By Shaahidah Riza
United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MP and member of the Joint Opposition, Lohan Ratwatte, faulted the government for presenting the Office of the Missing Persons Bill, during the absence of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Joint Opposition only requested the debate pertaining to the OMP Bill to be delayed just by one day, he said, and added that the Speaker did not accommodate that request as he is puppeteered by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Excerpts of the interview:
?. You participated in the tour of South Korea with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Do you think the current government would appreciate former President‘s efforts to foster relations between South Korea and Sri Lanka?
A. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a very strong relationship with South Korea. The South Korean Prime Minister, the Deputy Speaker, Leader of the Opposition and Members of the General Assembly met us, also the Mayor of Seoul. If the Sri Lankan Government is as broad minded as President Mahinda Rajapaksa, I think they should definitely appreciate his efforts in fostering cordial relations with other countries.
?. There are rumours that certain members of the SLFP will not be invited for the forthcoming SLFP convention. What is the current situation with regard to that?
A. If you go back in history, SWRD Bandaranaike walked away from the United National Party (UNP) because he did not agree with their policies. Then, he formed a party with socialist policies, which was the SLFP. His whole idea for forming this party was to oppose the UNP. We don’t know how people from the SLFP can, knowing what their party policies are, support the government at this juncture. Basically, we have no personal animosity with the President or the people who are sitting with the government. However, the policies of the two parties do not agree, that is why we cannot agree with the President or the present UPFA members who are sitting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. On that basis, I don’t think we can go for the SLFP Convention, it’s an eye wash; not the real thing.
?. How should this situation be remedied?
A. SLFP has to break away from the current government. Although it will not be able to form a government, members of the SLFP who are with the government should come and sit with the Opposition and point out the mistakes of the government. Then we can see the true colours of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which will obviously have to sit with the UNP to form a government. That is totally against their party principles and policies. If the SLFP members of the government sat with the Opposition, the TNA and the JVP will be exposed. We have 95 members; we can do so much for the country by pointing out the mistakes of the government.
?. During SLFP media briefings, there is always a discourse between those who host the media and the journalists; which indicate that Joint Opposition members of the SLFP tend to break up the party. Do you support this claim?
A. Actually it is not us who have broken up the party; it is they who have done that.
?. Despite the claims of success of the Joint Opposition‘s Pada Yathra, they couldn‘t achieve some of the aspects they protested against; such as the passing of the Office of the Missing Persons Bill (OMP). Perhaps the Pada Yathra was not that successful?
A. OMP Bill was one of the aspects. We also protested against the cost of living, Constitutional Reforms and the VAT. However, we should see this in a different angle. In Parliament the government has a two-third majority. When you look at the election results President Rajapaksa lost to President Sirisena by a small margin. The actual situation in the country is not shown in Parliament .It is an artificial situation. They can bring any Bill and pass it, but the people are not for it. That is what we want to highlight.
?. Do you agree with reports in the media that the Joint Opposition prevented Parliament from having a substantial discussion regarding OMP Bill by protesting raucously?
A. Former President Rajapaksa and a few of us were abroad. We didn’t know that the OMP Bill will be presented in our absence. What the Joint Opposition asked was to postpone it for just another day, and grant another day for the debate. The government is not mentioning this; and are blaming the Joint Opposition.
?. Who is responsible for this? Do you think the Speaker could have handled the situation better?
A. Speaker does what the Prime Minister wants. When there is a problem in Parliament, the Speaker looks at the Prime Minister who will indicate with his head whether to proceed with something or not. He is the puppet of the Prime Minister.
?. Joint Opposition has become unpopular due to its behaviour in Parliament. There was the brawl, the sit-ins, and several other protests. Do you condone this behaviour?
A. I don’t condone such behaviour. But when the Joint Opposition is still not recognized in our Parliament although the Inter Parliamentary Association for the South Asian Region recognized the Joint Opposition as a party and have even invited us to Malaysia for their 14th Conference. The delegation includes former President Rajapaksa and Joint Opposition leader Dinesh Gunawardena. The Sri Lankan Parliament, if they recognize the concept of Parliament, they should also recognize the Joint Opposition. When we need speaking time, we have to go and ask Chief Opposition Whip Anura Kumara Dissanayaka and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan for our time allocations, which is unreasonable. We have 51 members, Sampanthan has 14 and Dissanayaka has about 5. The reason certain Joint Opposition members behave in such a way is due to frustration.
?. You must be aware of the contradictory statements of the President and the Foreign Minister with regard to foreign judges on the War Crimes Tribunal. Now we have a situation where the OMP Bill has been passed, adhering to one recommendation by Geneva. Geneva sessions will also take place next month. Taking all of these in to account, where does Sri Lanka stand?
A. I think our sovereignty is threatened, if the Geneva Resolution is implemented in the manner they want it to. The people of this country are not aware of it, and the government is not giving an accurate picture of the current situation.
?. President was very clear that foreign judges will not sit on the tribunal. He is the Chairman of the SLFP as well. Why haven‘t the party members raised the matter of this contradiction with the President? Conversely, why is he not taking a strong stand, as well?
A. He should. But at the end of the day, he is President, because the UNP, JVP and the TNA supported him. He has to bow his head to them. Whatever he thinks, personally, wouldn’t matter too much?
?. Are you saying that the President has no standing in this government?
A. It is more or less so.
?. Now that the OMP Bill has been passed what should the government prioritize?
A. With regard to missing persons, provided there were missing person during the last government, the current President and the senior ministers who were in that government are now in this government, should be aware of the missing persons, if there were any missing persons; they are also answerable. They should have let the Paranagama Commission account for their findings and submit the report.
?. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s son was arrested on Monday. It is in rotation, every week a Rajapaksa is arrested. How do you view this?
A. It’s a joke and a mockery of the judicial system and the Police.
?. There were talks that there is going to be US support for Constitutional Reform, do you think this will happen? There are a lot of Joint Opposition members working in the Constitutional Reform Committee. Is there any truth to this claim?
A. I think the US has its own problems with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fighting it out. At this moment, I don’t think they will bother about our Constitution. They have their Constitution to worry about.
?. What is the progress of the Constitutional Reform process?
A. They are trying to bring in the 13 Amendment. That will divide our country.
?. But wouldn‘t the joint Opposition have a say in it? Dinesh Gunawardena is in fact handling a subcommittee with regard to Constitutional Reform as well.
A. At the end of the day, we can give our suggestions. But they have the majority in Parliament. When Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the President ask them to vote, they will all vote. Whatever reforms we try to bring in, they will overrule. Even in the last budget, all the reforms that were passed in Parliament were not adopted. This is a sad situation.
?. How should the government progress from this point?
A. There is a lot of disenchantment among the people. This government promised a lot of things to the people, when they were campaigning for elections. They have not delivered 99 per cent of the promises. They have hoodwinked the people to come into power. What the government should do now is to listen to what the Opposition is saying, without just bulldozing their way through Parliament to do whatever they want, forfeiting the will of the people.
?. Have you got any final thought?
A. I would ask the government to have the Local Government elections to see the pulse of the people of this country. The government should know where they stand and act accordingly after that.
?. With regard to Local Government elections are the grassroots of the UPFA with former President Rajapaksa, or President Sirisena?
A. Let’s have the election and see.