UNP, no challenge to SLPP led alliance - Minister Bandula Gunawardana | Sunday Observer

UNP, no challenge to SLPP led alliance - Minister Bandula Gunawardana

Cabinet Spokesman and Information and Mass Media, Higher Education, Technology and Innovation Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardana said even if the UNP with its constituent parties come together or if there is no crisis whatsoever in the UNP, there would not certainly be a threat or danger to the SLPP led broad political alliance.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said last time, UNP heavyweights, such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and all others joined hands to campaign for the Presidential Election. In the end, they had to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the voter. It proved that the UNP led alliance was not in a position to run an efficient Government. In a democratic country, it is a fact that there needs to be a strong Opposition and as such there should be a strong UNP to ensure a healthy democracy in the country. Unfortunately, there is no consensus among the Opposition parties which are replete with various conflicts. Consequently, after the next General Election, Opposition MPs in large numbers would cross over to the Government giving more than a two-thirds majority to strengthen the President’s development program.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. What is your opinion of the new alliance with Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena as its leaders? Will this arrangement enable the Government to secure a two-thirds majority at the forthcoming election?

A. It is not only former President Maithripala Sirisena, this new alliance is a unity of all patriotic forces who are loyal to the country and do not succumb to any international pressure and also won’t give in to extremism. The SLPP under the Pohottuwa symbol gives the leadership to the alliance. The SLFP is one of the main stakeholders of the alliance. Former President Maithripala Sirisena is also there. MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena, PHU Leader Uadaya Gammanpila, NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa, LSSP Leader Prof. Tissa Vitharana, CP Leader D.E.W. Gunasekara, Leaders of the Desha Vimukthi Janatha Party, CWC Leader Arumugam Thondaman, National Congress Leader A.L.M. Athaullah and several others parties are also included in the alliance.

This is a broad political alliance to give strength within the legislature to implement President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plan, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”. Now, the country is virtually divided into two groups. One is the unity of patriotic forces who love the country, don’t succumb to international forces or extremism and repose firm confidence in the national resources and the people. The other camp represents those who are committed to international agendas, sympathetic to extremists and give prominence to their political party at the cost of the country. However, this is made up of a small group with only a marginal support, if any.

Q. Are you all ready for the General Election which is likely to be held in April?

A. The people’s wish is for an entirely new political culture rather than the same set up. Surely this time the people would cast their vote by deviating from the traditional political framework paying scant regard to high commodity prices, cost of living and providing jobs. The people think that this is the last opportunity to rebuild the country. This time the people won’t behave in the same old fashion as they did over the past 72 years since independence.

During the past few months, no fraud was reported in the state sector and the state power has not been abused at all. Ministers have not spent millions for their media shows. Our political rivals also admit that the Government attempts to do something for the country in a simple and modest manner. Ours is a new political culture. That is why the youth have come forward to re-cultivate the abandoned paddy fields and draw paintings on walls. Despite attempts by the saboteurs, majority of the people are with the Government.

This is an unprecedented change witnessed in the recent past. The people have realised that the wrong picture created by the political rivals about President Rajapaksa is completely wrong. The Opposition attempted to create a bad image of President Rajapaksa. However, the people categorically rejected those claims and gave 6.9 million votes to the President, highest ever obtained by a President. We hope this time the people would give more votes to strengthen the President’s hand than the previous time to take forward his action plan.

Q. Do you think the UNP’s current struggle over symbol, leadership and alliance will be an advantage for the SLPP led alliance?

A. We don’t think so. If all the UNP forces unite as one or even if there is no crisis in the UNP, it won’t have any impact on us. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and all others joined hands and campaigned for the Presidential Election. Finally, they had to suffer a humiliating defeat. It is not only the UNP but also other parties such as TNA and SLMC also rallied round under one banner and contested the Presidential Election, but they had to face a huge electoral defeat. From 2015 to 2020, all sectors, such as agriculture, industries and services collapsed and the rupee was depreciated, while the supremacy of law faced a severe setback. In addition, education, health, housing and community services were at a standstill. That was a “barren period” of five years to be recorded in history.

That proved the UNP led alliance was not in a position to run a Government. I believe that there should be a strong UNP to ensure a healthy democracy. In a democratic country, it is a fact that there needs to be a strong Opposition.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus among the Opposition. It is going ahead with a lot of conflicts. As a result after the next General Election, many Opposition MPs would cross over to the Government giving more than a two-thirds majority to strengthen the President’s development program.

Q. Will there be a struggle for nominations in your alliance as it seems that intellectuals and professionals will be at the losing end in this process as you pick popular candidates? What is your comment on this?

A. If any newcomer contests the election, that would not have any impact on any popular political figure. Somehow, the people will vote for the Pohottuwa. The voters can cast three preferential votes. They will decide who should be sent to Parliament. After giving an opportunity for those who had a decent political conduct, the next opportunity will be given to newcomers to contest the election. The people have an understanding to elect the suitable candidates. Former Yahapalanaya Government thought that all public servants would vote for them as they increased their salaries, but it all ended in tragedy!

Q. There are fears that the defeated candidates will once again be accommodated through the National List again. Can you give an assurance that this will not happen?

A. That would not happen at all. A new political culture is emerging under the leadership of President Rajapaksa. The same old mistakes occurred in the past will not repeat again under the incumbent Government.

Q. How do you look at the stance by the main Opposition UNP in not supporting the Rs. 367 billion Supplementary Estimate which was to be presented in Parliament by the Government on February 20?

A. No financial crisis will occur in the country as this Supplementary Estimate was not approved in Parliament. There is no financial crisis which prevents the Government continuing its business. In contrast, the Government will not be able to settle all outstanding bills of the contractors during the tenure of previous Government. According to the Public Finance Management Accountability Act, it appears that unwarranted expenditure exceeding the budgetary limits has been incurred without being covered by due approval or supplementary estimates. Although the Government has obtained services, suppliers have not been paid their dues. There are instances where some contractors had even commit suicide as their dues had not been settled. They have been blacklisted and their properties sold by the banks. In terms of the reports of the Auditor General, disciplinary action will be taken against those who had approved expenditure erroneously. However, after the General Election, the Government would present a full Budget for the remaining period.

Q. What is the Government’s stance on the UNHRC resolution 30/1 moved during the Yahapalanaya Government?

A. Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera on behalf of the UNP co-sponsored this resolution at the UNHRC with the backing of the USA to betray our War Heroes even without the knowledge of the then President Maithripala Sirisena. Right from the beginning, the Maha Sangha, other religious leaders and party leaders of the then Joint Opposition and its supporters vehemently opposed the resolution. By this resolution, they attempted to brand our War Heroes who rescued the country from the clutches of terrorism as war criminals and bring in international war tribunals to hear those cases. The USA which co-sponsored the resolution quit the UNHRC by describing it as a “cesspool of political bias”. At that time, the Sri Lankan Government should have also withdrawn. If the stakeholder USA quits, the Sri Lankan Government didn’t do so because they followed their usual pro-West policy and they had also succumbed to the pressure of extremists. That is why the Government didn’t withdraw from that resolution. President Rajapaksa assumed office by giving assurance to safeguard the motherland without letting international agreements which are not favourable to the country.

At Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Cabinet of Ministers unanimously endorsed the proposal that Sri Lanka should withdraw from the UNHRC resolution 30/1. Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena submitted the proposal to Parliament on Thursday. Representing a sovereign and independent country, Foreign Affairs Minister Gunawardena will explain the facts to the UNHRC in fulfilling the aspirations of our people. This doesn’t mean that we would not act with the UNHRC. Neither do we stop some of the initiatives taken by them to promote reconciliation.

The reconciliation process would further continue, but we would withdraw from the resolution which is unfavourable to our country. We hope to go to the UNHRC and muster the support of our friendly SAARC countries, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and some other countries who see the adverse impact of the UNHRC resolution.

Q. What is your view of the USA travel ban on Army Commander Shavendra Silva when all political parties apart from the TNA have outright condemned it?

A.The TNA welcoming the travel ban on the Army Commander shows their racist and extremist sentiments. Except the TNA, all Government and Opposition political parties have vehemently condemned the USA travel ban on the Army Commander and his family. It is only the TNA and other extremist organisations which don’t do so. Extremism will not bring anything to the country or people and even to those who promote it.

We should stand by the country by rejecting extremism in whatever form. Foreign Affairs Minister Gunawardena who called on the US Ambassador to his Ministry said that it is not a justifiable move and requested the Ambassador to report to the US authorities to lift the travel ban as this would lead to damage the mutual relations between the two countries. In a way, it is justifiable for certain sections of the people to think that former Minister Mangala Samaraweera, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike and activist Nimalka Fernando had provided information to the USA which ultimately imposed the travel ban on the Army Commander.

Q. The Opposition alleges that the Government has not passed down the benefit of the reduced fuel prices in the World Market to the consumers. Your comments?

A. When the World fuel prices have dropped, we cannot in turn reduce our fuel prices. Although the fuel prices went up in the World Market, the Government still continued to supply fuel to the consumers by incurring losses. The losses incurred by the Government institutions are not usually borne by the President, Prime Minister or the Ministers themselves! The loss has to be borne by the people. Any temporary relief measures by the state institutions will reflect as a burden on the people. Demands for salary increases will similarly have to be paid from the payers’ money.

Q. There are allegations that the Government has not controlled the rising cost of living and afford relief to the public through the announced tax cuts. Is there any truth in this?

A. When the country and the rice production had been weakened by the previous regime, how can we immediately bring down the rising cost of living? Rice prices cannot be reduced within days after a new Government comes to power. When former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa introduced a program to increase the agriculture production countrywide, these very same politicians in the Opposition criticised it. However, those days people could buy food at relatively low prices as the supply was high and the commodity prices were much cheaper. The former Government giving up former Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s program imported everything to the country. Today, prices of local and foreign commodities have gone up. It will take some time to reverse the situation.

Q. Have you planned to bring in a new Broadcasting Act to liberalise the state media?

A. We hold the view that the state media should be permitted to run freely without intervention. However, there should be a regulation to ensure a high quality, ethical media culture. The South Korean society was subjected to a severe setback due to unbridled freedom enjoyed by the media. As a result, the Korean Government formulated some standards to handle the media. Today, there is a strong media network in Korea. We have given freedom to the state media to provide opportunity to the political opponents as well to express their views without resorting to mudslinging. For example, when we were in the Opposition, a single interview of mine was not carried in state newspapers.

The UNP should realise that they inherit a form of dictatorial and fascist nature of not providing any room to the opposition to air their views. These days though I am the Minister in charge of the media I have not exerted any influence to give publicity or prominence to this man’s or that man’s news or not to publish a particular person’s news.