Unity Govt. Will Deliver Pledges In Coming Year – Mujibur Rahman
by Roshani Nathaniel
The following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: With the assault on a journalist at Hambantota and many other journalists being named and criticised in parliament, where is the freedom that was promised to journalists by the good governance regime?
A: There was an incident but based on just one incident it is not fair to say that the government is anti-media. When compared to the previous government and the many incidents related to Lasantha Wickrematunge and Eknaligoda, etc., this government has not done any of those things. During that time so many media personnel had to flee from the country and many media institutions were openly attacked and even burned down. This government is not like that and moreover, if you look carefully, there are so many media institutions that are openly attacking the government but they are free to do so without being targeted or carried away in white vans.
However, sometimes there are many different incidents and all are not the same. So this incident alone does not imply that it is the collective stance of the government. The government is certainly not against the media and we have definitely not curtailed the freedom of the media either.
Q: Some factions within the government charge that the blue brigade is behind the Hambantota protest while there are others who allege that the Ports Minister is behind the protest over plans to hand over the port to the Chinese. What is your view?
A: In Hambantota it was clear that these employees were recruited to work in the port through some private company. Now they are striking and demanding that they be absorbed into the Ports Authority. However, their letters of appointment are from a private company. Therefore, it is clear that all these boys are from the Blue Brigade and goons of certain UPFA politicians. It is also very evident that the Hambantota politicians are behind this protest and they are the ones who are instigating these youngsters to protest and create unrest in the region. They are the ones who are operating the protest and mobilising these youngsters to create problems.
Q: In recent times we have seen a certain extent of anti-Muslim activities taking place and the radical monks coming into the limelight again. Why has the present government allowed such incidents to take place?
A: On January 8 we defeated all these extremist groups and commenced a new united path. These radical groups are with the Rajapaksa regime but they were defeated. All Muslims extended their support to President Maithripala Sirisena and all we asked in return was to live freely in peace and harmony with the other communities. But during the past two months these extremist groups have come forward again and have begun to create problems between the Sinhala and Muslim people. The government has a responsibility to stop them before they get out of hand and create issues once again.
In our manifesto we have pledged to the people that we will ensure harmony among all communities and build up the Sri Lankan society with a Sri Lankan identity. These are the promises made to the people. Now it’s time to implement the promises we made to the people. We can’t allow these extremist groups to disrupt the good efforts of the government. The police should take action against these extremists no matter who they are. This is something that the government has to do and if this government fails to do that I don’t think they will be able to continue for a long time.
Q: There has been much talk on the North East merger. Do you think that the Muslims are in favour of the merger of the N and E?
A: That is a long-standing slogan of the Tamil political parties. They want a solution to the Tamil issue and the merger of the North and East is one of their demands. Definitely a referendum is needed to decide if a merger is what the people want or not. We have to see if the people of the Eastern Province wants to join with the people of the North and the Northern people also need to decide if they would like to join the East. There are some Tamils in the East too who don’t want to join with the Northern Tamils. Hence it is the people of these two provinces that need to decide if they want to merge or not.
Q: The Tamils are determined that they want a federal solution to ensure the rights of the Northern Tamils. Are the Muslims too of the same opinion that power devolution is the solution to the minority issues?
A. We have been talking about these minority issues from 1948. Everyone has accepted that there is an issue and we have to go for the option of devolution of power. On that basis the Provincial Council system was brought in during J. R. Jayewardene’s period. The 13th Amendment too was initiated with that intention and as it is something that is accepted by all minority parties as well, we should start by implementing the 13th Amendment. Then we can move further beyond after that. However, eventually, power devolution is a must and everyone has accepted this concept as the only solution for the minority problem. Now we have come far and cannot go back and we must move forward from here. After the end of the war, even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to implement the 13th Amendment and even go beyond.
Now that the UNP and SLFP have joined hands in a unity government and they also have the support of the TNA, this is the best chance that they can ever hope for in order to once and for all go for a lasting solution.
Q: Some have expressed concern that there could be issues with regard to power devolution where the power, vested in the Provincial Councils through the devolution of power, are abused?
A: I feel that we must think in a positive way and not negatively. Even during J. R. Jayewardene’s time they accused him of trying to abuse powers. However today we are enjoying some of the decisions he took. So no matter whatever system we bring in, there will always be certain issues and loopholes that we will need to work out and resolve or overcome. No system is 100% fool proof and perfect. Normally, when we take all communities, no one wants to divide the country and no one wants to separate the country, but they all want to safeguard their rights. Although we have been talking about these issues since 1948, nothing constructive was done. Now that we have a platform where we can find a solution, instead of trying to find reasons that would derail the process, we must all think positively and try to work with the system in order to ensure the rights of all.
All past leaders spoke of a solution and we all suffered the effects of the war and we cannot ever go back to that. Now we have to move forward and unite to find a solution. This is the best chance we have to sort out this issue, and we may never get another chance like this to resolve this issue. So I think we should all put aside our petty differences and unite to find a solution that ensures we stay united.
Q: With regard to the executive presidency, the unity government made a pledge to the people that it would be abolished and that powers will be vested with the cabinet. However, now it seems unlikely to happen. Why?
A: There are some proposals to reduce the powers of the executive president. After the January 8th election too some powers of the executive presidency was reduced. However there have been proposals that oppose the abolishing of the executive presidency. However, we have not finalised anything and let’s see in the future what the government might decide upon.
Q: Some quarters feel that in a country like ours, the Executive President should have the powers to take decisions. Do you agree?
A: There are a lot of comments regarding that issue. Various countries have their own systems that work best for them. Even before the Executive Presidency was brought in, the powers were vested with the Prime Minister and the parliament. We have come through that system. However, if we want to change the system and everyone concerned is agreeable, then there is no problem.
However, although some may think that the executive presidency is the best system for Sri Lanka, I personally don’t think so. I feel that whatever the system, there should be democracy. I feel that powers of the parliament should be extended and more powers be handed to the parliament and move forward.
Q: There are also allegations that the Prime Minister is pushing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency in a bid to get the powers to his hands. Is this true?
A: Everyone has their own different views. If this could be his idea, I am not sure.
Q: It is said that there will be a cabinet reshuffle early next year. Is such a move on the cards?
A: I have no idea. That is something for the President and parliament to decide.
Q: As a member of the Muslim community, are you satisfied with the recommendations that have been made with regard to the new constitution?
A: Some Muslim parties have submitted their proposals but I am a member of the UNP and we as Muslim members of the party are hoping to give some proposals ourselves.
Q: With regard to the Muslim marriage / personal laws, while there is a huge campaign to reform these laws, are you in favour of changing these laws and do you think the Muslim women need to be given greater say in their matters?
A: I think from the Muslim society there is no question that there needs to be some reform in the Muslim Marriage, Divorce Act. There is no argument and everyone has accepted it. There are discussions ongoing with Muslim committees and civil organisations in this regard. They are discussing what the reforms should be and what needs to be changed. Hence in the future we too can submit some proposals to the cabinet sub-committee on the reforms that need to be brought in.
Q: However, the Muslim community was given the chance to decide this for themselves. But why could they not do it independently?
A: Yes, this was the issue where some were reluctant to bring in the change. However, now the Muslim communities themselves are pushing for it and there is a lot of discussion taking place in this regard. Even the civil society, religious leaders and politicians are all working together to bring in this much needed change.
Q: So you do agree that the Muslim women have been deprived of their rights all this time?
A: Yes, there are some issues and that is true. We have to accept it.
Q: Can the country expect the much talked about Local Government Elections to take place any time early next year at least?
A: From the UNP party we indeed want to have the election soon. The previous government changed the election system and they brought the ward system but they did not do it properly but just played into the hands of the organisers and to please them. We know they all did these things by Basil Rajapaksa’s ministry.
We have submitted our reports to the delimitation commission and all other parties and civil organisations too did and we expect to have the election within the next couple of months.
Q: The government planned to sign the ETCA agreement in December. Why was it not signed?
A: Yes, the government planned to sign it in December but discussions are currently underway and it will be presented in parliament and then the people will be given the opportunity to agree on it and then it will be signed after that.
Q: The government made many promises to the people when they came into power but almost two years have gone by with no positive impact. Can we at least expect these promised changes to take place in 2017?
A: Yes, what you said is right and people have been waiting patiently until the government delivers on what they promised the people. I too hope that the government will be able to come good with their promises next year. Otherwise the people will certainly be very disappointed.
Q: The government claimed that the Rajapaksa’s were responsible for large scale fraud and that they had all the evidence to prove these allegations. Why has the government failed to prove these allegations so far? Are they protecting the Rajapaksa family as alleged?
A: We too feel as the people do. I agree with what you said and do admit that the process is moving extremely slowly.
Some ministers wanted to set up a special court in order to finish these cases quickly. I think the government needs to take some quick measures to deliver on their promises.