New General Secretary of the UNP, Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam discussed the future of the grand old party, current political situation of the country and education with the Daily Mirror in the aftermath of his appointment. The excerpts:-
- No one proposed that the top leadership in the party must be changed
- There will be price drop in most of the essential commodities, utility services in near future
- Teaching staff who had served 10 years or more in national schools will be transferred
- Sajith Premadasa is a capable leader and a minister and will get his right place at the right time
- PM Ranil Wickremesinghe must be the UNP’s presidential candidate at the 2019 presidential polls
Q The UNP remains in a politically enervated position right now. What is your formula to bring the party back into a winning trend?
I was elected unanimous to this post in a critical and difficult time of the UNP and my prime objective is to bring back the UNP, one of the oldest and largest political parties in the country to its former glory. I believe that the task of restructuring the UNP into the winning path remains in strengthening the party in the grassroots level and attracting young voters who would be voting for the first time this year and also uniting all UNPers who hold dissenting views. I agree that the ‘Yahapalana Government’ has not performed in some areas to the expectations of the masses who voted for the UNP in two elections in 2015. To ensure the UNP’s victory in the forthcoming Provincial Councils, Presidential and Parliamentary polls this year and next year dwells mainly on improving the living condition of the low income families with emphasis on Samurdhi beneficiaries. Several welfare programmes that target improving the family income, subsidies, health and education facilities and of course bringing down the prices of essential commodities are on the pipeline.
You will see that the government would go ahead with these highly ambitious welfare programmes that aim at giving relief and benefits to the people in the days to come. By saying so I must admit that the government has been extremely weak in giving due publicity or making people aware of the good work done by the ‘Yahapalana Government’ during the past three years.
It is a well known fact that the unity government inherited a totally devastated economy accompanied with a huge debt package, a suppressed media and a judiciary that remained under the thumb of the executive President. The white van culture and lawlessness were the order of the day. The global community treated Sri Lanka as a pariah state and all international financial institutions, UN agencies and democracies had sidelined Sri Lanka and there was no one we could turn for help.
There will be no political or personal influence in this exercise and all teachers serving more than 10 years at National Schools will be transferred and vacancies will be filled by suitable teachers from other parts of the country
Therefore, we had to attend first and foremost to restore Sri Lanka’s good name in the global forums, win back our self respect and dignity among the global community, re-establish, democracy, rule of law, judicial independence and free media which we did in the 100-day programme. The unity government introduced the 19th Amendment, clipped the powers of the Executive, established independent commissions and created an atmosphere where any Sri Lankan could say ‘I am a Sri Lankan citizen’ with pride.
In the domestic economic front, the government increased public servants’ salary by Rs.10,000 which is the highest in history, private sector salary by Rs. 3,500, drastically reduced prices of nearly 20 essential commodities, fuel, gas, transport fare, electricity etc. But sadly, no one talks about these highly beneficial acts of the government but talks only on recent price hikes, bus fare and fuel price increase.
I cannot understand as to why almost all the private media – print and electronic – have turned against the government and mercilessly attack the UNP manipulating the freedom given to them by the government. I don’t mind if the media criticizes the UNP sticking to facts and truthful information. But they always dish out disinformation, misinformation, fabrication, half truth and absolute lies in attacking the UNP. This is how the free media enjoys the freedom regained by them under the ‘Yahapalana Government.
Sri Lanka’s external debt repayments totalling US$ 4 billion per year between 2019 and 2022 and the total nett external debt exceeded US$50 billion in 2017. Sri Lanka will not delay a day to pay back these debts.
Q Are you satisfied with the changes introduced to the UNP with new appointments?
Yes, indeed. It was done in an extremely democratic manner stipulating to policies and laws of a political party that upholds participatory democracy. But, you are aware that it is very difficult to satisfy 100% in appointing office bearers not only in a political party but even in any other establishment. My task is to create confidence and give all UNP members and millions of our voters a new hope, a new dream and a sense of victory. I will do it, no matter how much it costs or what may be the outcome.
Q But a considerable number of backbenches, a large number of party supporters, party membership and even several party seniors have expressed their disappointment over the failure to change the party leadership. Your comments...
At the party’s Working Committee meeting held on April 26, all appointments to the party were elected uncontested. No one expressed dissenting views to the new office bearers. However, if any member is not happy about the new office bearers, he/she must raise it within the party and not with outsiders or the media. I must reiterate that there was no protest or nomination to change the party leadership or against those newly elected.
Q All of them say whatever the position given to whomever; reforms or changes are cosmetic as long as there is no change in the top leadership of the party. How do you see this?
No one wanted or proposed any dramatic changes in the top structure of the party leadership. No one proposed that the top leadership must be changed in the party. No one proposed a name for the party leadership. As such they must all unite under the present leadership and contribute their maximum to ensure the party’s victory at the forthcoming PC, Presidential and Parliamentary elections. All are free to discuss any issue within the party and resolve them amicably.
Yellow Journalism is much more harmful to a country that of yellow fever. I cannot understand as to why almost all the private media – print and electronic – have turned against the government and mercilessly attack the UNP manipulating the freedom given to them by this government.
Q The widely-touted concept not only among UNPers but among many other political parties and social groups was that Sajith Premadasa is the one who could face Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or any other candidate contesting the 2020 Presidential poll, provided he was properly groomed and given all tangible support by the party sooner than later. Do you agree?
A section of the UNP holds this concept, while a large majority says Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must be the UNP’s presidential candidate in late 2019. However, the UNP is a party that entertains proposals or dissenting views of any one that come with the objective of strengthening the party. We must take our decisions not in the open but within the party. The party is open for any constructive proposal because our final goal is to win the PC, Presidential and Parliamentary polls in 2019.
We all are aware of Minister Sajith Premadasa’s abilities, skills and leadership qualities. He has a bright future in the UNP and I have no doubt that he will get his due place in the country and the party at the right time.
Q How are the UNP’s preparations for the six Provincial Council polls scheduled to be held this year?
We have a specific plan to improve our voter base. Re-organization of the party at the grassroots level is in progress satisfactorily. The government has already allocated a massive Rs. 800 billion for an accelerated development and welfare programme with the aim of enhancing family income among low income families and provide a wide-ranging welfare package that would bring down the cost of living sharply. You will see there will be a further reduction of almost all essential commodities and utility services in the coming months. Please note that those facilities and welfare programmes will not be artificial or ad-hoc but the result of the sound economic management and prudent monetary policies that would sustain the economic progress and increase the GDP.
The party is open for any constructive proposal because our final goal is to win the PC and Presidential and Parliamentary polls in 2019
Q The ‘Yahapalana Government’ has miserably failed in economic management in the last three years which was demonstrated by the ever-rising prices of all essential commodities and fast depreciation of the rupee against the dollar. The government must act fast to bring some relief to the masses. What are the strategies the UNP adopts to bring the country out of this peril before 2020?
I don’t agree. It is a well established fact that the legacy of this government in early 2015 was a totally shattered economy, nearly four trillion-rupee debt package and a country which had been branded by the global community as a pariah state on its human rights record, rule of law and suppression of judiciary and media. Sri Lanka’s external debt repayments total US$ 4 billion per year between 2019 and 2022 and the total nett external debt exceeded US$ 50 billion in 2017. Sri Lanka will not delay a single day to pay back these debts.
The unity government has reversed this negative trend and as a result debt servicing is manageable now. The rupee continues to depreciate against the dollar on domestic and global factors. The government has been able to increase foreign reserves to a record US$ 9.3 billion and increase exports and I hope this will reflect on the rupee shortly and arrest the devaluation.
Q Ravi Karunanayaka’s name became tainted with the Central Bank bond scam probe. But he still remains as the deputy leader of the UNP and it reflects badly on the party. Does the UNP hierarchy have any plan to clean the party?
The UNP has already taken appropriate action against him despite the fact that he has not been charged in any court of law and/or by the Presidential Commission that probed the bond scam nor has it been ruled that he is a party to the scandal. As such, we cannot take him to the guillotine only because our political opponents demand his head for their political gains.
The government has already allocated a massive Rs. 800 billion for an accelerated development and welfare programme with the aim of enhancing family income among low income earning families
Q One of the success stories of the ‘Yahapalana Government’ is your handling of the education sector in the country. But still you have to do much to make free education truly a blessing to each and every family of the country. How are you going to find a solution to the shortage of teaching staff in the North-East and in the plantation sector which is a perennial complaint by students, parents, teachers and area politicians?
I am glad that you ask me this question because the positive and people-friendly steps taken by this government have been a totally closed chapter to the media.
Take only the ‘Suraksha’ life insurance scheme we introduced in 2016 for 4.5 million students who study at government schools, private and international schools and Pirivenas. Each and every school-going student has been given an insurance policy worth Rs. 200,000 per year while the government pays the premium totally. There are instances where in remote or so-called difficult areas in the country, parents cannot afford Rs.100 to pay for a three wheeler to take their child to the hospital in the event the child falls sick. Under the ‘Suraksha’ insurance scheme, a child is paid Rs.1,000 per day as long as he/she remains in hospital for treatment. For three school-going children, the insurance package is Rs. 600,000 per year.
Assets of all families have been insured by the government enabling this government to pay enhanced compensation to victims of natural disasters as opposed to extremely meagre payments made in the past.
The cash voucher system introduced by the Education Ministry for school uniforms has been a big success and Rs. 2.5 billion has been saved last year as the Ministry must not pay for storage facilities, packaging and cutting of cloth and transporting them to schools. With the cash voucher, parents can now purchase quality fabric of their choice for uniforms for their children with the correct length. They can now purchase 80/20 high quality fabric instead of 65/35 given as school uniform cloth in the past.
The nutritional food pack for expectant mothers, sharp reduction of prices of 42 essential drugs, free stents for heart surgeries, free eye lenses, lifting of the Rs. 1.5 million ceiling to issue medicine for cancer patients are some of the benefits granted to the people by this government. But I would say, the best is yet to come. In the next one and-a-half years, people of the country are set to receive unprecedented relief and welfare that would improve their living standard.
The Education Ministry has given promotions to 4,000 principals, recruited 1,190 for Sri Lanka Teachers Service and another 852 for Sri Lanka Educations Service. I have taken steps to fill vacancies in the North-East before the end of 2018 and recruit another batch for training in Technology, English, Science and Mathematics.
No one wanted or proposed any dramatic changes in the top structure of the party leadership. No one proposed that the top leadership must be changed in the party
Q However, there are teachers more than the required cadre in many of the so-called popular or prestigious national schools. They, with right connections to high and mighty refuse to accept the transfer order from the Education Ministry. How are you going to address this issue?
I have given strict orders to Ministry Secretary and Director National Schools to transfer all teachers who have served in the national schools for 10 years or more. I have information that some teachers have served at certain National Schools in their entire period of service and some more than 20 to 30 years. There will be no political or personal influence in this exercise and all teachers serving more than 10 years at National Schools will be transferred and vacancies will be filled by suitable teachers from other parts of the country.