The Daily Mirror sat with the General Secretary of the UNP and Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam to discuss the current political and security situation and Education in the country.
Q People blame the government for its failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage despite repeated warnings on this act of terrorism since as far back as 2016. What do you have to say?
I must point out that as you claimed, Muslim fundamentalism has been active not from 2016 but from the time of the previous government. Who are the fathers of the National Thawheed Jama’ath (NTJ) and who fed and financed them? It is no secret that there was a pay sheet comprising 26 members of the NTJ and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) under Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who received monthly remunerations from the Ministry of Defence. Not only that, when a member of the NTJ or BBS was arrested, the Defence Ministry ordered their release. The NTJ was well fed and bred by the Defence Ministry under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime until late 2014 and the Easter Sunday (April 21) carnage was the final outcome.
Besides, if the Easter Sunday terrorist attack did not take place, it could have happened on another day probably with more ferocity. However, the armed forces, the STF, and the Police have been able to arrest almost all the top activists of the NTJ using the intelligence data provided by the state intelligence arms in a short period of time, which is highly commendable. This has also helped restore public confidence, national security and prevented law breakers and anti-government elements disrupting law and order.
I would also like if you give some thought to this claim by anti-government groups and the JO that the arrest of intelligence officers had affected the smooth functioning of the government intelligence units, which is an utter lie and a fabrication. .
Only seven intelligence officers are now in custody as part of a CID investigation. Their arrests have nothing to do with the war against LTTE terrorism. These suspects have been arrested and produced before courts on allegations that they have abducted and killed 11 Tamil youth for ransom and for the dastardly killing of several innocent Tamil students in Trincomalee. These allegations have no connection whatsoever with the humanitarian operation, and there is no political interference as well. This is the plain truth.
Q The people are still in a sense of shock and disbelief and refuse to send their children to school and attend their work places.
I, as the Minister of Education carefully went through the intelligence reports provided by the armed forces and the Police before instructing school principals to reopen schools. The Education Ministry issued clear instructions to all school principals, provincial chief secretaries, and directors, provincial education secretaries and directors, divisional and zonal education directors as to what actions were to be taken to ensure the security of students, teachers and school property, and how to act in an emergency.
School principals have also been instructed to work in close cooperation with the Police and armed forces and to seek the assistance of the police to provide parking space to school vans and buses at a safe distance from the school. In addition, school principals are required to set up school security committees comprising members from among parents, teachers, past pupils, clergy and society leaders. They will be tasked with the responsibility of checking those entering the school with bags and covered items, and the constant surveillance of class rooms and school premises. I am glad that the attendance of students at schools has been extremely satisfactory from this week. I expect a 100 percent attendance before the end of this week.
Don’t fall into the trap laid by anti-government elements and trade unions that live on teachers’ donations to keep the national education disrupted for ever. Besides, the Examinations’ Department will have to hold a number of examinations in the coming months and we have no intention of postponing these exams only because parents refuse to send their children to schools.
We deeply regret the blunder on the part of the government and accept the responsibility
Don’t fall into the trap laid by anti-government elements and trade unions that live on teachers’ donations to keep national education disrupted for ever.
Q Don’t you think something is wrong and incomprehensible when a majority of public servants, employees of the private sector and students still don’t have the confidence to come to their work places and schools despite the assurance of security given by the armed forces, the STF and the Police?
Yes indeed. The presidential election is six months away. My belief is that the anti-government forces led by the JO are creating a situation advantageous to them much earlier this time than on previous occasions. At the 2005 Presidential poll, the TNA on the orders of the LTTE boycotted the election which resulted UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s chance to win. Before the boycott, all opinion polls indicated that Mr. Wickremesinghe was to record an easy victory. Again in late 1999 during the Presidential election campaign, Mr. Wickremesinghe was the absolute winner according to opinion polls. An LTTE suicide cadre exploded herself at the final meeting of the Peoples Alliance at the Town Hall grounds killing 36 and seriously wounding Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga. Mrs. Kumaratunga had a narrow win mainly with sympathy votes and less than 200,000 majority votes. I see a similar pattern albeit much earlier this time to deny the UNP its victory when going through the Easter Sunday carnage and sporadic attacks that took place against Muslims elsewhere on April 12 and 13.
I would like to draw your attention to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s public announcement that he would definitely contest the forthcoming Presidential poll even before the next Sunday prayers after the Easter Sunday butchery. He was telling right throughout that he would announce his candidacy at the right time. For Gota, this massacre is the right time for him to publicly declare his candidacy. Very intriguing, but sad.
Q Is there any link to the sporadic attacks on Muslim trade establishments in Gampaha, Kurunegala, Kuliyapitiya, Hettipola and Munuwangoda and the attempt by certain anti-government elements to prolong the instability and disruption in the country for their political advantage?
When you go through the attitude and statements made by leaders of the JO, you could come to some conclusions. After April 21, there was no challenge to national security for about two weeks. The situation in the country was fast moving to normalcy after the government acted swiftly and steadily to restore law and order. It seems that the JO did not like this. The JO leaders started to say in and out of Parliament that violence was possible on April 13. As they predicted gleefully, there were attacks on Muslim trade establishments in Kuliyapitiya, Gampaha, Hettipola, Kurunegala, Minuwangoda, Nattandiya and elsewhere. How and why did this happen? Who are behind these attacks? I think the government intelligence agencies will tell you who gave the leadership to these attacks. A few of them already have been identified or arrested.
Q A number of important government examinations are sche duled to be held in the next few months. But national education is in disarray. How do you propose to bring national education back to normalcy?
We will not postpone exams and hold extra classes if necessary to cover the syllabus. We can’t take the country backwards because of this act of terrorism. I hope the school education system will go back to normal from this week and the attendance of students, teachers and the support staff would be 100percent. We have also given authority to school principals and zonal directors to act appropriately and take decisions independently if there are any ad-hoc problems at schools.
Q There is no doubt that the economy, Foreign Direct Investment and tourism in particular got a heavy beating as a result of the Easter Sunday terror attacks. What is the government stratagem to come out of this mess?
The government has taken all measures possible to mitigate damage from this terrorist attack to the economy and a large number of friendly countries like India, China, the US, UK, Japan, Australia and the EU have inquired to find what kind of assistance Sri Lanka expects. We cannot forget the attention and sympathy Sri Lanka received from the global community following this attack.
I am also glad to tell you that the tourism industry is returning to normal steadily. As expected by anti government forces, the tourist arrival and room occupation have not dropped to zero. The Tourism Development Authority (TDA) hopes there will be a 45 percent tourist arrival and 40 percent occupancy rate during the off season before recovering to near 80 percent by the end of the year in comparison to last year’s figures.
The government has already begun paying compensation to the families of bomb victims. The repayment period of loans obtained by tourist hotels and bomb victims has been increased and interest rates have been reduced. The government will come up with a ‘special relief package’ for the industrial sector and in particular for the tourism sector. The government is determined to mitigate as much as possible the damage caused to the economy and victims.
In addition the government expects to strengthen the law to effectively fight terrorism in whatever form it comes and wipe out terrorism from the soil of Sri Lanka for ever.
Q The presidential election is six months away. How is the preparation of the UNP?
The UNP is ready not only for the Presidential poll but for any other election. We have already begun grassroot level reorganization, reinvigorating the village, constituency, district and provincial level party structures, and results have been extremely positive and encouraging.
Q The animosity between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is no secret. But you will have to put behind this animosity before the presidential poll if the UNP is to face the election with confidence. Your comments?
Sadly, we could not do what we wanted to do for the country or put into action to our economic, foreign or domestic policies after we came into power in August 2015. We never expected to form a coalition government but the circumstances dictated us to form this so called ‘Yahapalana Government’. I admit that the UNP as the main coalition partner confronted many a setback and leg pulling in implementing its policies to ensure sustainable development.
Yes, there was no action to prevent this dastardly act. We deeply regret the blunder on the part of the government and accept the responsibility. We can blame the President saying that the intelligence arms of the Police and tri-forces, Ministries of Defence and Law and Order were not under the government. We also can claim that the Prime Minister and Deputy Defence Minister were not summoned for the weekly National Security Council (NSC) meetings to avoid our accountability. But we don’t want to shy away from this lapse because this happened while the UNP was the ruling party.
Q When you assumed duties as the Minister of Education in 2015, you declared that you expected to introduce a series of reforms to national education and a complete overhaul of the system. What is the progress so far?
Yes, the national education system has been subjected to a range of reforms and the results have been extremely positive, futuristic and results oriented. For the first time in history we have made education up to grade 13 mandatory for each and every student notwithstanding their performance in the GCE O/L or A/L exams. This is going to be a turning point in our free education system. The main objective is to give an opportunity to each and every citizen to find success in life by excelling even in a single subject. The policy that remained up to now was that a student must get through GCE O/L with a minimum of six subjects including Language, Religion and Maths. To have a University education he or she must pass the A/L exam with the necessary cut off marks. But with the new system a student can be a top professional in one subject if he or she excels only in that particular subject.
We have also introduced a life insurance scheme for the entire school population that exceeds 4.2 million for Rs. 200,000 per year thereby giving a life insurance cover of Rs. 600,000 for a family with three school going children. We have also introduced the concept of ‘Best school is the nearest School’ by developing rural schools with all facilities, have recruited thousands of teachers for Science, Maths and Technology subjects in particular. Curriculum updating is continuing at a rapid phase and all government schools will get digital class rooms starting next year, and also steps have been taken to distribute tabs free of charge to GCE A/L students and teachers based on knowledge based education.
In order to develop sports, we have given appointments to nearly 3,000 Sports Instructors who will be in charge of sports at provincial and national schools.