I am a pure SLFPer, and will not join any other party- Labour Minister, WDJ Seneviratne | Sunday Observer

I am a pure SLFPer, and will not join any other party- Labour Minister, WDJ Seneviratne

Two senior members of the Cabinet recently locked horns over the reported proposal to appoint former Army Commander and Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to head a special unit allegedly to control unruly demonstrations and trade union action.

The news, first announced by Cabinet spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, stirred up a hornet’s nest, with trade unionists threatening to take to the streets in mass protests against the alleged decision.

A subsequent clarification by Labour Minister John Seneviratne created further furore with Minister Senaratne resorting to publicly accuse the Labour Minister of having secret allegiance to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, saying he is poised to leave the Government in two months.

The comments reverberated at the ensuing Cabinet meeting with the SLFP members condemning the remarks. In an interview with the Sunday Observer Minister Seneviratne shot down allegations that he is about to become a turncoat. However, he said he would support any democratic moves to ensure an SLFP government in the future.

“We are not going to be in this unity government forever, it was never the intention. If one thinks so, I must say he is highly mistaken,” the Minister said.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. There seems to be a tussle between you and your co-Cabinet Member Minister Rajitha Senaratne. Don’t you think that such behaviour contributes to strain the unity of the Unity Government?

A. Exactly. That is not a conflict among members of the government. A senior cabinet member must act with a sense of responsibility. Minister Senaratne was commenting on a statement I made to the press recently. There I clarified a matter that the suggestion on Minister Sarath Fonseka was made in lighter vein by the President. It was not a serious comment. The President’s comment was misinterpreted.

Minister Rajitha at a subsequent Cabinet briefing converted this comment into a serious statement. Union leaders were agitated as a result. Some trade union leaders contacted me and queried whether the President would do that.

As Labour Minister, I was answerable to them. They expressed deep concern and asked if a person of the calibre of Sarath Fonseka was to be appointed as the head of a unit to quell worker agitations.

Later, I met the President to clarify the matter. There I got the impression that the President had not been serious about his comments on Fonseka.

I clarified the whole matter to the media. Minister Senaratne has got offended over the comments I made.

If he did not agree with me, he should have raised it at the next Cabinet meeting. We meet in the Cabinet once a week, instead of raising it in the Cabinet which is the proper forum, he accused me at the (UNP) May Day rally.

Q. Do you think this will be the swan song for the unity government?

A. If senior members of the SLFP are targeted like this, naturally it will be the dawn of the extinction for the unity government. What right has he to question me? A person who has changed parties like changing pillows, is talking about my loyalties. I am a pure SLFPer.

I have no hope of leaving. I will remain an SLFPer and will not join any other party even if the SLFP is reduced to the Opposition.

He has a history of accusing, blaming and criticizing every leader of every political party that he served. On the contrary, I can boast of an honorable political career.

Q. You deny the accusation that you have planted one leg in the government and the other one firmly in the MR camp?

A. I am in the government and as long as I am in the unity government I will work sincerely. I will not have double standards. He claimed that I am poised to join Mahinda Rajapaksa in two months.

I don’t know from where he got this piece of information. I must make it clear that we are in the SLFP. I have never walked out of the party. Our ultimate aim is to ensure an SLFP government. Not even once have we deviated from that idea.

We are not going to be in this unity government forever, it was never the intention. If one thinks so, I must say that he is highly mistaken. Even at the outset, the understanding was to have the freedom to break away, improve the party and propagate each others’ party policy.

Q. The unity government was initially formed to defeat former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, that was the understanding ?

A. No, the unity government was formed subsequent to the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The government was formed in September 2015. Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated on January 8, 2015.

Q. So you say the majority of SLFP members yearn to see the government faction of the blue party joining forces with the MR faction?

A. A majority of SLFPers feel that these two factions must get together. And they also feel, the two leaders, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena must stand together, only then would the SLFP be brought back to power to form their own government. If not it is very unlikely that we will regain power.

Q. But, Minister Rajitha Senaratne expressed a different view. He says the Unity government must continue even beyond 2020?

A. That is his personal opinion. We, SLFPers do not subscribe to his opinion. What authority, what right has Minister Rajitha Senaratne to speak on behalf of the SLFP?

Q. Did the President or Prime Minister make any comments after his statement accusing you of being an MR stooge?

A. My information is that the President is not happy about Minister Rajitha’s views. He is very much disturbed and in fact he has already tendered an apology.

I have been told that the Prime Minister too does not share his views. UNP General Secretary Malik Samarawickrema issued a statement disapproving the comments made by Ministers Senaratne and Sarath Fonseka. Even Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera had expressed displeasure. Several Ministers at the Cabinet, including UNP Ministers personally expressed regret over these remarks.

Q. You said the SLFP must join forces at the 2020 election, any official discussions to that effect between the two factions?

A.There are no plans as such. But what is necessary is to get these two factions together.

That is very essential in the interest of the SLFP. There are isolated discussions but I think some serious discussions will have to commence soon.

Q. Has the President expressed his personal view on this?

A. The President is not against unity. He also expects to set up an SLFP government in the future. In order to achieve that target, he understands that the unity of these two factions is necessary.

Q. Minister Senaratne also accused that ‘conspirators’ within the Unity government ensure impunity for leaders of the previous Government ?

A. As far as I am concerned we are not conspirators, we will not plot against the government. But we will embark on a political campaign to strengthen the party and win the next election, it is not plotting.

We are entitled to engage in politics that uphold the interests of our party.

No one can deprive us of that freedom. The SLFP is a democratic party. We will not conspire to topple the Government through undemocratic means.