4th June 2000
By Shelani de Silva
Some Sinhala groups believe that Minister Mahinda Rajapakse possesses the leadership potential the country requires today. Recently, the Malwatte Chapter conferred on him the Sri Rohana Janaranjana title, recognising his services to the nation. Though he maintains a low profile, he is no stranger to controversies. His recent comments casting reservations about Norway's role as a facilitator have caused some ripples in political circles.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Times he said India would make a better facilitator than Norway.
Q: You are said to be critical of Norway's role as a facilitator. What are your views?
A: An Asian country is better suited to be a facilitator than a Western country. We can look upon India. Even Norway consults India every time its delegates come here. All this shows that India is an important actor. I have reservations about Norway because there is evidence that Oslo sympathises with the LTTE. Anton Balasignham was helped to seek treatment, the Norwegian official who is involved in the peace talks has openly got involved in LTTE activities. Judging from the past experience we don't need a western country as a facilitator.
Q: What are your views on the political package?
A: What we mean by the Political package is amending the constitution. These changes should come with the consensus of all parties.
Q: Do you think the political package will be presented in parliament before the elections?
A: Yes. This is the government's policy. The President wants to see that the amendments are presented in parliament as soon as a consensus is reached with other parties.
Q: The government strategy appears to be that a political solution should be sought while weakening the LTTE militarily. In this regard, the government has launched a major recruitment drive. What can you do to help this effort in the South?
A: It is a bit difficult, because we carried out a massive campaign against the war. We called upon for talks, and end to violence. The situation has changed suddenly. People will join the Army, once they feel that we can win this war.
Q: What are your views on censorship ?
A:It is true people should enjoy fully their right to information. But in a war situation, where certain military information could pose a threat to National Security, the right should be curtailed. I feel that if editors themselves take the responsibility, then it won't happen.
Q: But the present censorship does not limit to war reporting. It even prohibits criticism against the Government?
A: I don't think so. The President has been clear about this. She told the Cabinet that only militarily sensitive news should be censored. Otherwise, anything can be written. Even criticisms against the President. That is the criterion. Censoring non-military reports is not the Government's intention. It is the work of some officials.
Q: Last week the Competent Authority censored an interview given by you to a foreign newspaper ?
A: I am not bothered about it. With the globalisation and the new information technology people have access to all avenues of news. They have only to click on the Internet and they get the uncensored version. Censorship has little effect on dissemination of news.
Q: How did ministers react when it was decided to impose the censorship ?
A: It was not discussed at the Cabinet. It is essentially a presidential prerogative. None of us objected to it .
Q: Your views on the escalating cost of living ?
A: I agree that the cost of living is very high. The Government wants to subsidise several commodities. Take for instance gas. The government has paid millions of rupees to the Shell company to keep the price low. Even at Thursday's Cabinet meeting, ministers discussed this and wanted the Government to pay subsidies to the company once again to keep the price low. The Government is planning to subsidise at least 50 percent of the hike.
Q: It appears that the government has little control over Shell's decision to increase gas prices. Is there any mechanism to control it so that the consumers would be benefited?
A: The Government should not have given the monopoly to Shell. We should have allowed competition.
Q: What about the price increases of other essential commodities and services?
A: Ours is an unfortunate situation. Neither the farmer nor the consumer benefits. The farmer does not get a good price for his produce though the consumer pays a high price when he buys his requirements. it is the middle man who benefits.
I feel that the Government should intervene, though some may say in an open economy it should not be so. But such concepts won't suit a developing country. We can't afford to have an economy like in the United States, Europe or Japan. The Government has to set up a corporation to buy the products, to give the farmer as well as a consumer a good price. The Government should intervene.
Q : Your comments on the recent increase in electricity, telephone and water rates. These increases were made without no corresponding salary increases.
A: The Government is planning to increase salaries. The cost of living occurs due to several reasons. It largely depends on the world prices. It is the same for electricity.
Q: A general election is to be held later this year. Have you begun your campaign in the South?
A: From the time we came to office, we have been building up our campaign. We are not having anything new. We are ready for an election at any time. We are doing our normal campaign, visiting electorates and carrying out development work. We are in touch with the people.
Q: It is clear that the constituent parties of the People's Alliance are not satisfied with the Government's performance. Do you think the alliance partners will stick together?
A: It is true some of them have certain demands. But then we are holding talks with party leaders to sort out issues. I don't think they will back off from the People's Alliance.
Q: How do you assess the strength of the main Opposition UNP?
A: The UNP is very weak. It has missed out many an opportunity to come out and agitate. But it does not have clout. When we were in the opposition, every time something came up we agitated.
Q: Are you satisfied with your position in the Government ?
A: Human nature is such that no one is satisfied. This is what Buddha preached. There are no limitations for one's expectations. In my case I am not bothered, I am a minister. I do my work whichever ministry I am given. I am satisfied.
CWC deputy leader R. Yogarajan says the party will not resort to strike action to win demands of the estate workers but will state non-provocative methods of protests in view of the present situation in the country.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: The late CWC leader, Saumyamoorthy Tondaman played a key role in peace efforts, by making various recommendations. What is the party's position today?
A: The CWC has always held the view that peace can return only if the Government comes to an agreement on power sharing. Genuine power sharing is the desire of the Tamil people.
The government and the LTTE have accepted Norway's offer as facilitator. All avenues for a discussion must be pursued. War is no solution to the problem.
Q: At a time when the country is facing a crisis situation, the CWC is planning prayer meeting delays which are in a sense mini strikes. Your comments?
A: The idea of prayer meeting is not new. This is no strike because the workers will attend work. The CWC and the workers have been patient. The salary revision was due in January. It is now June. We have had several rounds of discussions. But no agreement has been reached. We have been compelled to use methods of non provocative protest to express our displeasure.
Q: Does not the CWC acknowledge that the Government has looked into problems such as housing, education and employment?
A: We acknowledge that the government has done a better job than any previous government.
Q: Some say the CWC's strength is eroding. Your comments.
A: Since the death of our great leader, the estate people feel the need to strengthen and preserve the unity of the CWC. The membership numbers have displayed a marked growth in the last four months since December 1999. This propaganda may be the wishful thinking of some people who envied the CWC and hoped that it would collapse with the demise of our great leader.
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