National Freedom Front (NFF) leader and Government Minister Wimal Weerawansa has issued an ultimatum to the Government on several issues and warned in no uncertain terms that he will not hesitate to leave the Government if the concerns of and proposals by the NFF are not taken seriously.
By Camelia Nathaniel
Q: What was the outcome of the meeting you had with President Mahinda Rajapaksa regarding the 12 point proposal the NFF forwarded to him?
A: We presented our set of proposals to the President and explained why we had taken this stance. We believe that the government needs to reposition itself according to the current political and social challenges. We see the 12 points in our proposals as a measure to determine the readiness and stand of the government in order to reposition itself. We have also explained to the President about the importance of repositioning the government and the implications if we do not do so. This is solely for the purpose of strengthening the government in order to face the challenges posed by external forces and not a stance to weaken the government.
The president assured us that he would hold discussions regarding the proposals with senior SLFP members and get back to us. Therefore we are waiting to see what the outcome of the discussion will be.
Q: There are allegations that this whole exercise is a public drama by you and that no matter what the government decides you will never leave the government. What do you have to say regarding these charges in order to defend yourself?
A: If this is a drama, in 2000 the JVP severely opposed and criticized the then Chandrika Kumaratunga regime, but later did a complete about turn and went in for an interim pact with her with the intention of remaining with her for a year. However things did not work out and the pact fell apart in a month because the cabinet was reduced to 25. The JVP expected an election to be held after one year, but the plan failed. The JVP at the time chose not to take that option of supporting Ranil, not because they believed that Chandrika was the best choice at the time, but because they believed that if Ranil had come into power it would be more harmful to the country. Therefore if they are saying that what we are doing is a drama, then what they did at that time was also a drama.
What we are doing today is the same thing the JVP was doing then in order to save the country from harmful forces, but on a different platform. If forces within the government are working to destabilize the country then someone has to stop them, otherwise no one can avert a major disaster. If the government does not make the required changes, whether we like it or not none can prevent the rise of sinister forces from even within the government. Thereafter there is no point in blaming the voters. That is why we are calling for the repositioning of the government to prevent such a situation from arising. So, how can this move be classified as a drama?
Q: The President has said that he will discuss the proposals by the NFF with senior SLFP members and get back to you. Have you specified a timeframe for the government to make its decision and revert?
A: No we have not specified a definite timeframe, but if we feel that it is being dragged on for months on end without being addressed, then we will not just sit back and accept that either. We cannot make any judgments yet as it is only at the second meeting that all matters pertaining to the proposal will be discussed. It is only then that we will be able to clearly ascertain what the government’s stand is.
Q. You have opposed all foreign mediation, especially South African mediation at this point. However the government is pursuing foreign mediation in spite of your objections. Hence what measures will you take under these circumstances?
A. There have been no discussions at cabinet level regarding mediation by South Africa at any point. Neither has this been discussed in parliament. Just after the last Provincial Council elections there was a meeting of coalition partners and it was not discussed at this meeting either. Up to date there has not been any collective decision taken by the government about the involvement of an international mediator in the dealings between the government and the TNA.
However, we have come to know that a special emissary has been appointed by South Africa to Colombo for the mediation and a SA delegation is due in Colombo in June. Two of our ministers have also visited SA for talks. However these are just stories that we hear, but no one has officially informed us so far. We don’t mind any foreign party coming here to meet the President or anyone, but it is our opinion that no foreign parties should be allowed to interfere or mediate in our domestic matters.
Q: If the NFF policy is that there should not be foreign intervention in Sri Lanka, is it fair for us to continue to get foreign funding for local projects?
A: There is no issue in foreign investment coming into the country that is conducive to us. Our issue is not about foreign investment but if tax concessions are to be accorded to them, then there must be a proper assessment.
For example a US$ 220 million investment has been approved to refine sugar in Hambantota. The port in Hambantota was built with high hopes of making it an important port in the region, but now it is being used as transshipment port only. For the refinement of sugar they need to use chemicals and in other countries there are stringent environmental laws when such a project is approved and tax concessions are not approved for these sorts of projects. In cases where such projects are approved, they add on extra tax slabs in order to counter the cost of environmental damage.
However in our country these companies are not only exempted from tax but even the salaries of foreigners who are employed in these projects are exempted from tax. In most cases these companies don’t even bring in the promised investment. What the Indian investors have always done is to only bring in a part of the proposed investment and obtain the balance through local banks.
Moreover even if they bring in the whole US$ 220 million investment here, they are given access to our annual US$ 550 million sugar market.
These foreign investors thus get the chance to creep into our domestic market with ease through the back door so to say, and since they also benefit from tax concessions, they can sell their sugar at cheaper rates. This has affected the local sugar manufacturer badly as he cannot compete with the foreign party as he has to pay taxes. Hence Hingurana and the local sugar factories get shut down while the foreign investor not only manufactures sugar but also gets the chance to enter the ethanol market as well. Then imagine the plight of the local producers. In addition look at the environmental damage to the Hambantota port.
Q: Casinos are still the focal issue and some people feel that the government is misleading its allies by claiming that no new casinos will be allowed. Will the NFF continue to put pressure on the government over this issue?
A: The President has publicly stated that they will not allow new casinos to be established and I believe him. However the issue is the whether the tax concessions allowed for the three new hotels that are being built, will be extended to the existing casinos which will shift into these hotels. Currently there are around five casinos in operation and I see no harm in three of them being shifted to any building that is not in close proximity to any school or place of worship, etc.
Now in the first gazette notification that was issued in this regard, these three casinos were also on the tax exemption list, but they were not listed as casinos but as betting and gaming places, for recreation. However everyone knows that the betting and gaming that takes place inside hotels are casinos. This raises suspicion that these casinos could be included for tax rebates in this covert manner instead of directly naming them as casinos. It is because of this doubt that we refrained from voting and the government has still done nothing to rectify or clarify this doubt.
However, government ministers claim that these casinos are not included in the list for tax concessions. But if that was the case why was it included in the first gazette notification and then later removed from the second notification, when they could have stated it clearly the first time. If it had been done that way suspicion would not have arisen. It is the government that messed it up and the fault is not ours. However if subsequently these casinos are exempted from tax then the public will have the right to challenge it in court and we will assist them.
Q: Since the TNA boycotted the PSC it has been inactive. Do you think that the PSC should commence its functions even without the TNA?
A: I see the PSC as a mechanism that was initiated to be inactive. Even if the TNA did not participate still the PSC could have taken decisions, but I don’t see the PSC taking any decisions or making any progress. I only see it as a mechanism initiated as a mere waste of time. This is a mechanism that is said to be working towards finding a national solution. What a nice slogan! This is an exercise to just hoodwink the people.
Q: You were reportedly pushing for the removal of P.B. Jayasundara from the Finance Ministry, but instead the government removed him from the Economic Development Ministry. Are you satisfied with this move?
A: I never made such a request and we have not even mentioned this in our 12 point proposal. What happened was that during a program on a private TV channel I was asked about the Finance Ministry and hence I had to talk about its Secretary.
It was stated that Jayasundera had challenged the government to carry on activities in the Finance Ministry without him for six months, if they could. He had said that he was only there to help the President and he had a job ready at the IMF at any time. This was carried on the front pages of many local papers.
This statement clearly manifests his arrogance and his lack of responsibility as he openly states that he has a job at the IMF at any time, which means he can drag the Finance Ministry to the doldrums and walk out with a secure future for himself.