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DateLine Sunday, 8 April 2007

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New Year expectations of General Secretaries

Face 2 Face by Dinesh Weerawansa As we head for yet another Sinhala and Hindu New Year, the Sunday Observer spoke to the General Secretary of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Minister Susil Premajayanth and his vis-a-vis from the United National Party, Parliamentarian Tissa Attanayake to share their New Year thoughts - views on current political developments and future plans.

Q: Do you think Sri Lanka, as a country has achieved its targets during the past year?

S.P: Our first priority has been national security. Our brave forces have achieved many victories in East, completely liberating towns in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. Despite all battles, our economy has shown a sound 7.4 percent growth. Infrastructure development projects are on. Norochcholai and Upper Kotmale power generation projects and the Weerawila Airport project have been launched. President's visit to China has helped to find finances for the Hambantota harbour project.


Susil Premajayanth


Tissa Attanayake

T.A: No, I don't think so. Since the last Sinhala New Year to this New Year, people?s expectations have not been fulfilled. People expected a better living standard and a safe environment to live freely. There are allegations on human rights violations under a war atmosphere.

Q: What steps should the Government take or plan to take to reduce the cost of living?

S.P: It's a two-way mechanism of increasing people's income as well as production. Salaries of over one million government servants were increased by 70 percent last year and the final phase is being paid from this year. Under the graduate employment program, we found jobs to all unemployed graduates up to 2004. 8,000 more who graduated recently would be given jobs this year. We found more foreign jobs under state patronage. Unemployment was reduced to 6.5 percent. Stock markets recorded highest ever levels and more foreign investors came here. In a bid to reduce the cost of living, prices of 14 essential items have been slashed under a price control structure.

T.A: The latest Central Bank report said there is a 7.4 percent economic growth. But we do not feel it is a realistic and practical figure. People are not enjoying the benefits, though they claim such a good growth rate. Cost of living is going up. We are a country which mainly depends on imports. But when the Rupee is depreciating fast, how could we face the challenge? We need strict discipline and big investments.

Q: How do you assess the performances of our security forces in the nation?s drive to eliminate terrorism?

S.P: When President Mahinda Rajapaksa took over, everything was in a mess. He had to make several important moves to strengthen our security mechanism, rebuild our intelligence. Under his able leadership, we implemented several welfare measures to families of security forces personnel, build houses for them. Our forces fought bravely to eliminate terrorism and liberate the East.

T.A: We have to defeat terrorism. We all agree on that irrespective of our political affiliations. But at the same time, we should find a lasting political solution to the North East problem. Sri Lanka gained several military victories and we all salute our heroes in the security forces for those great feats. But the NE problem should be balanced. We have been facing a war for more than two decades. It makes a big impact on the nation.

Q: Will we be able to achieve peace during the coming year?

S.P: The President called an All-Party Conference to find a solution through a dialogue. The SLFP's proposals would be based on a unified country, but with more powers to the Prime Minister. In short, we have proposed devolution of power right from village level. Yes, we could definitely be able to usher peace under the leadership of President Rajapaksa.

T.A: I feel it's difficult under the present circumstances. The Government seems to keep more faith on a war situation. But a guerrilla warfare could not be overcome purely through a military action. The best example is the US forces in Iraq. We have to give a solution not to Prabhakaran but to the people in the North and the East. The Government shows their reluctance to go for peace talks.

Q: As the General Secretary, could you briefly tell us what your party's proposals for the conflict in North are?

S.P: The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) consists of many parties, with people who belong to all communities. But most of their proposals are common. The SLFP is for an undivided Sri Lanka, with maximum possible power devolution. It will be based on Mahinda Chinthanaya.

T.A: We have made it very clear. We have to find a solution while protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country. It should be based on either Tokyo or Oslo declarations. The final solution should be forwarded for a referendum. We will never support the division of this country.

Q: Are you happy with Sri Lanka?s economic performance during the past year?

S.P: As you know, the country has shown a remarkable 7.4 percent economic growth, beating all odds. But one could question as to whether the people feel it? It takes some time for the people to feel and enjoy those benefits. For example, it would take 48 months for the Norochcholai power project to make a contribution to the National Grid. Now we pay Rs.15 to generate a thermal power unit but it costs just Rs. 5 to 6 to generate a unit by coal power. Then we could pass on that benefit to consumers. We have several short and long terms plans.

T.A: No, I am not. The Central Bank report which records a 7.4 percent economic growth cannot be accepted. If that is correct, people should benefit by that. If its true, the cost of living should come down, more jobs should be generated with more infrastructure development projects. Those are mere political statistics. In doing so, we lose the opportunity of getting international grants.

Q: The UNP has declared that they would form a Government after the Sinhala and Hindu New Year? Will this be a reality or yet another day dream?

S.P: For the first time ever in UNP's history a large number of MPs have crossed over to the Government. More importantly, those include their Deputy Leader and several UNP veterans. With 17 MPs recently joined and the six who came individually, 23 MPs have joined us, that is almost one third of the total number of UNP MPs elected at the last General Election. Having lost 14 successive elections, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe could do nothing less but to make utterances like these to halt the deteriorating morale of his party supporters. He tries to take cheap and selfish advantage out of LTTE attacks. We now have 120 MPs, more than the mere 113 we had in 1994. We are stronger than before.

T.A: As the main opposition, we account for nearly 50 percent stable vote base by now. Promises made at the last Presidential Elections have not been fulfilled. There are shattered dreams all over. We supported the Government to settle the NE problem but they rejected our support. The Government cannot answer the problems of human rights, IDPs and the cost of living. We will take this message across the country. We are ready to meet the aspirations of the people.

Q: Former Eastern leader of the LTTE, Karuna Amman has said the terrorists smuggled five aircrafts during the Ceasefire Agreement. Do you agree with him? What is your impression on the Government plans to have a referendum to determine the fate of the CFA?

S.P: Karuna has said the LTTE smuggled parts of four to five aircrafts during the CFA. Two years ago, then Foreign Minister, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar cautioned the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga about the LTTE's airpower. That was also conveyed to the US, EU, India and rest of the international community to develop a safety net. India's Hindu newspaper too reported about two LTTE light aircraft in 2005. It was Ranil Wickremesinghe who signed the CFA without even informing the Parliament or even his MPs.

T.A: That's a malicious statement made by Karuna. It was way back in 1997/98 that the Indian intelligence RAW spotted the LTTE's air power. This was subsequently proved through aerial video footages. I don't know how many aircrafts the LTTE has. It's up to the Government intelligence to find it out. It's this Government which has been protecting the CFA for the last three years. We signed when we were in power for only 18 months. If the President wants to abolish it, there are provisions in the CFA itself.

Q: What steps could we take to uplift the rural economy and develop those areas?

S.P: We have given priority to this vital area. All matters relating to the development of rural economy have been brought under one umbrella - one Ministry under the President. So far, 12,000 rural projects have started in 4,000 grama niladari divisions. It is a project which centralises the village. Road development and rural electricity programs too have come under this venture. Even computer technology and internet facilities have come under the 'Nanasala' program. We have also concentrated on agricultural development in villages.

T.A: In any economy of a country, its rural economy takes pride of place. We could find good examples from India and Thailand. Sri Lanka too has tried various economic policies. We have only supported industry but not rural economy. We have to increase production from rural family units, concentrate on rural economic development.

Q: What is your wish for this New Year? Any special expectations?

S.P: Completely liberate the East from LTTE terrorism and its dictatorship. We will strengthen our national security. But we could continue to keep faith on a political solution to tackle the problem in the North. That would be discussed at the APC. But similarly, we want to put an end to terrorism in the coming year.

T.A: First is peace, an environment that would enable all of us to live without fear. Then, a good living condition for all of us. We need a solid practical program to eliminate poverty.

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