- Political unity vital to emerge from crisis
- President saved country from dire straits
- Fiscal responsibility must be maintained
- Difficult decisions necessary
In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, Minister of State for Defense, elaborates on critical issues concerning Sri Lanka’s security, political discourse, and economic challenges. From assessing the current security landscape to advocating for a shift towards collaborative politics, the State Minister offers his perspectives on pressing national concerns.
Q: As the Minister of State for Defence, are you satisfied with the current security situation of the country?
A: Absolutely. We must acknowledge there are aspects requiring improvement. But let us not forget the state of affairs when President Ranil Wickremesinghe and I assumed our roles. Public administration and the rule of law were in disarray. We have made significant strides in a short time, restoring that foundation. It is progress with room for growth. We have achieved much, but the journey towards a truly robust security system is ongoing. We must remain vigilant, constantly evaluating and adapting to evolving threats. There is always room for improvement in this sphere.
Q: Some time ago, the suspects who were escorted from the Kalutara prison with armed officers were killed as if it was a scene from a movie. We recently saw a similar situation in Beliatta. Don’t you think there is a significant weakness in security somewhere?
A: While any loss of life is regrettable, judging our entire security system based on isolated incidents would not be productive. It is crucial to remember the context. I understand the concern. Law enforcement, including the Police/Special Task Force (STF) and the Armed Forces, plays a vital role in upholding security. They, particularly intelligence units and the STF, contribute significantly.
However, isolated incidents should not overshadow the broader progress made. Even Western countries with vastly superior defence resources experience security incidents. While we strive for continuous improvement, comparing ourselves solely to the best-funded systems elsewhere in the world might not be the most objective measure.
We must acknowledge areas for improvement, but also recognise the vast strides taken. Let us focus on learning from incidents, strengthening our systems, and working collaboratively to ensure the safety and security of all citizens.
Q: The Opposition points to recent incidents as evidence of Government weakness and inefficiency and not just from a security angle. How do you respond?
A: We firmly reject such accusations. It is deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan politics for narratives to be divided along party lines, rarely acknowledging any good efforts. Take the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, the 30-year Northern War, the Easter Sunday attacks of April 2019, the Covid pandemic, and now the economic crisis – all moments where political and social unity could have made a crucial difference to the country. Sadly, various divisions persisted.
As representatives of young Sri Lankans, we envision a shift towards collaboration. Moving forward, we hope to navigate a more positive and productive path, prioritising national well-being above partisan interests.
Q: You have emphasized a desire to transform the present divisive political culture. What specific steps do you envision taking?
A: Change begins with conversation itself. In Parliament, I have avoided personal attacks and name-calling, even on contentious issues like the Online Safety Bill (OSB) and even on occasions when I was personally attacked. I believe responsible debate happens within the House, not in terms of media sound bites.
A senior Minister once advised me that such conduct would not garner much media attention, but I firmly believe that fostering respectful dialogue, even offline, is the foundation for a new political culture. It is not about sensationalism or public accusations, but about laying the groundwork for genuine collaboration and progress among various socio-political entities.
Q: The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and its alliance the National People’s Power (NPP) claim the Government solely relies on increased fines and taxes for revenue generation, neglecting other options. How do you respond?
A: Acknowledging past JVP activism without any personal attacks, I want to remind everyone of the challenging situation we inherited in 2022. Difficult decisions, like tax adjustments, are unpopular but sometimes necessary. Previously, they advocated for tax reductions and now they criticize the increases. No leader levies taxes arbitrarily but responsible governance requires income generation.
Q: Public concerns centre around the rising Cost of Living (COL) amidst economic challenges. What solutions are being explored to navigate the situation?
A: The Government understands the strain on citizens, particularly with the soaring COL. Addressing this requires proactive measures to prevent national bankruptcy. Sri Lanka has a comprehensive Public Service structure, offering free education from primary grades to university, subsidised essentials and housing, and guaranteed Government jobs for many graduates. While providing free healthcare and free education are core Government responsibilities, these come at a huge financial cost. Unfortunately, our nation’s income sources are limited. Even electricity generation incurs significant expenses. This underscores the complex reality we face – ensuring public wellbeing while maintaining fiscal responsibility.
Q: Critics point to inefficiencies within public institutions, like excessive overtime in the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and Sri Lanka Railways (SLR), as roadblocks to progress. How do you plan to address these challenges?
A: You have rightly identified areas requiring urgent reform. This extends beyond specific institutions – we need a fundamental shift in the system itself, including how goods are distributed within the country. We must learn from successful development models globally and adapt accordingly.
Singapore’s success wasn’t built on handouts. I have personally witnessed senior citizens actively contributing in their workforce. There is a collective understanding that individual efforts contribute to national progress. Even essential services like free ambulance services carry associated costs. Simply put, income generation is critical, and we must explore all avenues responsibly.
Initiating change often requires difficult choices. For instance, I identified overstaffing within the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) and managed to streamline operations by reducing 104 personnel. While labour unions challenged this, sometimes tough decisions are necessary for long-term betterment. We cannot let such obstacles impede essential reforms.
Q: The United States, several other countries and Internet companies have expressed concerns regarding the recent passage of the OSB, which has now been signed into law. How would you respond to these concerns?
A: The OSB is a domestic policy measure implemented to address internal concerns. While freedom of speech is enshrined in our Constitution, certain limitations should exist to ensure responsible expression.
Imagine walking down the street with a stick; you cannot swing it in someone’s face.
This analogy reflects the boundaries established by the OSB. Only 25 countries lacked similar regulations before its implementation in Sri Lanka. Recently, tech giants in the US apologised for the harm they have caused to children and women through their platforms.
Q: The newly elected Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader, S. Shritharan, has advocated for a separate administration for the North and the East. How do you view this proposal?
A: It is crucial to remember that past insurgencies, including those led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, Rohana Wijeweera, and Saharan, involved citizens with equal rights to live in our nation. The issue does not lie there.
However, a concerning trend exists. Some Northern politicians who live comfortably in the South, attending social events and interacting freely, suddenly adopt a different persona upon returning to the North. These political manoeuvres, driven by party needs, serve only to further divide a nation already grappling with past conflicts.
In our small country, further division offers no benefit. We, as Sri Lankans, must collectively govern for the well-being of all. Sadly, some political leaders prioritise their own careers over national unity, resorting to divisive rhetoric solely to maintain their political standing among their voters.
Q: Speculation is rife regarding party endorsements in the upcoming Presidential Election. Can you share your personal stance on which candidate you might support?
A: While the final decision regarding party endorsements rests with the official channels, I believe it is crucial to reflect on the significant progress we have made under the current administration. Remember the past: 16-hour blackouts, fuel queues lasting days, and inflation exceeding 98 percent. Sri Lanka mirrored Lebanon, where inflation currently stands at over 256 percent. Thankfully, we have brought it down to single digits in our country.
The credit for navigating this challenging period goes to President Wickremesinghe. He should not forget the dire straits he inherited – Parliament surrounded by mobs, President’s House occupied by mobs, a fleeing former President, a dismantled legal system, and a crumbling administration.
He took the reins amidst personal threats, yet chose to maintain security personnel, demonstrating continuity and trust.
The rule of law was upheld by empowering these very officers.
Today, we have fuel, gas, and electricity – essential resources for any nation. Based on this significant progress and commitment to stability, I personally believe that continuing the current President’s term through an election would be a very sound decision.
Translated by Dinuli Francisco