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  Interviews  


‘Eighty per cent of my constituents wants me to join ruling alliance’
Chief opposition whip praises govt

By Chamara Lakshan Kumara

When the late J R Jayewardene was the president, he made it a practice to include opposition parliamentarians in the delegations to the UN. However, the leaders who succeeded him failed to continue with this tradition. I appreciate the government gesture in extending this invitation to me. When I showed the invitation to our leader, he told me that accepting it would lead to unnecessary problems. Therefore, I did not join the delegation

There was a strong rumour in the political circles in the recent past that UNP stalwart John Amaratunga, who is also the chief opposition whip, was planning to cross over to the government.
The rumour acquired wings when it came to be known that Amaratunga had been listed as a member of the Sri Lankan government delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions.
On second thoughts, Amaratunga had decided not to accompany President Mahinda Rajapaksa to New York. He, however, made his planned visit to New York. The Nation had occasion to meet Amaratunga to discuss several topical issues as well as on his political future


Question: You were much in the news in the recent past. There were rumours too revolving around you. How do you account for them?
Answer: The invitation I received from the External Affairs Ministry to become a member of the Sri Lankan delegation triggered these rumours.

Q: What was the rationale for the External Affairs Ministry to extend such an invitation to you?
Considering my capacity as the opposition Whip!
Q: But there is no parliamentary convention that the opposition whip be a member of delegations to the UN General Assembly sessions. Is there any such convention?
No... There is no such convention or tradition. When the late J R Jayewardene was the president, he made it a practice to include opposition parliamentarians in the delegations to the UN. However, the leaders who succeeded him failed to continue with this tradition. I appreciate the government gesture in extending this invitation to me. When I showed the invitation to our leader, he told me that accepting it would lead to unnecessary problems. Therefore, I did not join the delegation.
‘I returned the air tickets’
Q: But you went to New York?
Yes. I went. Anyway, I would visit the US once a year because my children are living there.
Q: But you used the air ticket offered by the ministry?
I returned the air tickets and obtained a new set for the trip.
Q: Did you pay for the new set of air tickets?
I asked the ticketing agency to inform me of the air fare involved. But I have not heard from them so far.
Motion of no-confidence
Q: At the time the External Affairs Ministry invited you to join the delegation to the UN, a motion of no-confidence against the External Affairs Minister had been presented by you. Is it morally correct for you to accompany the External Affairs Minister on a foreign trip, at a time you had submitted a motion of no confidence against him?
It is not correct to say that I was to accompany him. All members of the delegation were representing the country. The Minister himself was a representative of the country. We were to attend the General Assembly attended by delegates from all member countries.
Q: But you received the invitation from the External Affairs Ministry?
Yes. I received the letter from the External Affairs Ministry.
Q: The opposition has raised a hue and cry against the `jumbo size’ of the delegation and the massive expenditure incurred.
Who has made an outcry against the size of the delegation and the expenses involved? I did not see protests made by anyone.
Q: The JVP had staged massive public protests!
Ah! The JVP would protest against anything and everything
Criticisms ‘not justified’
Q: Do you say that sending a large delegation to the UN is not something to criticise about?
Yes. I think there is no justification for such criticisms. We too have a right to participate in such events. During the days of the late JR delegations comprising several groups attended.
Q: But other countries send small delegations to the UN. Only a few delegates from a country are allowed to participate in the UN sessions. What business is there for a large number of delegates to do at the UN?
Selecting members for his entourage is something left to the discretion of the head of state.
Other activities on sidelines
Q: Don’t you think that for the majority of the delegation, this trip to the UN was nothing more than a picnic?
It is true that the participation in the UN sessions is restricted to a few delegates led by the President. But there is activity beneficial to the country going on, on the sidelines of the UN sessions. For example, opportunities are provided for Sri Lankan investors to meet their US counterparts. Such activity had been organised during our times as well.
Q: But weren’t there more politicians than investors in the delegation? There were a number of UNP politicians who crossed over to the government recently in this delegation.
What’s wrong with that? Even in our days, similar delegations – though not so big as this -had attended the UN sessions.
Q: What significance does an occasion like the UN sessions hold for MPs?
To meet the heads of state. Attending `the UN Assembly’ does not mean that your role is nothing more than delivering an address from a podium in a large hall. Meetings of heads of state take place in different rooms on a daily basis.
Q: But small delegations from some countries attend this assembly which you describe as very important.
It is like this: Some countries send small delegations. But some other countries don’t.
Q: But according to our information no delegation as large as ours had come from any other country.
I cannot say anything about it, because I did not attend the sessions.
‘I had no plan to join govt’
Q: There was widespread speculation that you were going to join the government. Did you have such a plan?
No. There was no such plan. If I had such a plan I would have crossed over when the 18th Amendment was introduced.
Q: But I understand that you were set to defect on that occasion, but Ranil prevented the move.
No. That’s a lie. If I wanted, I would have crossed over. There is no need for me to consult anybody. If I really wanted to go, there is none capable of preventing this John Amaratunga from going!
Q: We hear that you bargained for an important Ministry and you had decided to mark time in the opposition due to an anticipated delay in materialising the portfolio asked for.
I didn’t ask for a portfolio.
Asked for no portfolio
Q: Despite your denial, many believe that you will eventually join the government.
Some of our people with an eye on mustering more preferences kept telling this story even at the last general election. Some people coveting my position in parliament are now spreading various rumours. Can I help these rumours?
Q: Please give me a direct answer to this question. Will you join the government or not?
I have no such idea at the moment.
Q: Does it mean that it would be a possibility in the future?
I can’t say what will happen in the future. But more than 80 percent of my electorate says that I should join the government.
Q: So why don’t you go ahead and join the government?
It is not easy to make up my mind in a hurry.
Terrorism defeated
Q: What’s your reading of the current functioning of the government?
I commend the government for wiping out terrorism. It’s something we couldn’t do. Meanwhile, several massive development projects are making headway in the country.
Q: But a few months ago, you did not speak in this `tone’.
No. I said the same thing. I also participated in the celebration held at the Galle Face Green.
Law ‘violators’ punished
Q: Imprisoning Sarath Fonseka is the main moot point in political circles these days. What have you got to say on this issue?
That’s the result of a legal procedure. Those violating the law are punished.
Q: Do you say that he had violated the laws and regulations?
We will know whether he had at the conclusion of legal proceedings.
Q: The UNP says that the punishment imposed him is too severe. Do you agree with that?
When talking about the punishment, he could have been put under house arrest, given the services he had rendered. Sending him to jail was not mandatory.
Q: Do you take up the position Sarath Fonseka should be punished.
He may be punished if he is found guilty.
Q: But the opposition says he had done no wrong!
How can they say that before the conclusion of the case?
Q: Isn’t your stand on Sarath Fonseka in conflict with that of your party?
It is not acceptable that he had done no wrong and he should not be punished. It is a matter to be resolved through a legal process.
Q: Do you believe that Sarath Fonseka had done wrong when considering his track record as an army officer?
I cannot say anything definitely because I did not serve in the army.
Q: But you did politics with him?
When he came forward as the common opposition candidate, the party decided to support his candidature. We extended him the maximum support with no concern about his background.
Q: Do you say that the decision taken at that time is wrong?
I cannot say wrong. It was a collective decision taken by our working committee.
Q: If given the choice to function as either as the Opposition Whip or a Cabinet Minister, which position would you pick?
Positions do not matter to me. I only want to keep myself gainfully occupied.
Key role of opposition whip
Q: Have you got your hands full as the Opposition Whip?
Yes. I have been doing a lot of work in my capacity as the Chief Opposition Whip.
Q: Can you describe the work you have been doing?
Well, assigning speakers, providing speakers with background material on Acts of Parliament and attending to the needs of opposition members in general. I have discharged the functions of my office as the Chief Opposition Whip in a just and fair manner and to the best of my ability.
Q: But on a day in the recent past, the sittings could not be continued for want of a quorum. The attendance of opposition MPs too was poor. There is no excuse for having shirked your responsibility as the chief opposition whip on this occasion
There was a reason for the poor attendance of MPs on that day. It was the Private Members’ Motions day. The MPs could either attend or not attend as taking a vote did not arise.
Q: Should the MPs maintained by public funds be necessarily present in parliament only at voting time?
When voting on an important bill is to be taken up, we send the `three-line’ notice to the MPs signifying that their presence is mandatory. On the day in question, there was no debate on a bill. There was no bill to be taken up on that day. There was a motion by Ravi Karunanayake on the order paper. The motion referred to a scenario that could never materialize. Meanwhile, a question about Sarath Fonseka arose. At that time, the government MPs had walked out. Later, one government MP returned to the chamber and pointed out that there was no quorum.
Q: However, had there been a sufficient number of MPs from the opposition, the question of adjourning the sittings for want of a quorum would not have arisen?
There was no compulsion for them to attend Parliament that day.
Reforms on course
Q: You functioned as a member of the UNP reforms committee. You are satisfied with the progress so far of the reforms process?
The reforms process is proceeding smoothly. We, as the committee,c made only a few ad hoc changes. Now a new constitution is being beaten into shape. This is quite welcome. There should be a fair and democratic methodology for selecting persons for all high posts including that of the leader.
Q: You are a member with a long association with the UNP. Will there be a break with this long tie with the party in the future?
I will remain in the party as long as I want. That’s my freedom!
Q: Does it mean that you are not a `green-blooded’ UNPer?
Certainly not. My blood is red!