By Nirmala Kannangara in the Southern Province – Pictures by Lalith Perera
Politicians in the Hambantota district have set an example for their counterparts in other districts on how to conduct an election campaign without displaying large cutouts and banners. The situation in Matara and Galle districts are not the same as there were a few hoardings and cutouts in the town centers.
Most of the UPFA supporters in the Hambantota district are saddened as they have lost the opportunity to elect their leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to the next parliament. They believe that the UPFA will get a landslide victory at the upcoming election but they are unsure as to whom they are to support now. “Our families have never voted for any party other than SLFP and later UPFA. This time we have to decide on someone else because Mahinda mahattaya is not contesting from Hambantota. Three more Rajapaksa’s are in the running, but we don’t have faith in any of them. The fall of Mahinda mahattaya on January 8 was a direct consequence of his son Namal,” a group of elderly people at Mayurapura in Hambantota said.
They believe that former UPFA MP Namal Rajapaksa and his Nil Balakaya has caused much damage to the party as the Nil Balakaya members took the law into their own hands during the previous regime. “If no one else came to politics from the Rajapaksa family and did not misuse the executive powers, Rajapaksa’s popularity would not have been challenged,” they said.
Hambantota on the fence
In most areas, the people who had voted for the UPFA on previous occasions are now on the fence. They are yet to decide on whom to vote for at next month’s elections.
“We were strong UPFA supporters. Our Samurdhi rations were not increased when those who have houses, lorries and paddy fields were given Samurdhi. My daughter applied for Samurdhi in 2012, since her husband is a labourer and has three kids. They were overlooked in favour of some others who are well-off,” a betel seller in Weeraketiya said.
It was surprising to note how a cross section of UPFA supporters in the Hambantota district praised UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa for being a true politician who had the common touch, even in power, and for helping the needy irrespective of party affiliations.
“Most politicians remember the people only during the elections. Premadasa has always been with the people and has helped them in numerous ways. In the days to come, we will decide whether to vote for the UPFA or for Premadasa,” Bandu, who sells curd, said.
UNP candidate for Hambantota district, Housing and Samurdhi Minister Sajith Premadasa said that he was surprised the way the UPFA candidate for the Kurunegala district, Mahinda Rajapaksa protested and attempted to disrupt Premadasa’s move to provide loans for Samurdhi beneficiaries to start self-employment to uplift their living standards.
“Soon after I became the Housing and Samurdhi Minister, I wanted to start a programme to provide loans ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1 million for each underprivileged family to start self-employment. This was not exclusive to those in Hambantota district, but inclusive of the entire country, irrespective of party politics. I want all under-privileged families in the country to uplift their poor living standard as all have a right to a prosperous future. There are 179,000 families in Hambantota district out of which 170, 000 are poor families. I am puzzled as to why Mahinda Rajapaksa is trying to stop these 170, 000 families from benefitting from my proposed loan scheme,” Premadasa told The Sunday Leader.
According to Premadasa, it was his Samurdhi employees that informed him of Rajapaksa’s plan to disrupt giving loans to the poorest of the poor, starting from Hambantota, for a mere 4% interest.
“It is alleged that Rajapaksa loyal Samurdhi officers in Hambantota were given instructions to obstruct me from going ahead with this programme. Why is Mahinda Rajapaksa asking yet another mandate to develop the country and to uplift the living standard of the people when he served ten years doing nothing? Instead of giving relief to these families in his own constituency, Rajapaksa served only to his family members and their cronies. Rajapaksa should be happy for providing relief to the people in his former constituency without trying to obstruct it,” Premadasa said.
Samurdhi funds misused
Premadasa accused Rajapaksa of utilizing Samurdhi funds amounting to millions of rupees for his presidential election campaign.
“How much of money from Samurdhi funds had Rajapaksa spent targeting the presidential election? He has spent Rs 25 million to print fifty lakhs lith during the election, Rs 30 million to buy flag posts and another Rs 63 million from Divineguma funds. Isn’t this a waste of money? This money is not meant to be spent on election work, but to provide relief to Samurdhi beneficiaries,” Premadasa said.
“There was a time people got attracted to him and believed his lies. Now, people are aware of what has gone on during the Rajapaksa regime and how his family became multi billionaires. There are 35 lakhs under privileged families in the country, but instead of giving them relief, the Rajapaksa’s acquired palaces with swimming pools and sophisticated gymnasiums. Have they ever spent a single cent out of their personal money for the benefit of the people? They are spending from what they have looted from the public. I am spending out of my own money. I do not obtain a salary and that is given to the Sevana fund to build homes for the homeless, a project my beloved father the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa initiated in 1977. I am not using the official vehicles a minister is entitled to. As housing minister, I have given loans to 35,421 families to build houses under the 50,000 housing projects which I promised before the Presidential election. Within a few weeks after winning the upcoming election, those who were deprived of Samurdhi during the previous regime will be given back the Samurdhi ration. I will give housing loans to every eligible applicant. There are 12,000 vacancies in my ministry and these will be filled from the people in Southern province,” Premadasa assured.
Namal points finger at Premadasa
Hambantota District UPFA candidate Namal Rajapaksa accused Premadasa of utilizing Samurdhi funds for his election campaign in the guise of loans.
“Isn’t this unlawful? When my uncle used these funds to give relief to Samurdhibeneficiaries on cabinet approval, he was put behind bars for three months. The law should apply to each and every one alike which is not to be seen, now, unlike during my father’s regime,” Rajapaksa told The Sunday Leader.
When asked why his father decided to contest from Kurunegala district when he has a large vote base in Hambantota, and whether it is true that he paved way for Namal to obtain more preferential votes from Hambantota, Rajapaksa said that his father could not turn down a request made by his party supporters in Kurunegala.
“There were so many requests for my father from all over the country. But he decided to contest from Kurunegala district. He never left Hambantota to pave me to obtain the most number of preferential votes from this district. I would have been the most happiest to lose to my father,” Rajapaksa added.
He has planned to address 1000 pocket meetings in the district and added that he is happy to see how more and more people are now rallying behind the UPFA as they have seen how the development in the country under the Rajapaksa regime has now come to a standstill.
“Fifty eight mega projects that were initiated during my father’s tenure have now come to a complete standstill. It is the same with other work as well. Those who voted against my father on January 8 have now realized their stupidity and are rallying around us. From the time the yahapalanaya government took over office under President Maithripala Sirisena, they started leveling various allegations against me, my father, mother, brothers and my uncles, and questioned me, my mother and uncles for what we have not done. They even went to the extent of putting my uncle behind bars for three months but since they could not prove that he has committed any crime, he was given bail last month. Our hands are clean and we are not scared to go before the law as we know that we have not committed any crime. We have worked for the people and saved this country from the clutches of ruthless terrorism,” Rajapaksa said.
Hambantota district JVP candidate Nihal Galappaththi, the first JVP member to be elected to parliament, said that people of all walks of life have now come forward to help the JVP as they are fed up with the UNP and SLFP led UPFA governments.
“Out of the 67 years after independence, UNP has governed this country for 33 years while the SLFP led alliances governed for 34 years. What have they done to the people? Have they provided a decent living standard to the people? People have realized that it is only the JVP that can deliver the peoples aspirations. We are positive, that this time people will elect more JVP members to the parliament as a strong opposition,” Galappaththi told The Sunday Leader.
Matara and Galle
Matara district UPFA candidate Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said that he will support any leader who comes from the SLFP and added how certain UPFA politicians in the Matara district have openly requested supporters not to cast a preferential vote for him simply because he is working hand in glove with the SLFP leader President Maithripala Sirisena.
“I know the people are with me. Although I crossed over to SLFP in 2006 and took a chance to contest from this party in 2010, politicians in this district assumed that I will not get elected to parliament. Proving them wrong, I became the third in the list and received more votes than the senior SLFP members. I am always with the people and will work for them till they reject me. The moment they reject me, I will retire from politics, unlike certain politicians. How can these politicians accuse me for supporting President Sirisena. Even if Nimal Siripala Silva becomes the party leader, tomorrow, I will extend my support to him. I did not ask for any portfolio from President Sirisena, but, when he wanted support extended to him, it was the SLFP central committee that decided to support him and we were given ministerial posts. If the central committee asks us to give up these posts, I will follow their instructions,” Lakshman Yapa added.
Matara district UNP candidate Justin Galappaththi is confident of UNP’s victory in Matara and in the country.
“We are able to attract more SLFP members for our side and expect five seats from Matara. There are candidates in the UPFA list who are waiting to support us after the election. There is no doubt about our victory,” Galappaththi said.
Ven Kirigampamunuwe Narada Thero said that politicians should learn lessons from UNP candidates Sajith Premadasa and Buddhika Pathirana on how to be in touch with the people not only during an election but even after the election. “We know how politicians come to villages during election but forget them after they are elected to parliament. Premadasa and Pathirana were always with the people. Premadasa is a cabinet minister, but the relief he gave to the people when in opposition never ceased when he is was in power. He is the most suitable to get the Housing and Samurdhi portfolio as he will certainly address the issues faced by the downtrodden people,” Narada Thero said.
UPFA candidate for Galle District Ramesh Pathirana is confident of winning the upcoming election and said that they are sure of getting six candidates elected to the parliament. “We are having a peaceful campaign in the Galle district and people who voted to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa, on January 8, are rallying with us. Many voters who voted to bring Maithripala Sirisena into power, last January, are fed up with the present government and have decided to stay away from casting their vote this time. They don’t want to bring Ranil Wickremasinghe into power,” Pathirana added.
When asked whether he agrees that there has been less reported violence compared to previous elections, Pathirana said that, unlike previous years, the Election Commissioner has given many strict guidelines to all contestants.
“The laws are very strict now and we have to abide by them. Galle is always peaceful, especially during election time. The last violent incident that was reported from Galle was the two murders in run up to the election under the UNP government in 1993. Other than minor incidents, there are no major incidents reported from Galle district,” Pathirana claimed.
For the people in the Hambantota district, super highways, an airport and harbour are meaningless. They claim that these were constructed for the benefit of the Rajapaksa’s and their cohorts. They accused the previous government of creating a myth of so called development.
“If there was real development, these projects would have generated employment opportunities for the people. Instead, the labour force was brought from other parts of the country by the contractors. We hardly got a chance to seek employment in these projects. The super highways were constructed for the former first sons to ‘fly’ on these roads and the airport for the family to travel to their home town within a few minutes. They got into the aircraft from Colombo and got off at Mattala within 25 minutes. These white elephant projects were not initiated for us,” people claim.
“True, the former president saved the country from terrorists, but that does not mean we have to reciprocate him all the time. Did he reciprocate the people who tightened their belts during the war? We were asked to tighten the belts because of the war and we could not loosen the belts even after the war victory. Not a single relief was given to us. Even our Samurdhi was stopped because we are ‘businessmen’. But those who were in the government service were given Samurdhi as they were close to Rajapaksa’s but the helpless did not,” Ramya, a wayside boutique owner, said.
It was the same with those in Eke kanuwa in Ambalantota. According to Dinesha, who is undergoing financial difficulties due to her husband’s disability need a financial support for her family’s survival, “The previous regime gave jobs and loans only for those who supported the UPFA. If we did not attend Samurdhi meetings, we were fined. Nothing productive happened to me or to my family. I hope Sajith mahaththaya would see to our problems,” Dinesha stated.
Rohini needs some money to renovate her thatched house which is now in a dilapidated condition. “I am living in a rented out room with my two children, since the only property I have is now in a dilapidated condition,” she added. She blamed the previous regime for giving away houses in “Samadigama” tsunami village to Rajapaksa allies.
“Although these houses were built for tsunami victims, only a small percentage of tsunami victims were given houses. The rest were given to Rajapaksa supporters who have wealth. There are many who obtained more than two houses and now they either have been rented out or sold out,” Rohini said. Zesta has been attending Samurdhi programs for the past 14 years. She could not get herSamurdhi ration increased. “I am still getting Samurdhi stamps worth Rs 210 while others who are financially stable and close to the Rajapaksa’s got their stamp increased,” Zesta stated.
The appeal made by G L A Gamini to get his Samurdhi increased had been gone to deaf ears.
K Baby Nona from Padunkema in Lunugamvehera said that her Rs 900 Samurdhi ration is not given now simply because she is a UPFA supporter and claimed that she finds it difficult to give a proper meal to her children.
“President Rajapaksa brought prosperity to our lives when he was in power, but now we find it really difficult without the Samurdhi ration. The UNP asked us to pay Rs 250 to join them to obtain Rs 100,000 loan. The former president did not consider party politics when giving relief,” Iranganee, who had come to attend a pocket meeting addressed by Namal Rajapaksa, told The Sunday Leader.
According to Pushpa Kanthi, the government employees who voted for the common candidate at the last presidential election because of the promised salary increase have come back to support the UPFA. “We did a small research and found this out,” she affirmed.
For Senehelatha Dahanayake, it was only the SLFP led UPFA that provided water, electricity, and a proper road network for the people in Hambantota. “There was no price four our lands. Now, we can easily sell them for Rs 2 million. Although our leader is not contesting from Hambantota, we have hope for Namal Rajapaksa,” she claimed.
Ariyaseeli a resident of Andalla, Weligaththa, runs her own boutique that sells curd and handmade bags made from palm leaves. “It was Chamal mahaththaya’s wife Chandra Malini who taught us how to make these bags. I do not agree with the way the UNP is giving loans to a select group as it is the responsibility of a government to look after all citizens alike. Mahindamahaththaya never chose people when he gave relief,” Ariyaseeli said.
Menik Samaraweera will not cast her vote to any party. “The farmers are now in debt as they have failed to sell their paddy for even Rs 25 as the rice mills are refusing to purchase their stocks. The UNP promised to buy our paddy for Rs 50 but that is not happening,” Samaraweera alleged.
The annual tax for wayside boutiques has been increased from RS 125 to Rs 500, last year, pulling the sellers from pillar to post. “We hardly get business, but the previous government increased the tax four fold. How can we survive with these taxes? There is one other option – for us to close down these boutiques,” way side boutique owners in Weerawila said.
Ramya is from Thissamaharamaya and sells curd and trickle from a small wayside stall. She also helps her husband in paddy cultivation. She has no time to man the boutique, but her young son and daughter help her out during their school vacation. “Other than school holidays and the Kataragama Esela festival, we hardly get any business. We supported Rajapaksas’ earlier but now we will be supporting Sajith Premadasa who is a people’s friendly politician who feels the pulse of the downtrodden people,” Ramya said.
Lasantha and his friends at a three wheel park in Weligama said the country need the present government to win as people want relief for their daily needs. “We were fed up with the Rajapaksa regime as only a handful closer to Rajapaksas” were able to live comfortably but not the common man. We were once proud to say that the President is a villager from the south. Now, it is a shame to say that we are from the south. What did he do for us in the south? Developing the road network, the airport and the harbour was not for us. It is for them and to keep his name flying high. Take the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Convention Center, isn’t it a waste of money? If people in this country are millionaires, such a convention center would be good for a country. The previous government spent a colossal amount of money to maintain this centre, but hardly generated money. How long have we got to pay for these white elephant projects? If people elect him to office once again it would be a disaster for the entire country,” Lasantha added.
Lal is a fisherman at the Galle fisheries harbour who is an ardent Mahinda Rajapaksa supporter. According to Lal, no other leader has developed the country like former President Rajapaksa and he accused those who scold him calling as traitors. “If the people have forgotten the service Rajapaksa has rendered to the country, they are traitors. People talk about economic hardships during the previous regime. We had to bear it as the country was developed. People can predict a victory for the UNP, but we know for sure that Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to win this election by getting more than 65% votes for what he has done for the country and especially for the people in the south,” Lal said.