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"All MPs may get Ministerial Posts"

Nirmal Ranjith

Q: There was a great deal of criticism about the former regime but with this present government also they keep adding minister after minister. What is the difference you see? Do you think that this is necessary?

A: It is not a matter of necessity. It’s a part of the political game. The rationale behind the large cabinet is due to the way in which the government was formed at the very beginning. And once the Rajapaksa government was defeated, the president was consolidating his authority with the SLFP. He wanted to win over as many SLFPers as possible. That was the rationale behind the formation of the so called national government.

Therefore the nature of our political culture is that people are joining the government for personal benefits. Especially the ministerial portfolio is one of the main objectives and targets when they join a government. The more MPs you have on your side, the more ministerial portfolios you have to create. That’s the simple logic.

When it come to the formation of a reasonable number of cabinet ministers  according to the necessity; the president himself made a request to a group of people led by Prof. Siri Hettige sometime back and asked him to produce a report. Then they produced the report taking into account the idea of this so called national government into account and then the proposal was prepared with 35 ministerial portfolios. Even I attended some of the discussions and Prof. Hettige very clearly states that there is no need for even 35 and that 30 would be more than enough but due to the need of  national government, we increased it to 35. But in my opinion that was not considered when the new ministries and portfolios were created. Now there is no limit and I won’t be surprised if all the 225 members will be made ministers at one point of time.

Q: Sri Lanka has to submit a report to the UNHRC in June. Do you think that we have done enough to satisfy them according to what we have promised?

A: You will never know the mind-set of those who are in the decision making capacity in the UNHRC. They also don’t take objective decisions. They consider a lot of other factors and therefore when it comes to certain aspects, especially in relation to the post war, the military conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE and what happened afterwards.

There are a lot of things to be done especially to address the concerns of the Tamil society. There are some improvements, especially where the military is present in the north and east but when it comes to the issues of these allegations of war crimes, I don’t think there is an improvement or progress. Actually this war crime allegation is a very tricky thing and I also think there are certain political motivations behind these allegations because some of them are highly objective allegations.

Those who promote these war crime allegations are also interested parties in the political agendas. But you cannot forget the fact that it is a very traumatic experience for the ordinary people in the north and east, especially the Tamils. So whatever the legal definitions are for the war crimes, the bottom line is that the people in the north and east have lost their loved ones, their properties and so on, because they were subjected to highly unfortunate circumstances. So, there is a need from their side to know what happened to their children, parents and loved ones and so on and that is a genuine concern.

I mean you can’t always point your figure at the Tamil Diaspora and other Tamil nationals with certain political agendas. Of course in certain instances you can argue that there are certain political interests but at the same time you can’t forget the fact that there is a genuine concern from the ordinary people.

So you have to address not just the concerns of the parties with political agendas but genuine concerns of the ordinary people. I have seen a number of studies done in the post war period where people have expressed their dissatisfaction over what has happened. They are not fully satisfied with the situation. Therefore I think there are a lot of things to be done to improve the situation, especially the human rights situation and the security situation from the point of view of the ordinary Tamil people. I am not talking about the Tamil political parties but about the ordinary Tamil people.

Q: One of the main political slogans the present government uses is that the previous regime was corrupt and about the corruption and the malpractices that were rampant within the previous regime and this is what brought them into power. But under the current scenario do you see any difference between the two?

A:  Unfortunately there is no difference. There are a lot of civil allegations. We don’t know if these are true or not.  But even with the previous government we don’t know if they are true or not as they were also only allegations. Nothing has been proven so far. Even for the present government, there are allegations. I don’t see a strong political commitment from the present government to address the issues. I’m not talking about bringing the people of the previous government before the law. It is not easy to investigate all these cases and bring these people before the law, as that is a long process.

You know that there is a certain amount of misconduct and abuse of power and abuse of public funds but it is not easy to prove those. There are people who have accumulated a lot of wealth over the years and you cannot see any legitimate way that they could have accumulated this without abusing their powers but it is not easy to prove that they have done this. But if you have a political commitment to change this situation and this ugly system, you can expose these mechanisms and implement new practices to make them difficult for the politicians and those who occupy high positions to abuse their power to gain personal benefits. I can’t see that kind of commitment from the present government also and that’s why there’s no difference between the previous regime and the present government.

Q: The President on several occasions has made promises that he will not allow taxes to be brought in to burden the ordinary people. But on the other hand his very cabinet is bringing in all sorts of taxes which are in turn putting a heavy burden on the ordinary people. How do you see this situation?

A: That is a serious issue as now we have a big problem in our economy – tax system where 80% of the tax income is from indirect taxes. Only 20% comes from the direct income taxes. One may argue that if you increase the direct taxes it would discourage the investments. But actually this has been this way for a long time but there has been no improvements and not much development also. But when you increase the indirect taxes the victims are those who are remaining in the lowest income strata. These are people in the lowest income hierarchy who have a fixed monthly income and who have just enough for the monthly survival or even below that. They are the people that suffer mostly; that are the lower and lower middle classes.

They say that in the short run it will be difficult but in the long run they will be benefitted but this is not a very convincing argument. There is a point where, given the nature of this present economic vision, we cannot advise people to tolerate that kind of extra pressure. I would look at that type of approach with some sympathy in the 1970’s especially when Dr. N. M. Perera made his famous statement to tighten their belts but this has been misinterpreted. What he said was to prepare for the time of turbulence that was coming up. Those days they had a vision for the industrialisation and national economic development. Now there isn’t that kind of vision to develop the national economy.

Now we have the neo liberal economic policies which takes place in a highly globalised competitive environment so therefore there is no guarantee about a short term performance and we cannot ask the people to suffer hoping for benefits in the future because that is not guaranteed at all.

Therefore any economic policy decision has to have a very clear programme to protect, especially the lower and middle income people. That’s where we have to be very concerned about these recent increase in taxes. The president also seems to be aware of the gravity of the issue because being the leader of the SLFP he has a lot of pressure from the Joint Opposition and Mahinda Rajapaksa and that is a sensitive political issue for the President also. So that’s why he has issued certain signals to the Prime Minister and Finance Minister and the Central Bank. Yes that’s going to be a serious issue.

-SL-

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