Tourism Promotion Minister John Amaratunga during an interview with the spoke about the political situation of the country and the reforms of the United National Party (UNP) which he represents. Excerpts:
Q What is your analysis of the current status of the Government?
There is no difference. The national Unity Government will continue. The Ministers representing Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the Government are also doing their normal work. In fact, new subjects have been assigned to the ministers now.
Q In the assignment of subjects, some institutions, such as the Department of Archaeology which was held by Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, have been entrusted with Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. Why is that?
I don’t know. I am yet to see the gazette notification. I cannot comment on it as a result. There is no change in the subjects I held as the Tourism Development Minister.
Q As an UNPer with 40-years of experience how do you view the current status of the party?
Had the UNP obtained an absolute majority there would have been no problem. We would have forged ahead with our own policies. Since we had to join hands with the SLFP to form the Government, there were differences. Nevertheless, we’re working together.
As a result of FCID operations, we have been able to minimize corrupt practices
Q How do you compare and contrast the UNP’s present situation with its past?
During the regime of J. R. Jayewardene as the President, we had five-sixth majority. We could implement anything we wanted. Today, the UNP is only a part of the Government.
Q How do you view the differences in terms of policies?
There is one difference here. We could implement projects speedily during the past. That is because of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). Officials fear making decisions because of the FCID’s operations. They think twice before implementing a decision.
There are two aspects here. That is to mitigate corruption. As a result of FCID operations, we have been able to minimize corrupt practices. Everyone is careful to make sure that financial regulations are upheld. That, however, causes delays in implementing projects.
Q Did you experience this personally in your ministry?
Yes. We have to implement the digital advertising programme regarding the promotion of tourism. Officials fear bypassing the procedures. They insist on following the procedures. It has delayed the implementation of the programme, hence affecting tourism.
Q What’s the UNP planning to do in view of the Presidential Elections?
The Working Committee will decide who should be our candidate. Two Ministers have already said that UNP Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should be the candidate. If the Working Committee decides, we will go ahead with it. Minister Mangala Samaraweera clearly said the Prime Minister would be the candidate. If he says that, it may be the final decision.
Q What is your opinion?
I think the Prime Minister stands a good chance of emerging as the winner at the elections.
Q You see him as the best bet?
Yes, at the moment, he is the best bet. That is because of the enormous experience he has regarding governance and foreign and economic affairs. In early 1970s, people used to talk about J.R. Jayewardene as a hopeless candidate. He was viewed as an arrogant person. Yet, he proved to be the best candidate for the UNP.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa group is also very strong. When the anti-UNP vote base is divided between them, we can emerge victorious
Q There is a cry from the UNP backbenchers that young blood should be infused to the UNP hierarchy. What is your opinion?
I’m not against that view. They should be given more responsibilities. They must understand one thing. I will cite one example. After I enetered Parliament, I remained without a portfolio for 10 years. I was just an MP. I continued to wait. Later, I was appointed as the State Minister of Finance. Since then, I have been getting portfolios. One shouldn’t expect ministerial posts immediately after entering Parliament.
Q If the party must groom another leader, who do you have in mind?
There are enough and more at the second level of the party. Ministers Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake are there. We also have Ministers Harin Fernando and Mangala Samaraweera. There are five or six people identified as potential future leaders. As time progresses, we will find a person to fill the vacuum.
Q What are the policy changes you expect in the party?
The UNP has the same kind of policies. They cannot be changed. We are a democratic party and believe in the private sector as the engine of growth.
Q How do you view the chemistry between the President and the Prime Minister?
They are on talking terms though some people may think otherwise. I do not see any difference of opinion between them. The Unity Government will continue operating during the remaining 18 months.
Q As far as the UNP reforms are concerned, what do you think of the recent appointment of new office bearers to key posts such as the General Secretary?
I think those changes are enough. There is no need to make any drastic changes to continue for the next 18 months. Drastic changes can be made after the next elections.
Q How hopeful are you of winning the next elections?
The SLFP group led by President Maithripala Sirisena is also strong. The Mahinda Rajapaksa group is also very strong. When the anti-UNP vote base is divided between them, we can emerge victorious.
Q You had similar hopes during the Local Government Elections held on February 10 because the President and the former President did not unite. But the UNP couldn’t win . Why is it?
That is true. There were various views expressed in this regard. We did not get the expected results.
These foreign nationals, who were assaulted, did not come to give evidence. They made a hue and cry, and left. We couldn’t punish wrongdoers as a result
Q What do you think of UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake being denied a ministerial post despite making requests?
Mr. Karunanayake played a major role in the installation of this Government in 2015. He worked very hard for it. There were allegations against him regarding the alleged Bond Scam. According to the report, he hasn’t been involved in any scam. There is no reason for him to be deprived of a ministerial post. He hasn’t been found guilty.
Q How is the growth within the tourism sector?
In 2010, there were only 400,000 tourists. Now, we get 2.5 million arrivals. Every month the number is increasing. At the same time, there are obstacles in our way. There was the closure of the airport and dengue epidemic. We have heard of a few incidents where tourists were assaulted. They have hampered the development of tourism.
Q Some ambassadors raised this matter with you. What did they discuss?
They sent travel advisories. When the Dutch tourists were attacked, they sent travel advisories. These foreign nationals, who were assaulted, did not come to give evidence. They made a hue and cry, and left. We couldn’t punish wrongdoers as a result.
We have to get our digital campaign right to promote tourism. We have to ensure the safety of tourists. We are trying to develop the domestic airports. We have to expand our international airport. We need to increase the number of immigration officers. We have to develop the railway system. Many tourists are willing to travel by train.
There are many airlines willing to land here. Our landing and parking charges are very high. We have to bring them down.
Q The recent tax hike has affected tourist industry. Foreign nationals have complained about high charges for food and accommodation due to increased taxes. How do you see this?
We have received complaints both from locals and foreigners about it. In general, people find it difficult to live. When the rupee value depreciates, the rupee component of foreign exchange earnings increases. That is a plus point. Foreigners get the benefit from this.