Regional Development Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about the proposed role to be assigned to him, the current status of politics and his future plans. Excerpts of the interview:
Q There are contrasting views on the proposed role to be assigned to you to deal with emergency situations triggered by trade union activities. What is the actual position, and how do you look forward to it?
If you say I am going to take action against trade union activities, it would not be correct anyway. What we discussed was to maintain smooth functioning of essential services. That is to ensure that essential services are not disrupted when trade union actions are taking place. That is to ensure the general public are not inconvenienced.
Q How are you going to take up the responsibilities in this regard?
This is being discussed. It was initially discussed at the Cabinet. After that, no action has been taken as yet. If I am given the responsibility, obviously, I will have to ensure that somebody works in place of those on strike. We have to make some arrangements in that regard.
Q How is it possible?
When dock workers were on strike, Army personnel were deployed on their behalf by lifting cargo and all. If doctors are on strike, there are doctors in the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police. They should be able to shoulder a certain amount of work. If drivers are on strike, the same method will be adopted. The military has operational plans for these.
Q Number wise, it would be small then. How do you find enough replacements?
That is what we have to discuss and work out plans. We have to do a detailed study. Not militarily alone, if there are other ways of getting drivers, labourers or whoever, we have to study and work out modalities.
Q In your view, how soon would this happen?
It depends on the President’s wish. It is left to him to decide what he wants. This suggestion came from him, so we would have to do what he wants.
Q Trade Union activities have become a constant occurrence. At the same time, workers are entitled to the right to protest and it is a democratically accepted right. How do you reconcile these two situations?
They can take trade union action to ensure the workers’ welfare is not neglected. Also, they can do so to ensure that their professional rights are not neglected. But, trade union activities are not allowed to topple the government. That is the difference we see. There are views that some of the trade unions try to do politics. They want to topple the government by disrupting essential services. They are trying to help bring somebody to power.
When that happens, the government is not going to keep quiet. It will have to take counter action. Actually, 5.2 million people elected the government. One cannot allow 2,000 odd people to topple
Q When you say ‘counter action’, what does it mean?
Counter action is what I explained earlier. It is not by shooting. We guarantee that we will not open fire at people though the Rajapaksas did it at Ratupaswala, Chilaw etc.
Q It is quite a long time since your appointment as a Cabinet Minister. What have you delivered?
My ministry is mainly responsible for major project implementation in the Central North Central, and in the Eastern Province and also in the Badulla district. Also, there is a department under the ministry called ‘Hadbaima Authority’. That is the only institution that does normal work such as soil conservation and so on. But, the major projects are being discussed at the moment. The Kandy Development Project is being discussed to be implemented with financial assistance from JICA. The Eastern Province development projects are being discussed. Discussions are taking place under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. When those are finalized and launched, our Ministry will spring into action.
Q What sort of responsibilities would you be holding?
We will be responsible for accounting and the execution of the projects.
Q What are the Kandy development projects in the pipeline?
There are a whole lot of activities, such as the Bogambara development project, a new vehicle park is coming up, a tunnel is being planned to be constructed. You might have to write a separate article outlining all.
Q Earlier you were the Army Commander. After that, you even headed a political party. Now, you are an MP with Cabinet responsibilities under a government headed by someone. Do you feel like being relegated to a lower position?
An Army Commander is not above a Minister anyway. He is a departmental head. A Cabinet Minister is always senior to a departmental head in position. I formed a separate party for a different purpose. I wanted freedom and to carry forward my political agenda- to oust the Rajapaksa regime. I wanted to do it in my way and that job is done now. In this country, people look at the two major parties only. People have become loyalists of these two parties for generations. It is difficult for a new party in place of the two. You can see what is happening to the JVP. The majority of people vote for these two parties. You cannot do much with a small party. The Rajapaksas have been thrown out of power now. I came to politics mainly to ensure that the Rajapaksas did not ruin this country. I have now joined a major political party. I cannot join the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Rajapaksas will not allow the SLFP to work for me. The only option available is to join the United National Party (UNP). The UNP played a major role in bringing me to politics. The UNPers appreciated me for joining their party.
Q You said the Rajapaksas are out now and said you have accomplished your target. Does it mean that you are happy with whatever position assigned to you now?
Now, we have a coalition government in place. There is collective responsibility. I cannot decide and work the way I want. There is party hierarchy to decide on certain things so as the government. I have to toe the line with them. I have to work with certain disciplinary framework. That is exactly what I am doing. But, the Rajapaksas are not yet finished. They are still trying to create problems for the government.
Q What does it mean when you say ‘not yet finished’?
We almost finished them actually. Then, this Joint Opposition or the corrupt politicians are around him and trying to bring him back. Of course, the government is responsible for leaving room for him to come back. We could have done a little bit more and taken legal action for all his abuses and corruptive activities. We are already late and have not done it properly. People expected us to expedite and are now blaming us. He is trying to raise his head again. Therefore, we still have another battle to fight.
Q When you were in the last Parliament, you said once that your father was used to left-leaning politics at that time. It means you are from a family with a leftist bent in political thinking. How comfortable are you to be with the UNP which advocates liberal economic policies?
Yes, my father was pro-left. He did political work not only with the party of Philip Gunawardane, but also with the SLFP at some stage. I did not come to politics based on my father’s political background. I started politics on my own.
Q But, how comfortable are you with the UNP policies?
I am fully in agreement with the UNP’s policies. I am not a deep rooted politician. I find the UNP political activities are very democratic and comfortable to adopt.
Q What is your stance on power devolution or power sharing?
Power sharing has to take place to a certain extent. The minorities must also feel safe in this country. When it comes to constitutional changes, we cannot take decisions as politicians, without feeling the pulse of the majority of this country. This country belongs to all ethnic groups that spread over the country. We should listen to the ideas and ascertain the sentiments of all people. We have to finalize those in the Constitution. Those are tough The grey areas which are being argued now. At some stage, you have to reach a solution. I don’t think all these could be done in a hurry.
Q To what extent do you agree with the UNP’s economic policies?
We are very clean and genuine. Both the President and the Prime Minister are not inclined to earn money, unlike the previous rulers. They are trying to pull the country out of the economic debacle that we are facing.
Q Your impression on the UNP’s leadership...
The UNP’s leadership is extremely good in its economic strategies. The leaders are doing their best and we are falling in line with them. There are certain areas such as legal matters which are not given priority at the moment. They raise queries.To revamp the country, they are doing their best.
Q There were reports that the UNP was going to give you a post in the party. At the same time, it is learnt that some others in the party are opposed to it. What is the actual situation?
There were not some; it was actually one. He is also not a very senior member of the party. He joined the UNP about a decade ago. I think you are referring to Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe... there is no secret. Everybody knows that. He is an MR loyalist. He is not happy to see I was joining the UNP. When I was offered an MP status and then a Cabinet portfolio, he said he would resign. But, never did so. Even if he leaves, I don’t think the UNP would lose much. He has objected this time as well. The UNP has informed me that it would offer me a senior position.
Q How do you compare and contrast your political career with your military career?
After retiring from the military, one becomes an ordinary citizen. Then, you can decide on. Some people go as ambassadors and/or diplomats. Some others engage in business. I decided to take a different direction because the country wanted me to contest at the 2010 polls and I agreed. As a politician, I am trying my best to fulfil the people’s aspirations.
Q In the report submitted to the UNHRC, there are eight allegations made against the military and only three against the LTTE. You were the Army Commander at that time. How do you respond to them?
The LTTE is a terrorist organization. The allegation against them is for terrorism. You can’t expect the terrorists to follow the Geneva Conventions. Obviously they committed crimes. I am trying to say that there are eight allegations against the military, only three against the LTTE. We have abided by the law of the country - the military law, Geneva Conventions etc. There could be an allegation over a minor mistake. As for a terrorist organization, everything they did was wrong.
Q There are allegations against the military for killing civilians and sexual abuse of women. What are your views?
I do not agree with the allegation of killing civilians. During the war, sexual abuse never took place. I don’t know whether there were any incidents after that. After we left, what the Army Commander did was not professional. The big intelligence personnel who were under Gotabhaya did not handle the situation professionally and their conduct was unacceptable. During the war, the Army never engaged in these kinds of malpractices. The Army never abused power nor attacked the civilian targets. We followed the conventional war. If there were one or two individuals who disobeyed our orders and committed any offence, they have to be punished. There is no question about it.
Q What is your opinion on the Office of Missing Persons Act?
That is good. That will not do any harm to the military or to the peace loving citizens. Only those retired Army officers influenced by Gotabhaya are making various comments. Only those who were writing various books to please the Rajapaksas might be behind this. There are people like Sarath Weerasekara, who was not doing national level duties. The Rajapaksas have got hold of some of those disgruntled people to make such comments. The government is looking after the military and they respect it.
Q You came to politics in 2010. Actually who approached you first?
I was not happy with the way the Rajapaksas worked, the way they were interfering with the military. After I left, the invitation came from the UNP and the JVP. First, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister Mangala Samaraweera came and had a chat with me. Then, from the JVP came Somawansa Amarasinghe, K. D. Lalkantha, Tilvin Silva and Anura Kumara Dissanayake - two at a time. We had two meetings and decided what the correct and appropriate decision that should be made.