will work jointly with the LTTE"
Justice Minister John Seneviratne
says the government is determined to share its relief
operation with the LTTE keeping in mind the people living in
the areas controlled by the LTTE. He says if the government
does not jointly work with the LTTE, the people living there
would basically starve. "We can't ignore these
people," he said. Asked how the UPFA government was going
to act against the
JVP's wish not to involve the
LTTE in the relief operation, the Minister said he did not see any
justification in the JVP's opposition as the government was making
the 'correct move.'
Following are excerpts;
By Wilson Gnanadass
Q: Are you satisfied with the way
the government is handling the post tsunami situation, particularly
with regard to reconstruction and resettlement?
A: I should say even the leaders
who visited our country like UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, US
State Secretary Colin Powell and even the Canadian Prime Minister
have all expressed their satisfaction about the way the government
handled the post tsunami situation in the country. They said none of
the countries affected by the tsunami has commenced rehabilitation
work so early as in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly there are loose ends that
occur at the beginning of any mega project of this nature. But what
is necessary is to identify these loose ends and tighten them and I
strongly believe the process is gradually falling into place. I also
believe one can reasonably be satisfied with the rehabilitation,
resettlement and relief operation carried out by the present
government and I think this process is gaining ground in proper
Q: There is a lot of criticism that
the task forces appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to
handle the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement efforts include
her confidants and business leaders and with no experienced
politicians or public servants with a feel for the grassroots
included. Would you say the criticism is justified?
A: I find that these committees
comprise non political personnel, but have excelled in various
fields like business and administration. I find that these officials
are trying to mingle with people who have become victims of the
tsunami and understand the peoples' problems and find out how things
are happening and so on. I feel it is a good opportunity for such
non political elements to help and interact with people with needs
and to guide them in some way. I do not see anything wrong in this
Q: The President has proposed a 100
metre coastal buffer zone. Do you think this is practical and is
there a change of heart in the government?
A: It is a rather difficult
problem and cannot be easily tackled. But I believe demarcating such
a buffer zone is most advisable. The December 26 tsunami took away
the lives of thousands. A large number of houses were destroyed and
those whose livelihood got affected were those who lived within the
breadth of 100 metres from the sea. A large number of people living
within this belt have today become victims. I believe at least now
after experiencing such a disaster in a very intense form, we must
find a remedial action so that we can at least save lives the next
time the country faces such a disaster. Also environmentally it is a
very salutary decision because right round the sea if this decision
is implemented we will have a 'Green Belt' that would be
ecologically friendly and I personally believe it is worth promoting
such a concept in Sri Lanka.
Q: Then how about buildings that are
already in existence within the 100 metre range. Take for instance
the President's House, old parliament, Galle Face Hotel and so on?
A: Well, the houses and
buildings that are already there and not damaged may have to be
allowed to remain. It is impractical to demolish such buildings. But
there again I believe there must be a long-term plan to remove these
buildings as well from the coastal belt and relocate them elsewhere.
I don't think the President's House is within this range. But
however in keeping with the present thinking no new building should
be allowed to come up.
Q: The JVP has come out strongly
against the government in general and President Kumaratunga in
particular even citing her as an 'emperor without clothes.' Why has
the SLFP not responded to these charges or even defended the
A: Recently Nandana Gunathilleke
raised certain issues at the executive committee meeting of the UPFA
of which I am also a member. I was also present at this meeting.
Apart from the truthfulness and acceptability of these facts he
can't be blamed for raising them at the executive committee meeting
because it is the forum to raise such issues. But we find certain
members of the JVP including cabinet ministers making certain
statements that may even undermine the mutual relationship that
exists between the two parties that constitute the coalition. This
of course we have to term as 'sheer irresponsibility.' We the
members of the SLFP refrain from making such statements critical of
the JVP since we are quite aware that the emergence of issues on
certain matters between the parties is very often imminent since the
UPFA is made of several parties.
Even the opposition coalition faces
similar problems - differences and disagreements. We understand
highlighting this in public and attacking fellow members of our
friendly parties will create more damage than good. So this should
not be considered a weakness of the SLFP. We have been a
conscientious party even earlier and even now we make every effort
to cherish the basis on which the alliance was formed and on which
the mandate was given by the people of this country to govern the
country. Thus, this matter of criticising the party and our leader
was discussed by the SLFP at the Central Committee meeting last week
and a decision was taken to have a constructive discussion with the
JVP and to persuade them to refrain from making unsuitable and
Q: There have been reports of
massive aid pledges to the country. But how much has really arrived
and what are the mechanisms in place for the disbursement of aid?
A: I am aware from various
sources that a large amount of foreign assistance has been promised.
All this has not arrived in the country. As regard to the financial
assistance, it is just beginning to come. World Bank, ADB, EU,G8,
individual countries like Japan, Canada, USA, Australia, India and
some other countries have pledged their support. And the UN will
establish an organisation to monitor them and also to oversee the
manner in which the aid is being disbursed in the country.
On the part of the government of Sri
Lanka we know that every dollar that comes into the country must be
put to the best use not only to provide the basic living needs of
the people, but also to build the infrastructure required for the
country and especially for the economic enhancement of the people of
the country affected by the tsunami. So plans are being made by the
central authority under the supervision of all party leaders and
senior public servants for the utilisation of the aid.
Q: The government has said that it
is holding discussions with the LTTE to evolve a mechanism to handle
the post tsunami reconstruction and relief. Do you think this is a
positive development and how close to a compromise are you?
A: Immediately after the tsunami
disaster, the President invited the LTTE to participate in the all
party discussion that was held in order to assess the damage caused
to the people and to decide what action should be taken to redeem
this situation. So this invitation though unheeded by the LTTE did
not stop with one call. It continued. The government and President
Kumaratunga in particular suggested to the LTTE that the development
of the LTTE areas affected by the tsunami may be done jointly with
the government. In fact the government whatever difficult
circumstances there may have been took prompt action to provide food
and other needs to those affected in the north and east, including
the areas under the control of the LTTE. Recently, as requested by
the LTTE, the President dispatched a large amount of equipment and
machinery to clear the debris and prepare the ground for
resettlement and reconstruction of those areas. Now the LTTE has
responded favourably to act jointly in order to develop the areas
under their rule with the government. And the government in turn
pledged to distribute the assistance it gets from foreign countries
equally with the other part of the country. I think this is a
positive approach by both sides since there is a general feeling
that there was absolute discrimination shown by the government
towards the people living in LTTE areas.
Q: The JVP however has come out
strongly against the involvement of the LTTE in the relief and
reconstruction effort in the north and east. Do you see the JVP's
opposition as a serious problem?
A: I don't know on what basis
the JVP is opposing. Because this is a correct move that is taken in
view of the control the LTTE exerts on certain areas under them.
Unless the government acts jointly with the LTTE, people living in
these areas will be deprived of the facilities and also the
development of infrastructure is essential in these areas. So I
don't see any cause for any objection by JVP.
Q: The four co-chairs in a statement
issued after the Brussels meeting has called upon the government and
the LTTE to work together in the north and east with regard to
relief and rehabilitation efforts and to develop the tsunami
affected areas, especially with sensitivity shown to the peace
process. Do you think it is possible given the JVP's opposition?
A: I believe the JVP will
understand the importance of interacting with each other wherever
and whenever possible for the government and the LTTE in matters
related to LTTE areas. This will definitely provide better
understanding and build confidence between the two parties so that
an environment that might provide for an acceptable solution for the
ethnic strife may be possible. The understanding between the parties
that is gradually emerging after the tsunami should be welcomed by
anyone who genuinely anticipates a solution to the problem. So I
believe the JVP will realise the stark facts and adjust itself to be
compatible with the emerging scenario, which is definitely in the
interest of the entire country.
Q: Would you say the government runs
the risk of losing the aid pledged if it refused the JVP's demand?
A: The countries that have
pledged aid are more concerned about how the government and the LTTE
create an environment to solve the ethnic crisis. Certainly the
donors are not going to be bothered about remarks made by individual
parties. The donor countries may not heed any obstructive measure by
any party or organisation. Our concern is also to evolve a mechanism
to find an answer to the ethnic question under any circumstances.
The President is keen about it. So what individual parties say does
not matter to the donor countries.
Q: President Kumaratunga announced
legislation to give effect to the task forces would be introduced in
parliament in January or February. Is this going to happen?
A: Yes. I will present a special
legislation known as 'Tsunami Disaster Special Provision Act' in
parliament in February. This act is being drafted so as to deal with
matters like issuing of death certificates, adoption of children,
custody of young persons, rights of immovable property, safety of
movable property, quantum of punishment to those who commit offences
in the nature of theft and destruction to property and sexual
offenses. This will be applicable for a specific period in respect
of tsunami victims. But of course any person found in violation of
these above mentioned offences in any of the tsunami-affected areas
also would be dealt with according to this act.