But during the last Presidential Elections the people took a stance to say ‘no to corruption’. The People took a stand. These are challenges that we have to face
- By saying there will be a revival of the LTTE, the SLPP is being disrespectful of the security forces who have done so much to this country
- We have to start building bridges and start winning hearts
- We are aware of our threats, shortcomings and areas that have gone wrong
- People expected that those who are corrupt to be taken to task immediately. It was not only from the previous government but even from this government
- Out of all political parties UNP has a very good future lineup
- I think the backbenchers have to be patient
- We want to take up these cases as soon
- In order to pay off these debts and correct the economy we had to take tough and unpopular decisions
- There is absolutely no threat to the country’s defence
- If the allegations are proved the perpetrators will have to be taken to task
- We are formulating our strategies and tactics
At the recently held United National Party’s (UNP) Working Committee meeting it had been agreed upon that the future of the grand old party should look to the future with the recommendation proposed by the Ruwan Wijewardene Committee. Headed by Gamapaha District MP and State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene the committee has come up with certain novel, innovative and a progressive set of proposals. The Dailymirror spoke to Minister Wijewardene as to how the proposals would be implemented, challenges faced by the UNP as a party and how it is going to face a series of elections lined up for 2020.
Q There is a demand by the UNP backbenchers to implement the Ruwan Wijewardene Committee recommendations. That itself shows that it’s a fairly balanced and independent report. What is your response?
In fact when we were making this report we took in a lot of views. In fact the committee consisted of a good number of backbenchers. The Prime Minister appointed me to head the committee. There were about 12 other backbenchers. Apart from that we spoke to the other backbenchers and senior politicians in the UNP and obtained their views and how the party should be reformed. So we took all that into consideration and made this report. So I think it’s a fair and balanced report which resonates what party members are demanding. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also saw the report and observed these changes. Reforms will take place. I think making the changes is in the process. I think members would be able to see that these reforms are done pretty fast.
I think the demand is to make the reforms immediately, but this is not an easy task. It is a process and the process is now taking place.
Q What is the response of the committee with regard to the delay in implementing the reforms?
Like I said it is a process. Now the main thrust is towards constitution change within the party. These changes are needed to make it more democratic and introduce other changes into its structure. It’s a long process and can’t be done within one night. You cannot simply change everything. You have to see what the consequences are and I think the process has now begun. We have been speaking with the Prime Minister during the past few weeks. We have been going through the process. It is going to be implemented and I think the backbenchers have to be patient. I think they will soon see the changes that they wish to see within the party.
Q Don’t you think that time is running out and within the next one and a half years you have to get ready for elections?
Absolutely yes. We are keeping that in mind and we are doing the needed changes. As you said we don’t have time on our hands at the moment. When the next two years are up we have to face the Presidential Elections, the General Elections and before that the Provincial elections. We have to face these elections and we have to finish off the reforms as fastest as possible. I think the Prime Minister is aware of that matter and the process is taking place.
Q During the history of the UNP it has proved itself as one of the smartest political parties in the country. Do you think the UNP is ready for the 2020 elections and meet all challenges?
The Security forces present in some areas in the North have paved the way for a peaceful environment. Specially the crime rate has dropped
If you really look at all the political parties that exist, I think the UNP has an impressive line-up. Apart from the seniors we have a very good younger generation of politicians which is to come forward. If you take into account Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, Navin Dissanayake, Harin Fernando, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Ajith Perera and Eran Wickremeratne there is an impressive line-up. There is a good future for the party when it comes to 2020 Elections. We are formulating our strategies and tactics to help us face those challenges. In fact the Prime Minister has a political committee now and we will sit at least once or twice a week and form our strategies with the Premier and plan how to meet these challenges. With regard to the future political environment of the country, I think the UNP has a better line-up of politicians when compared to other political parties. We are aware of our threats and shortcomings. We are aware of the things that have gone wrong while being in power and the things that we have done right. So these are the things that we have been assessing and evaluating and I think we will definitely hang in there and make amends so that we would be able to face the challenges when 2020 comes.
Q As a party that is in governance, do you ever think that not taking quick and proper measures to punish those corrupt is one of the reasons that this government has become unpopular?
Yes definitely. People expected those who are corrupt to be taken to task immediately. These expectations are there not only during this Government, but they were there during the past regime too. If the allegations are proved then these people will have to be taken to task. That’s the stance we have always taken. But unfortunately the investigation process including the court process and the handling of cases at the Attorney General’s Department takes a long time. This not only frustrates the public, but frustrates us politicians as well. We have fought to establish good governance and showed that we want to fight against corruption. This is one reason that we fought to get this special courts established. I think Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorala and Minister Ajith P. Perera have provided the leadership and really pushed through. We want to take up these cases as soon as possible and if certain people are proved to have engaged in corrupt deals during their times -whether they were in the former Government or this Government -they should be taken to task.
And I think that because of this process the public would have obviously thought that this Government was not taking issues seriously. Of course with other cases like the Central Bank Bond Issue coming up people thought this Government was doing the same thing as the previous Government and just fooling the public.
It is not the case. We have always stood up for good governance and that is exactly what we are driving for and hopefully with these new courts that are coming up we will be able to see quicker results.
Q Anyway as a result of what had happened and what this Government failed to do, it has paved the way for the Rajapaksas to return to power. The Rajapaksas showed their strength at the last Local Council elections. Don’t you think these developments are a challenge?
Definitely it is a challenge. I think former President Rajapaksa has always been a formidable politician and is loved by the people. But during the last Presidential Elections the people took a stance to say ‘no to corruption’. The People took a stand. These are challenges that we have to face. When looking back at the last Local Government Elections it was a protest vote against the Government. This result came about not because of the former President’s policies nor the Rajapaksa family or the policies of the SLPP that they follow. I think it was definitely a protest vote by the people against the rising of cost of living, increased taxation and the issues faced by the farming community with regard to the fertiliser issue.
People showed their disapproval against the Government considering all these things. We should assess what we did wrong and remember that when this Government assumed power we took a country that was burdened with huge debts. In order to pay off these debts and correct the economy we had to take tough and unpopular decisions. And when those decisions were taken the public did not like it. But I think that we have done considerably well with regard to the economy and we are at least paying off our debts, so I think we have to really concentrate on giving what the people want and what they expect and take the country forward.
Q As specifically mentioned in your report, the party has failed to take the message to the masses and as a result you have proposed to have 50 members who are experts in social media and take various other measures to ensure the proper use of social media. Your comments?
This has been the biggest problem with this Government. We have not been able to communicate what this government has done for the people. There hasn’t been proper communication at all. Even with state media the Government hasn’t been able to put their message forward and tell the people that this is what we have done.
This is why we suggested in our committee report that the party itself has to have a proper media committee; which is now headed by Minister Harin Fernando. He was appointed by the Prime Minister to take the party’s communication effective. Fernando being a dynamic politician would do a great job in communicating our policies. I think Minister Mangala Samaraweera has shuffled some of the heads of state media. I think both he and Harin would come up with a proper media plan and execute it as soon as possible.
Q You mentioned about Minister Samaraweera who also recently fired a salvo accusing former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is expected to contest in the next Presidential Elections. Do you think Gotabaya Rajapaksha would be a challenge for the UNP?
Well anyone is a challenge. I think we should not take anyone lightly. Whether its going to be Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa or Chamal Rajapaksa it’s going to be one of the Rajapaksas who would be coming forward. It’s a family concern there. So whoever who comes forward it would always be a challenge. We should not have a laid-back attitude and think that we are in the Government, are in power and can always win elections. It is not the case. So whoever who comes forward will have to face those challenges and be ready. I think that is part of our strategy against whoever who comes forward and that is what we are doing right now.
Q As part of the propaganda of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)- of which Mahinda Rajapaksa is the de-facto leader- some party leaders in it are creating a fear-psychosis in the South claiming that there is a revival of the LTTE and other armed groups in the North. How do you respond to this as the State Defence Minister?
There is no way that the LTTE can be revived as a terrorist organisation. It is a banned organisation. But from the time of 2015 Presidential Elections up to now that has always been one of the slogans that the SLPP and its supporters are using in their propaganda. They have been saying that we are going to divide the country and that the LTTE will rise again and that they are already active. By creating this fear psychosis they think that they can obtain the votes of the Sinhala majority. But it is not the case.
I think by saying that they are being disrespectful of the security forces and the police who have done so much to bring peace and prosperity to this country. The security forces have continued to do a tremendous job and when they say that the LTTE is being revived in the North they are sending a message that our forces are not doing a proper job. But this is not the case. There is absolutely no threat to the country’s defence nor the security of the country. We are always monitoring the situation. There is no need for anyone to panic.
There is a political game being played in the North. From what I see there is a political tug-of-war among the Tamil political parties in the North and each one is trying to claim more Tamil nationalists than the other person or the party and that is why these kinds of rhetoric and incidents. But as far as a LTTE revival is concerned there is no way for that to happen.
Q In this backdrop how do you view the Government giving back the private lands held by the military and the Government to the original owners?
That is a promise we made during the last Presidential Elections. Private land that was taken by the security forces during the conflict will be handed back to their owners. We will be doing that and we will be resettling the people. We will be giving back the lands and that is a very positive move that this Government has made specially with regard to the reconciliation process. We have to start building bridges there and we have to start winning hearts. The communities still have deep wounds caused as a result of the conflict that ended. Without making bridges and uniting the country we will never be able to heal those wounds. We are working towards a united Sri Lanka.
Q Don’t you think that just as we won the war it is necessary that the security forces now win the hearts of the people in the north?
Absolutely yes. I think they have done it. If you really look at it I know that some of the international propaganda claims that the military is still keeping the population in the North under their thumb. They are fabricating all kinds of stories. But some areas in the North having security forces has paved the way for a peaceful environment. Specially the crime rate has dropped. But now we are releasing more lands and there have been more and more positive interaction between the forces and the people. This is especially true when it comes to medical aid and during every other situation when the military has tried to help the people.
Q As the Defence Minister and the military do you have a strategy to counter allegations made by certain diaspora groups?
I think we have done quite a considerable amount of negating all these negative propaganda that is surfacing. When Minister Mangala Samaraweera was the Foreign Minister he did a tremendous job meeting the diaspora and having a dialogue with them. I think that has helped sort out a lot of issues. Of course we still have extremist elements who want to create certain problems. I think that will always be there. But I think now that the international community to a large degree knows that this Government is going forward with the reconciliation process. I think the only criticism they have is that the process is not taking place at the speed they expect. But that like I said is not an easy path to take. It is a process like anything else. But I think during the last three years we have done a tremendous amount of work with regard to the reconciliation process. I think the international community has some faith in us and this Government that the right thing will be done.
Q We have one of the most experienced military with us. Do you have any plans to use this military more on international engagements like UN Peace keeping missions?
We do. We have actually sent some of our battalion to Mali on Peace keeping missions. And we are hoping that we will get similar opportunities. The United Nations has looked favourably upon us and has given the green light. Depending on how we are working in Mali, we will get more opportunities to send troupes to other areas as well. That is something that we are concentrating on. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself did a lot to get the opportunities to send our troupes abroad. Now we are training our forces in Peace Keeping missions. The only issue is that we should get proper equipment. We are at the moment purchasing all those equipment and we would be able to send more troupes out in the future.
Q After the conclusion of the war the last regime used military personnel on various activities like cleaning and farming. We have a large military and now that the war has concluded shouldn’t we use them to serve people specially in professional areas?
When it comes to professionalism our forces have reached a very high degree. We can definitely use their expertise in areas like engineering and etc. But we have drawn the line to ensure that the military would not be used to clean roads and sell vegetables like the former regime did. We put a stop to that. When you come to Colombo now you can hear certain people criticizing that during the past regime Colombo was cleaner.
But can you use military to clean the roads? They are a professional unit. Personally I don’t think that using soldiers to clean the roads is the right thing to do and the Government took a decision to put a stop to that. These are people who fought for the country and to turn around and tell them to clean the road is somewhat demeaning. But in other areas, the professionalism showcased by our forces is very high.
Many foreign countries are interested in sending representatives to Sri Lanka and learning from our military’s experiences in how to deal with a terrorist orgnaisation and win a war. Many Asian countries and the West have shown an interest to come to Sri Lanka. We are using them and their professionalism in areas of nation building.