Joint Opposition MP Gamini Lokuge, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about the current political situation of the country and his group’s plan for the future. He shared the following:
How do you look at the current political situation?
There is no redress for the country economically. People face untold difficulties in their day-to-day lives. The entire country has ground to a standstill. There is no solution in sight to problems confronting the country as a whole. The govt has not worked out solutions to demands by the trade unions. Also, doctors have struck work demanding solutions to matters of their concern. They also remain unresolved. The government is becoming more and more repressive only.
As a politician, you worked with the trade union sector for a long time. There is a perception in the country that there should be a limit to its actions. What is your opinion?
First and foremost, whenever trade unions raised issues in the past, the successive governments intervened to address them without prejudice. The successive governments attempted to resolve the issues at hand. Those attempts were successful or unsuccessful at times. After deliberations, a win-win situation was achieved in the past. However, the current rule is stubborn. It is not ready for any compromise. That is where the problem is. University academics resorted to trade union action during the time of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. We never abdicated our responsibility of talking to them. I, as the Labour Minister intervened for the settlement of it. We tried to address them through a mechanism for labour dispute resolution. The then President made his own efforts. Also, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa intervened. Finally, the problem was addressed. Otherwise, we did not resort to ad hoc measures such replacement of striking workers with new recruits.
University academics resorted to trade union action during the time of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. We never abdicated our responsibility of talking to them. I, as the Labour Minister intervened for the settlement of it
As for the postal trade union action, workers have put forward demands for their rights. Besides, they are opposed to the purported plan to lease out some heritage buildings, housing post offices at the moment, to an Indian company that is in liaison with the present government. If it is to be done so, there are local entrepreneurs to be considered. Local businessmen should be prioritized. We should look to foreign companies as the next option only. Today, the government is obsessed with foreign businessmen. At least, they should have considered joint ventures involving local and foreign partners. We need to build a strong local entrepreneurship to run the economy.
If it is a local company, we can have a check on EPF and ETF contributions. If it is a foreign company, it is sometimes difficult. I have noticed it as one time Labour Minister. We have endorsed foreign companies to start operations here merely considering the amount of money put on the ground. They are sometimes given loan facilities from the local banks. They make money. In case of a crisis, they leave the country and declare their companies bankrupt. I noticed such issues on numerous occasions in the past. When a foreign investor is brought, we should not merely go by the amount of money to be invested by him. His credibility also matters. We have to consider his standing in international business.
During the time of your government, some people say there was suppression of your trade union activities. In fact, one garment factory worker was killed during a protest. Today, they say there is democratic space for trade union action, what is your view?
What happened during our time was an attempt to ensure pension rights for private sector employees. Yet, some unions and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) whipped up a huge emotion against it. They projected the message that the government was trying to deprive workers of their EPF and ETF benefits. Instead, we tried to work out a pension fund with contribution from the govt, the ETF and all. That is for the benefit of all. On the contrary, the JVP and other interested parties acted with a different agenda.
There was agreement among all on this. But, some spread misinformation and provoked workers. It led to protest. Unfortunately, one got killed. It was totally unwarranted. The JVP promised to submit its proposals for a pension fund. It has not yet materialized. Today, there is a govt installed with the help of the JVP.
What does the Joint Opposition plan to do under the current political situation?
We have a comprehensive political plan in hand. It was formulated taking into account the current situation and our past mistakes. Today, labour laws are violated. The current Labour Minister has a difficult job in hand.
We have a comprehensive political plan in hand. It was formulated taking into account the current situation and our past mistakes. Today, labour laws are violated. The current Labour Minister has a difficult job in hand
Though you said the country was embroiled in a crisis, a national election cannot be conducted till 2020. Do you believe that the government could be changed with the alteration of numbers in Parliament before that?
I believe so. Virtually, the government is divided into three factions at the moment, as far as I can see. The group led by Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka holds one view. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) faction is on a collision course with the United National Party (UNP). The third group is making different voices, not identifying directly with any faction. Today, I saw a media report quoting President Maithripala Sirisena that he would go for constitutional changes not warranting approval by the people at a referendum.
Does it mean the JO is trying to form an interim government with a breakaway group?
We do not want to form such a government in alliance with breakaway groups. In the event of a split, we want to go for a general elections seeking a mandate from people.
Yet, you have a constitutional barrier for it?
Yes, it is true. But, we can pass a resolution with two-thirds in Parliament and call for its dissolution by the President at one point. This is a remote possibility. Be that as it may, anything is possible in politics. The unimagined happens in politics.
Country has ground to a standstill
Govt not ready for compromises in dealing with trade unions
People have identified next Presidential Candidate
Will endorse him at right time
Govt is more and more repressive
Will work for a snap poll in time to come
Current UNP is totally different from its past outlook
All problems remain unresolved
An interim government before 2020 cannot be ruled out
Compromise needed in dealing with trade unions
You were with the UNP for a long time. Now, you are with the SLFP. How do you compare and contrast the two?
In the past, the past UNP leaders took visionary steps. That is very much lacking in the present UNP hierarchy. The present UNP leadership formed governments on two occasions. No long-term development was planned. There is a unity government now. Nothing is being planned for long term development of the country.
Today, Sri Lanka is, more or less, self-sufficient in food crops such as chillies. That was due to the visionary steps taken by UNP leader the late Dudley Senanayake way back. At that time, food items such as onions, chillies and rice were brought from elsewhere. An agriculture policy was launched to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in food. It was continued. Today, the country is run in a daily piecemeal manner.
Today, the government is obsessed with foreign businessmen. At least, they should have considered joint ventures involving local and foreign partners. We need to build a strong local entrepreneurship to run the economy
Some people in the SLFP harp on you when you talk about the future of the party. That is because of your strong affiliation with the UNP in the past. How do you see it?
I took a policy decision to join hands with the MR government at that time. He had a plan to fight the war on terrorism. We noticed it being conducted successfully. After that, we proposed to the UNP leadership to support the then govt unconditionally while being in the opposition. It did not happen. So, we, a group of 17, joined the MR govt. At that time, the govt did not have a majority in Parliament. MR not only ended the war, but also brought about a lot of development. His volume of development work is much larger than that of the UNP even. We see highways today. He even started the extension of the Mahaweli scheme from the point stopped by late President JR Jayewardene.
When MR was carrying out his programme for development, an international conspiracy was hatched to unseat him from office. People were lined up for this plot to be executed. Today, people have realized it. That is the reason for people to throw their weight behind him again in large numbers. After an electoral defeat, a party is wiped out at the election to be followed next. Yet, MR could have formed a govt if not for some decisions taken by the present SLFP leadership in the run up the parliamentary elections in August, 2015. International conspirators listed Sri Lanka for a regime change.
When MR was carrying out his programme for development, an international conspiracy was hatched to unseat him from office. People were lined up for this plot to be executed
However, MR faces a constitutional barrier in contesting for presidency. What is your plan then?
We do not want him to contest the Presidential Election next time.We would field a formidable candidate. There is no barrier for it.
Have you identified this candidate…
People in the country have identified him/her. We would endorse that person at the right time. MR will contest parliamentary elections. We sense the public support for us. It was visible at the May Day rally. For the first time, two persons died in a stampede at a potilical rally. Today, the govt is scared to have the local govt election fearing defeat.