government for low progress, to show a single example in recent history from any part of the world where post war reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation has been successful as in Sri Lanka. Do not forget that we have done all this in four years and after a 30-year war that bled this country to the last drop of blood.
Ireland and South Africa are yet to fully recover and many countries in Africa are desperately trying to stand on their own feet after years of domestic conflicts. But we must admit that the reconstruction and reconciliation process is complexed and takes time and therefore proper approaches have to be selected and gone forward step by step and not in a hurry as the ultimate reward has to be sustainable.
When we deal with emotions, aspirations and rights of communities, there must be no place for suspicion. This is not easy. We have to rebuild a conducive environment for reconciliation. That is what the government does right now. Do not expect quick results from this endeavour. It is not possible. Having Provincial Council elections in the North is a major achievement in respect of restoring democracy, civil administration and reconciliation and stepping up the development programmes.
"Though I am a government member, I always look for a strong opposition which will enhance the democratic process in the country"
Q: What do you have to say about the allegation of militarisation of the country – the North in particular - and deploying the army to suppress even a minor unrest by unarmed civilians?
The presence of Army in the North has been interpreted by some NGOs and groups opposed to government as militarisation. After the war the Army has been deployed not only in the North but in many parts of the South. There has been a sharp increase of the presence of military personnel in many areas in Badulla where I represent and no one has protested. Besides, the Military personnel have been deployed in many development projects and this has contributed to peace time development in the country. We can’t let the Army to idle but deploy for national development. We cannot de-list or retire soldiers, either which will create more problems if we did. The deployment of the Army for development and reconstruction cannot be interpreted as militarisation.
But I admit that sometimes, soldiers may cross the line and interrupt peace. The government will not hesitate to take action against them when such incidents are reported.
"There must be check and balance for democratic governance and constant watch on the activities of the government. Without a strong opposition any political party in power can make mistakes, can be negligent and sometimes can have over riding principles of good governance. The prying eyes of a strong opposition will naturally prevent a government from wrong deeds and direct it on the right path and the government will think twice before resorting to misdeeds"
Soon after the war there was a period of transition during which recovery of weapons, construction of essential infrastructure, clearing of lands and de-mining etc are taking place and only the armed forces can be deployed for these tasks. The government is now in the process of handing over these responsibilities to the civil administration and I hope we could complete it once the Provincial Council in the North was set up after the elections.
Q: Looking back on your political career what are the ups and downs in the last 30 years?
During the 1977 – 1994 period under the UNP rule and we were in the opposition, we were trying hard at every election to unsettle the government but failed. There were times when we were totally demoralised and disgusted of ourselves but we were able re-group, re-charge and re-organize and came through with a new vigour and ended the 17 year UNP rule in 1994. What was most important was that we fought courageously against extremely powerful and dictatorial regimes and never neglected the responsibility of the opposition.
If you have the resolve to confront the government and the ability to rally the masses behind the party, you will be paid off sooner than later. A leader who continuously takes his party from disaster to disaster will never deliver and the party would perish under his leadership.
Q: You were a prime target of the LTTE in their heyday, who almost succeeded when you visited Jaffna in July 1996. How did it actually happen?
It was my 12th trip to Jaffna as the Minister of Housing and the President of the Task Force of Re-habilitation under the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. In this particular trip I went to Jaffna to distribute school books, monitor the development programme and open a branch of the Building Material Corporation (BMC).
Soon after I declared open the BMC, on Stanley Road, a woman suicide bomber of the LTTE blasted herself some 12 metres away from my vehicle. Brigadier A.S. Hamangoda, who was the Jaffna Sector Commander, Ranjith Godamuna Chairman, Lanka Cement and 21 others were killed and more than 50 injured in the blast. I still carry - though harmless - a sharpnel in my brain that penetrated my scull at the blast.
The LTTE had targetted me three times in the south, but they could not execute them properly. I faced all these threats fearlessly and my intention was to serve the people, which I believe was why I was saved.
Q: What compelled you to become a politician and give up a lucrative and successful legal career?
I was attracted to politics as a student because I was one of the leading orators in school and I had the opportunity to interact with young politicians of the SLFP. When I was attending Nalanda College, I was boarded at Wanathamulla and was a frequent visitor to the school library. I discussed contemporary issues and argued on them with students of my age and much politics was involved in these interactions.
"I have never tried or thought to cross over and betray my party for political or any other gains. There can be shortcomings, pains and disappointments but if and when you dedicatedly and loyally stick with your party and follow its vision and missio"
When I entered Law College, I got the opportunity to discuss many an issue with left leaning students, which helped me to expand my range of interests from local and global politics to human rights, gender equality and labour relations etc. Then in 1970, I was the national organiser of ‘Sinhala Tharuna Sanvidhanaya’ which backed Mrs. Bandaranaike in her struggle in politics. I spoke at almost each and every SLFP meeting all over the country as a law student.
When I went to England to pursue my studies in 1974 I was able to re-organise the UK branch of the SLFP. When the J.R.Jayewardene regime removed Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights in 1978, I came back and was given a role to play in the party. Later on I was appointed the SLFP organiser for Borella constituency, and in 1983 I was elected as a member of the Colombo Municipal Council. I entered Parliament for the first time in 1989.
Q: You often say that your parents - your mother in particular - moulded you from your school days with leadership qualities and face challenges. Can you elaborate?
Yes, indeed. My father died when I was very young and my mother single handedly played a major role in making me a politician and what I am today. She knew my extra-curricular talents and oratory skills from my tender age and always encouraged me on these lines. She forced me to enter the Law College and choose legal practice as my profession before taking to politics.
"We cannot de-list or retire soldiers, either which will create more problems if we did. The deployment of the Army for development and reconstruction cannot be interpreted as militarisation"
Q: You once served as a peace negotiator of the government and participated in peace talks with the LTTE. Despite the fact that separatist terrorism is being militarily vanquished the government has failed to build trust and mutual understanding among minority Tamils and Muslims with majority Sinhalese. Why?
I was chosen by President Chandrika Kumaratunga as the peace negotiator soon after the Peoples’ Alliance came to power in 2004 and the leader of the government delegation. I obliged with pleasure, as I thought peace can be brought through negotiations. Unfortunately, the LTTE was not genuine in finding a solution to the ethnic problem and bring durable peace but had a different agenda.
The LTTE used the cease-fire declared by the government as a positive response to the peace talks to win as much concessions as possible, re-group and pile up weapons.
Six rounds of talks followed till April 1995 and 42 letters were exchanged between President Kumaratunga and Velupillai Prabahakaran, The LTTE unilaterally ended the ceasefire on 19th April 1995 by attacking two naval gun boats in the Trincomalee harbour, igniting the third Eelam war.
Q: After the eradication of terrorism from the soil of Sri Lanka in May 1999, you led a government team to several rounds of discussions with the TNA but there was no tangible outcome. What went wrong?
As the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee, I am not entitled to comment. We have permitted any citizen to come before the PSC, air their views and submit proposals to find sustainable peace through negotiations and compromise. Peace cannot be brought by force. Our task is to come out with recommendations that can be acceptable to all stake holders to this issue.
Q: Now that the government has constituted the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) deliberations have been started without the main stakeholders to the issue, the TNA, UNP, JVP and other political representations. How successful would be, the final outcome of the PSC?
As the Chairman of the PSC, I am not entitled to comment. We have invited any citizen to come before the PSC and present their proposals, comments and view point on power devolution and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in order to find sustainable peace and harmony in Sri Lanka. Our task is to prepare the report on the 13th Amendment and power devolution to Parliament.
Q: As a senior politician what is your opinion on how to bring a lasting solution to the North-East issue and establish sustainable peace, ethnic reconciliation and co-existence?
Terrorism has been eradicated and the fruits of development have been delivered to the North-East. I hope, with the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council, there will be more power sharing at the grassroots level which will address some aspirations of the people in the North-East and I must say that the power sharing arrangements are already working.
Q: Are you contented with your current responsibilities in the UPFA government?
Yes, my nature is that whatever the responsibilities given to me, I am prepared to fulfill. I have never gone canvassing for portfolios or posts when the SLFP was in power or in the opposition.
Q: The appointment of retired Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran as Chief Minister in the north has created much concern in the country. How do you see this development?
For me, it is not a matter for concern at all. The TNA has every right to nominate Mr. Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate at the PC polls and appoint him to the post after winning the election, on the weight of the mandate given to the TNA by the Tamils in the North. But there is a moral issue as Mr. Wigneswaran is a retired Supreme Court judge. Did he deliver his rulings according to his conscience? There have been suggestions to revisit his rulings given as a sitting Supreme Court judge.
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