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12 May 2014 08:07 pm - 3     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Eran Wickramaratne, a United National Party (UNP) Parliamentarian was one of the MPs who came under attack in Hambantota last month. Speaking to Dailymirror  Mr. Wickramaratne criticized the government for the cowardly act and said that the Opposition cannot be stopped by such threats and intimidation.

 

Q: You were a part of the group of UNP MPs who were attacked in Hambantota recently. Could you briefly tell me what exactly happened?

We had decided that we should go on a fact-finding mission of some of the major expenditures that the government is making. Government Ministers have often invited us to come and see these projects ourselves. So on April 17 a group of UNP MPs including myself went to visit two of the largest government investments of the recent times – the Mattala Airport and the Hambatota Port. Apart from looking at the infrastructure we also wanted to talk to the officials and the people in the area. We informed the Minister of Civil Aviation and the Chairman of Ports prior to our visit and got their approval. The officials were very welcoming and we had cordial discussions with them.


When the attack happened there were police officers present but they did nothing. It was pathetic. The police was not able to provide us the security that we needed



However, when we came out of the airport we saw a group of people who were assembled there – they were clearly an organised group and were not from the neighbourhood. They accosted some of the MPs. Somehow we managed to leave the airport and on our way to the port, we informed the Police about the incident and asked for their protection. Once at the port, we saw some Police vehicles and there were also some people gathering around the area. As we came out, three people came up to me and started questioning me and I engaged them thinking we could have a discussion. However, it turned aggressive and a whole crowd of them burst into the building. At this point, the MSD personnel decided this was not a conducive environment. As we were getting into our vehicle, the group of people attacked us. As we were pulling out of the yard, I saw a man running up with a pistol pointed. I informed the driver to get out of there immediately and we all ducked low. Another gang at the entrance attacked the vehicle with stones. Fortunately because of our MSD officers we were able to get out of there without being harmed. Subsequently I learnt that the pistol-wielding gangster was the Mayor of Hambantota.
As we were fleeing, there were some vehicles following us. After sometime, we noticed a police vehicle following us. We halted the bus and I and another MP got off the bus and tried to flag down the police vehicle but it sped off. So we lost complete trust in the police in the South.

When the attack happened there were police officers present but they did nothing. It was pathetic. The police was not able to provide us the security that we needed.


 

Q: Last Monday(5) it was revealed that four people were arrested in connection to the incident and were later bailed out. Also, the Mayor of Hambantota has not been arrested until now. Considering this, are you satisfied with the way the investigations are proceeding?

No, I am not satisfied at all. First of all, it was not until three weeks later that some action was taken. When such an incident with a criminal intent takes place – someone brandishing a gun in a high-security zone and coming after parliamentarians – an arrest should have been made immediately. When there is a delay, naturally there is a lot of speculation possible; one can tamper with the evidence. So this is totally unsatisfactory.

Then the UNP leadership decided enough is enough and we should all go to Hambantota which we did the previous Saturday(3). We demanded that the police take action and there be an arrest. Up till that point nothing had happened. However, the issue is that even after the four people were arrested subsequently they were released. Shouldn’t there have been an identification parade to identify these suspects? How could these people with criminal charges be released on bail? It looks to me like this was just a reaction to our demand. It is clear that the sprats have been taken in while the big fish have escaped. If the Magistrate was furnished with the proper information and the proper procedure was followed, this would not have happened.


If MPs are being intimidated and threatened like this, what is the security for ordinary people? This is not about us as individuals anymore; it is about the representatives of the public



Q: This attack was against Parliamentarians from the Opposition and yet next to no action has been taken to bring the perpetrators to book. Doesn’t this reflect the powerlessness and the weakness of the Opposition?

No, actually I think this incident reflects the opposite; it shows the strength of the Opposition. Firstly, we have a responsibility to see how the tax payers’ money is being used. We have shown that no matter what, we are going to investigate about public investments and make the public aware.
In fact it shows the weakness of the government, that the government is incapable of allowing the processes of justice to take its due course. It is showing the desperation of the government which is cracking up from inside. They are afraid to let the different arms of the government act independently and they are trying to thwart that.

Furthermore, if MPs are being intimidated and threatened like this, what is the security for ordinary people? That is the question. This is not about us as individuals anymore; it is about the representatives of the people both in the opposition and in the ruling party. If you are out of favour and you try to disagree, you may face the same threat. That doesn’t mean that those who are being threatened are weak. We have informed the Police and we have given them the opportunity to uphold the law, we have gone back to the city of Hambantota and we have demanded for justice, we have taken up the issue at parliament and the speaker has concurred that there is an issue of parliamentary privilege, it has been referred to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee. It is not about the individuals, it is about the principles and we are trying to make democratic institutions work. We will continue to demand that those responsible for this incident be punished and make sure that such incidents will not happen again. Ultimately, if that doesn’t happen, the people of this country will have to make a decision; that is where it is leading because ultimately it is about the people.


Q: If these perpetrators are not brought to justice, what is the next course of action?

One is that the parliamentary privileges committee will take action. Also, as parliamentarians we are not in isolation. We are part of the parliamentarians in South Asia. We are also parliamentarians of the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka is very much a part of the Commonwealth; in fact we are the Chairperson of the Commonwealth. Therefore, these international principles need to be upheld. Basically, we have allowed domestic processes to work.



Q: So, what are the findings from your visit to Hambantota which was unfortunately interrupted?

We have undertaken these trips with the objective of seeing how the public finance is used. Before we went there, we had enough information and we have questioned these investments. Clearly, there has been a major debate about the port and the airport.
On the Mattala Airport, we confirmed that it is an investment gone wrong. The capacity utilization is extremely low. Apart from the initial investment there is also an issue of ongoing expenditure. There is an issue about operations and maintenance which raises the question ‘to whom have these contracts been given and whether there is transparency in giving those contracts?’ So these are the areas that we need to look into. What this is showing is that there is indeed a lack of transparency and I speculate that maybe interested parties obstructed our work fearing that they will be exposed. We definitely should not go into Phase II of the airport.

As for the port, there is a basic economic logic behind it. But transferring economic logic into financial returns is the problem. We need to look at ways in which financial returns can be increased and how the benefits will be accrued to the people living in the area. There are lots of things that can be done which need to be carefully planned.


People think that if you are for the Open Market Policies, then you don’t consider any cultural and moral values. That is not true. Yes, we believe that the market can deliver results. But we also believe that there are services that are needed which the market cannot supply.



On route to Mattala we saw that the people in the area live in extreme poverty. They were on the side of the road with blue containers, waiting for a bowser to give them drinking water. This shows that much needs to be done in Hambantota to meet the basic needs of people. However, the current development strategy doesn’t meet the basic needs of the people and it is not in the interests of the people.



Q: Are you planning to go back to this area as well as other areas?

Yes, we will be going back to complete our report and we will also go to investigate other large investment projects. Apart from fact-finding, we will also use these trips to formulate the policy framework for the next UNP government.


























Q: Switching topics, let’s talk about these so-called “integrated resorts” projects which were approved in parliament recently. You raised the question whether there will be betting, gaming and other such facilities in these resorts. So, what have you learnt so far?

We always suspected that there were going to be casinos; investors have said that they are going to run casinos and gaming-facilities of international standards. However, the government has denied it. But out of the 161 government ministers who had to vote for the bills only 109 voted for one bill and 112 for the other. So where were the rest of them at the time of the vote? The behaviour of these government ministers and MPs has confirmed our suspicions. Then we asked the government to bring an amendment clearly stating that there will be no casinos and gaming-facilities in these premises and the government refused it, further confirming our speculations.

The government claims that this will benefit the Tourism industry. We’re saying two things about this. First, table in parliament the agreements they have made with these business tycoons. The next thing is, if you give such enormous financial benefits (tax concessions) to them, then there must be a large public benefit. So, show us the feasibility study that says that this is going to increase Tourism in this country. Be objective and let us have a look at it and see if there are economic merits which benefit the population.

Government revenue is only 11 percent of the GDP. It is the lowest revenue in the history of the country since 1948. When the government revenue falls the health sector and the education sector suffer immensely which we are experiencing in the country. Now, the government on one hand is taxing the poor person for all of his basic needs and giving enormous tax concessions to big businessmen. Where is the justice in this? We really need to know how these projects will benefit the public and not just a handful of people.

Also, taking the social and cultural aspects into consideration, all religious leaders of the country, including the Mahanayake Theras have opposed this. There are certain cultural and social values in this country and people want them upheld.


Q: But, UNP is very much in favour of the Open Market Policies and these projects go hand-in-hand with such policies. So then why is the UNP opposed to it?

I think this is a misunderstanding. People think that if you are for the Open Market Policies, then you don’t consider any cultural and moral values. That is not true. Yes, we believe that the market can deliver results. But we also believe that there are services that are needed which the market cannot supply. In such instances, government intervention is necessary. So it is a total misunderstanding that the UNP maintains that the private sector can deliver all the needs. The other thing is the economy doesn’t function in a vacuum.

 Everything is not ultimately decided on by purely economic benefits. An example of this is prostitution. It might have economic returns but it is an entirely spate question whether we should have it. So clearly, the economy functions in a certain socio-cultural context which has certain values and they need to be upheld. If the dominant view is that certain values need to be upheld, we will certainly be sensitive to that.

Pix by Kushan Pathiraja

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  • Saman Tuesday, 13 May 2014 08:16 PM

    At least the opposition is waking up now and thinking serious about the country and it's people. A joint opposition should investigate all the Mega projects and publish them to citizen.

    Das Tuesday, 13 May 2014 11:23 PM

    MPs attacked by thugs and intimidated by a politico with a handgun - this can happen only in sri lanka.
    Is thia the "Miracle of Asia"?

    Namal Perera Tuesday, 13 May 2014 12:29 PM

    Any one proud to be from this.......????


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