10 January, 2021

Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said the country’s airports will be opened for commercial passenger flights from January 21 in keeping with the new guidelines issued by the health authorities. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said at present over three million people who are dependent on tourism have faced severe hardships due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation. We should assist them to recommence their businesses and we can’t allow the collapse of the industry. Therefore, we should open the country for tourists by strictly adhering to health guidelines. The Minister said amid the Covid-19 outbreak, the Government has been able to successfully manage the economy and is far ahead when compared with some powerful countries that have advanced economies and health facilities.

Q: Have two Ukraine tourists tested positive for Covid-19 made any adverse effect on the Government’s program to officially open airports for commercial passenger transportation from January 21?

A: Bringing those Ukraine tourists was launched as a pilot project. After two Ukrainian tourists tested positive for Covid-19, we have been systematically managing the situation and they have not interacted with any others. Therefore, there is no possibility of spreading the Covid-19 virus to the local community.

These tourists will visit places countrywide through a travel bubble so that they will not interact with the society. Each flight that brings in Sri Lankan expatriates to the country has around seven to eight percent of Covid-19 cases.

However, we have not stopped these flights to the country. Only two Ukrainian tourists who came to Sri Lanka under the pilot project have tested positive for Covid-19. They have been isolated from the others and precautionary measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus to other tourists.

We would definitely open the airports for commercial passenger flights from January 21. We have already received the new guidelines issued by the health authorities in this regard.

Q: The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) alleges that the Government is attempting to create a third wave of Covid-19 by bringing Ukrainian tourists to Sri Lanka. Would you like to comment on this?

A: During the past several months tourists were not brought to the country. However, we were not able to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the country because of that.

That is the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and at present this has become a global phenomenon. We cannot close the country for so long due to the prevailing situation.

At present over three million people who are dependent on tourism have faced severe hardships. We should assist them to recommence their businesses and we can’t allow the collapse of the industry. We should open the country for tourists, strictly adhering to health guidelines.

We didn’t only invite Ukrainians, the Government made an open invitation to all charter flights to come to Sri Lanka.

However, tourists in most countries were reluctant to come on charter flights owing to the prevailing health guidelines that includes a 14-day mandatory quarantine period. Having considered these practical issues faced, we requested the Health Ministry to review this situation and provide some solutions.

Therefore, new guidelines have been issued with the approval of the Health Ministry and the Covid-19 Committee to officially open our airports for commercial passenger flights from January 21.

When Ukrainian tourists are willing to visit Sri Lanka, we cannot ask them not to come. We welcome tourists from any country. However, if the Covid-19 Committee instructs us not to bring tourists from any specified countries, we will agree to that as well.

When we waged the battle against terrorism, the then United National Party (UNP) led opposition made such statements. However, we successfully won the battle against the terrorists.

Once the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, similar statements were made by the Opposition saying that the Government has failed to govern the country.

Amid the Covid-19 situation, we have been able to successfully manage the economy and we are far ahead when compared with some powerful countries which have advanced economies and health facilities. When the country is opened for tourists, we would follow the necessary health guidelines.

Actually, we have to do this by facing the ongoing situation. If the hotels are not following the guidelines, steps will be taken to cancel their licences while the tour guides who do not adhere to the guidelines will also be discharged from their duties.

The travel agencies which bring tourists to Sri Lanka should also strictly adhere to the health guidelines. If they fail to do so, they will be strictly dealt with. At present, both the Health and Covid-19 regulations will be implemented to take action in this regard.

Q: As the former Western Province Chief Minister what is your view on the Provincial Council system? Do you think the PCs should continue or be abolished?

A: My personal view is that Police and land powers are not necessary for Provincial Councils. However, PCs are needed to continue the country’s administration. Since its inception, a series of work has been done by the PCs.

Even today the people have joined hands with me due to the work fulfilled as the then WPC Chief Minister. There would be no advantage if the PCs are abolished. If the public servants attached to the PCs are removed, it would become a burden to the central government to pay their salaries. It would only reduce the payment of salaries and other allowances to provincial councillors.

Of the total amount of Capital and Recurrent expenditure of the PCs, this would be a very minimum percentage. The provincial councillors also fulfil a large amount of work.

For example, when the Negombo hospital was under the purview of the WPC and I was the then Health Minister, it had only four doctors and less than 50 nurses where 750 babies were born per month at the maternity unit of the hospital.

At that time when 1,500 babies were born at the Castle Hospital per month, it had 26 doctors and over 200 nurses. When we look at it from that perspective, the expenditure of the provincial council hospitals is very much less than the central Government managed hospitals. The same thing applies to provincial councils and central Government schools.

I think the PCs are very important to continue the administration work of the country. If we are against the word ‘Provincial Councils’, there should be an alternative for us in between the central Government and the Local Government institutions.

Until such a mechanism is introduced, PC elections should be held without any delay. When we were in the opposition, we made a big hue and cry against the Yahapalana Government regarding the postponement of Local Government and PC elections.

The former Government deliberately postponed the PC elections as they feared electoral defeat. We are a group who clamoured to conduct elections without any delay when we were in the opposition. After we came to power, if we attempt to postpone elections, I am opposed to that. I am of the view that PC elections should be held without any delay.

Q: The Maha Sangha and certain sections of the society say the Provincial Councils which have faced a natural death should not be reactivated. Your comments?

A: This is only one ideology and one particular group is behind it. As those who worked in PCs with experience, we know PCs have strengthened the administrative process. It is true that the PC system was introduced to the country by force and we opposed it at that time. However, if the PCs are abolished, there should be an alternative between the central Government and the local government institutions.

A teacher in Badulla can now go to the Central Provincial Council and get his work done. If the Provincial Councils are not there, a teacher in the Central province should come to Colombo to seek a solution to his/her problem.

If the Zonal Education Offices are there, the same thing would happen. If the PCs are abolished, then serious issues may crop up in the administrative sector. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to rectify the shortcomings in the PCs to suit the present day needs until a new mechanism is introduced through a new constitutional amendment.

Q: Will the Government be able to reach the targets of Saubhagyaye Dekma policy statement amid the challenges of Covid-19?

A: We would not be able to reach all the targets this year. I don’t think any country would be able to achieve all their targets. However, we have some specified targets and we are trying our best to achieve them.

We don’t know as to how this Coronavirus would behave in the future and it is changing rapidly.

All countries are adopting various precautionary measures to face the pandemic. We don’t know how we would be able to control this in our country. However, we should implement the Covid-19 prevention programs without causing any hindrance to the development work. Amid the challenge of the second wave of Covid-19, we believe we would be able to reach our targets.

Q: How do you view the comments by some Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwarts that they are given step-motherly treatment by the Government?

A: Earlier consensus was reached at several rounds of discussions held between the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP) and the SLFP. In addition to that, we can’t give anything sought by the SLFP. Anybody is free to make their criticism and we don’t have any issue regarding that.

The Government is represented by many political parties, not only the SLFP. Therefore, we should act in a very fair manner without causing discrimination to any constituent party in the Government. We cannot give any special treatment to the SLFP. I am not going to comment on what former President and SLFP Leader Maithripala Sirisena says. The entire country is well aware of what he did during his tenure in office. He was one of the key reasons for the present economic downfall of the country. The former President and the SLFP have joined hands with us and we can’t say what we said in the past was not true. Even today the people believe in what we said in the past. The SLFP may have issues to take up and they are free to express their views.

However, there is a lot of contradiction in some of the views expressed by former President Sirisena.

Q: The position taken by the main Opposition SJB and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the Muslim burial issue. Is it an attempt to gain cheap political mileage at this moment? Your comments?

A: Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his group attempt to take the Muslim community towards the direction of promoting racism. On the other hand, the TNA is also propagating racist sentiments among Muslims. That is how they always survive politically.

Even today they are adopting the same strategy. Another group is also used to speak to the Sinhala Buddhist ideology. The SJB is a political party which doesn’t have one particular vision or policy. They are trying their best to come to power by rousing religious and racist sentiments among the communities.

At present over three million people engaged in the tourism sector have been seriously affected due to the prevailing Covid-19 situation. These three million people represent various political parties. As the SJB cannot directly attack those who have engaged in the tourism industry sector, they make issues on two Ukrainian tourists that tested positive for Covid-19 and the Sri Lankan expatriates issue to sabotage the Government’s program to bring tourists to the country. However, the entrepreneurs in the tourism sector are aware about this.

Q: Unless the TNA sheds its separatist sentiments and cooperates with the Government at least to improve the livelihood of their people, will it be able to ensure voter confidence?

A: The TNA being in the then opposition and stakeholders of the Yahapalana Government went to the international community to speak against the Rajapaksas. They went to the North to only rouse racial sentiments among the people.

However, the intelligent people in the North realised the TNA’s hidden agenda and they gave a scathing attack to their vote base at the last General Election. Becoming the stakeholders of the Yahapalana Government, the TNA obtained all perks and privileges during the past five years, but they didn’t pass on any benefits to their people in the North. After the battle against terrorism in 2009, our Government did a lot of work up to 2015 through the ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ and Negenhira Navodaya’ programs to develop the Northern and Eastern provinces. Railway lines was renovated and extended up to Jaffna. Our Government opened avenues to bring the agriculture and other products of the Jaffna people to Colombo. Schools were re-opened and the teachers in the Western Province were deployed to improve the education of the children in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The road network in those areas were developed. After receiving perks and privileges from the Yahapalana Government, the TNA didn’t do anything on behalf of their people during the past five years. The TNA should be concerned to improve the livelihood of their people rather than attempting to realise their petty political objectives.

Q: Do you think the ongoing Presidential Commission to investigate the Easter Sunday attacks would be able to bring the culprits to book?

A: The Presidential Commission fulfills the task based on the information received by seeking the instructions from the Police and the Attorney General’s Department. I am not aware whether a Presidential Commission is empowered to resort to legal actions or not.

However, a Commission can investigate and submit its recommendations to initiate legal actions. I think after that the Government will take necessary legal action. The Yahapalana Government appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee to whitewash those who are allegedly responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks. At present the President has appointed a special Commission to probe into this incident and the people are giving evidence before it without any fear. I think these evidences would be sufficient to take action against the culprits in the near future.