wants aid for its own projects"
The main opposition party, the
UNP, looks at the entire tsunami relief operation initiated by
the government suspiciously. The decision to deposit all the
aid money to the President's Fund and the decision to appoint
a high-powered committee consisting of the President's
henchmen for the task of disaster management are matters that
compel the UNP to look at the entire operation with suspicion.
UNP MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne says the UPFA led by President
Kumaratunga is trying to grab this opportunity to gain
political mileage. "We will not tolerate this. The relief
operation is to help the tsunami victims and not to promote
the UPFA," he told The Sunday Leader.
Following are excerpts;
By Wilson Gnanadass
Q: How do you assess the damage
caused by the tsunami in your electorate? And has the government so
far stepped in to help the electorate?
A: The damage is extensive in
Kalutara, Beruwela and Panadura electorates. Nearly 35,000 people
have been displaced and about 3,000 houses have been completely
destroyed. Thousands more have been partly destroyed. All fishermen
at the moment are unemployed. All hotels along the coastal areas
from Aluthgama to Moratuwa are destroyed except one. A hotel in
Katukurunda was refurbished after spending Rs. 340 million and was
opened only on December 25. But the next day the hotel was
completely damaged. The estimate for reconstruction in these areas
is nearly Rs. 200 million. The strip of sand separating the land and
sea is completely sunk and now the seawater is mixing with the river
and hotels like Robinson Club have no access to the land. The
tourists could go there only by boat. No tourists are found in these
areas. The government does not yet have any plans to meet any of
these demands even four weeks after the disaster.
Q: How does the opposition view the
government's role in dealing with the tsunami devastation and its
A: The President and most of the
cabinet ministers were not in the country to face this disaster. The
Prime Minister had to handle the whole situation alone. The minister
in charge of tourism arrived in the country only last week because
he did not want to sacrifice the pleasure he had in the USA. And the
President totally dismantled the Prime Minister's programme and took
over the entire disaster management to herself. She appointed a
high-powered committee comprising of her kith and kin without any
senior administrators or any others with technical know how to face
this kind of disaster. Most of the members of the committee are from
the private sector who have no knowledge of the common man's
problems. This is how the imposition of a buffer zone in the sea
areas came about.
This committee does not understand that
with this 100 meter limitation a fisherman cannot do his day to day
activities. Where will he anchor his boat? How will he transport the
massive fishing nets and how will he find land 100 metres away from
the sea? These are some of the practical problems faced by the
fishermen. In the entire Kalutara District there is no land
available on the seaside of the Galle Road. If the government wants
to relocate the fishermen, they have to be relocated about 1 km away
from the sea. Is this possible?
Q: What has the UNP done so far?
A: The international community,
the NGOs and we are not satisfied with the government's programme
because its main aim is to go ahead with mega projects, above
helping humans affected by the disaster. The UNP leader said that
the relief should benefit the individual victims of this disaster
first and that we must try to develop the areas after ensuring that
the victims are looked after well. Therefore, the UNP's working
committee and the parliamentary group endorsed a relief programme
prepared by the UNP leader. That has been handed over to the
government and now the President says that they are preparing an
action plan taking the UNP plan also into consideration. We will
support any plan, which will benefit the people of this country. All
our local government institutions have been directed by the leader
to help clear the rubble in the disaster areas. Our leader has
visited these affected areas and has visited certain areas twice to
supervise the relief work.
Q: The tsunami while bringing people
together has widened the divide between the LTTE and the government.
What causes do you think led to this situation?
A: I think the government did
not know how to manage its own propaganda business. The government
failed miserably by trying to say the LTTE chief is dead. We learn
this information had been leaked to the government by the so called
military intelligentsia. The government seemed to enjoy the tsunami
defeat of the LTTE for a few days and this antagonised the LTTE.
Secondly, the government made a foolish
mistake by preventing Kofi Annan's visit to the LTTE areas. The
people in the north and east will now understand that the government
has no mercy towards them even during a disaster. Also the
chauvinistic JVP visiting the north increased the anger of the
people. So I believe these are the causes for the gap.
Q: Do you think Kofi Annan should
have been taken to LTTE areas and if so why?
A: Definitely. Those who live in
the LTTE areas are also our brothers and sisters and above all,
citizens of this country. We have a responsibility to look after
them. If we don't look after them at a moment like this, then it
begins to show that the south is the cause for the north's demand
for separation. When Kofi Annan visited Indonesia the Prime Minister
of Indonesia first invited him to visit Aceh islands where there is
a rebellion movement just like in the north of Sri Lanka. That
government never restricted Kofi Annan visiting these areas, but
promoted it, showing that this area also belongs to Indonesia.
Therefore, the government in my view only exhibited its folly by
doing this and became 'foolish' in the eyes of the international
Q: You have been critical of the
government's relief programme. Why?
A: The government's only plan is
to get more aid to spend for its own projects and not to manage the
devastation. That is why all the aid money has been deposited in the
President's Fund, which cannot be audited and which is totally
controlled by the President and nobody could question the
accountability of this fund. When one goes through the project plan
to overcome the tsunami devastation which was presented to the
international community, anybody can very well understand the motive
of the government. The only suspicion is that the monies are
deposited in the President's Fund. Why is this?
The next thing is the high-powered
committee that consists only of President's friends. This project
plan made by the committee has so many development projects, which
have nothing to do with tsunami devastation. For instance, the
second railway line from Kalutara to Hambantota, mega townships, the
Inginiyagala power station, two thermal power stations - in Jaffna
and Mullaithivu are all projects that have nothing to do with
rebuilding the nation after the tsunami. And sadly no cabinet
minister or any member of the All Party Tsunami Committee ever knew
about these proposals until I pointed out this over the electronic
media the other day.
Q: Then why is the opposition
sitting with the government in this committee?
A: The main purpose of the
opposition is to rectify the errors created by the government and
also to oppose any corrupt activities by the government using state
resources. The opposition's role is very important in an all-party
conference. Our members highlight these things at the committee, but
with all those objections the government tries to go ahead with its
own plan. But still it is the duty of the opposition, being members
of the all party committee to play an active role to check and
balance the government's activities.
Q: The Tamil parties say the
government has failed to send any relief items to LTTE areas. Is
there any truth in it?
A: We have also received
complaints from LTTE areas that the people have not received
sufficient aid relief. When there is no coordination with the LTTE
and other Tamil organisations, which represent the north and east,
nobody knows whether the aid is going to these areas or not.
Q: How do you view the chances of
the government and the LTTE resuming talks, especially after the
controversy that followed Kofi Annan's visit?
A: Actually Kofi Annan could
have been used to patch up the differences that existed between the
government and the LTTE and to bring the LTTE to mainstream politics
through this disaster. The government mismanaged the whole thing.
This is a great loss to the nation.
Q: The Tourism Minister says the
tsunami disaster is not a major blow to the tourism industry? How do
you view this statement?
A: This Minister does not know
how many hotels have been affected and how many have been destroyed
and the state of affairs in the coastal belt where tourism is very
popular. Still he has not found the time to visit those areas
because he arrived in Sri Lanka only a few days back. Even if
foreigners opt to return to Sri Lanka there must be a place for them
to stay. Still the Minister could not meet the hoteliers affected by
the disaster. The Tourism Minister has distributed apples to the
disaster-affected people in Galle. This reminds me of Marie
Antoinette who offered cake when people demanded bread.
Q: In the south we see the Marxist
JVP trying to gain mileage out of this situation. Do you think this
reflects badly on Sri Lankan politics?
A: It is good for any political
party to get involved in the process of managing the disaster. But
it should be out of party politics. At Dickwella in one of the
centres, the JVP has created a controversy with a British High
Commission official. They demanded for the stuff brought by the High
Commission to be given to them. But it was refused. This was
followed by a heated argument between both parties and I understand
this has been reported to the international funding agencies. The
international community is very well aware of the role played by the
JVP. When a man was saved after 13 days without food or water the
JVP claimed that it was they who found this man. Later it was found
that this man was a bogus person who was not affected by the
tsunami. So everywhere there is a common complaint against the JVP.
Q: President Kumaratunga in one of
her addresses to the nation referring to the disaster has said
nature has dealt with those fighting for nothing and justifies the
disaster. How do you view her statement?
A: If nature was to swallow bad
people then I think it is the President herself and her henchmen who
should have been swallowed first. Also if the President wants the
people to move 100 metres away from the sea, then I think this is
well calculated to save herself from the second tsunami because
President's House is well within 100 meters from the sea.