Minister of Higher Education and Highways, Lakshman Kiriella says, “Tamil parties did not get involved in preparing the ’71 Constitution. They did not join in ’78 either. It is now that they are joining in. In ’71 and ’78, the Constitution was prepared in secret. This is not how we are doing it now. We have allowed every party to join. Each party is submitting their ideas from Clause to Clause.”
Excerpts from the interview given to our sister paper Mawbima:
You have no regrets that you crossed over some time ago?
A: I have no regrets at all. The reason is because back then, we engaged in politics with Chandrika Bandaranaike. However, after her time, they did not make use of our education or intelligence. Ranil Wickremesinghe was a friend of mine at school. I held a discussion with him and then joined the United National Party (UNP).
There are accusations that you have the most number of advisors
A: It seems that some have forgotten that Mahinda had 190 advisors. I do not have advisors. They are officials in charge of projects that are being carried out by my ministry. It is to them that these incorrect titles have been given. Actually, there are 20 project officers.
The work at your ministry is subject to discussions at COPE. Isn‘t there some sort of a controversy?
A: No. COPE did not work according to Parliamentary Standing Orders. If the Auditor General has made an observation, COPE can carry out an investigation based on those observations. That is the Standing Order. It did not happen during the past two years. COPE asks any question they like, from members. They even inquire as to what party members write. COPE can only base their questions on observations. They cannot get involved in calculations. For example, how can they determine how much was spent on a bridge? They do not have the ability, skill or knowledge for that. They can act only on the Auditor General (AG)’s reports. I met the Speaker, AG and Sunil Handunnetti and all three of them mentioned this. We are ready to answer the Auditor General. However, we are not ready to answer to accusations based on gossip.
What you are trying to say indirectly, is that COPE does not have authority
A: No. No, I am not saying that. The Chairman of COPE is similar to a judge. But every day, he is providing interviews to newspapers regarding certain inquiries about COPE. He finds people guilty before hearing the case. I mentioned that too. He says that huge corruption has taken place in connection with the Southern Expressway. If the AG had made some observations and made a recommendation, we would have replied. They cannot ask questions on whatever they feel like. The questions they ask are what members of the JVP write for them.
Do you doubt COPE and its Chairman?
A: No. I do not doubt them. What I am saying is that they have no capacity for such evaluations. They have no skills. I repeat that if the AG questions us on our work during the past two years, we will provide answers. We will not reply to politically motivated complaints.
COPE is questioning alleged fraud on the Central Expressway Project?
A: That is a lie. It is a baseless story. It is clear that we work with transparency. This highway is one that is essential to the country. We tried to start the project in 2002, not recently. But the government was toppled. Mahinda Rajapaksa did not construct this in 2005. That is because he lost in Kandy. We measured 22,000 blocks of land. Even though the previous Government was in power for several years, they did not do an inch of work.
Let us first understand this problem. Although it is said that the Japanese Government is providing assistance for this, it is not the truth is it?
A: No. We are receiving a bank loan.
What is the interest rate?
A: It differs from bank to bank. The general rate is three per cent.
There are allegations that the interest is ten per cent?
A: No. That is not true. The other thing is that this loan is being paid back long term. This is a difficult expressway to build. There are tunnels in certain places. It is only a country like Japan that can build such roadways. The section from Kadawatha to Meerigama is being constructed by a Chinese company. The section from Meerigama to Kurunegala is being built by four local contractors.
Didn‘t JICA intervene to provide loans at very low rates of interest?
A: No. JICA did not get involved. It was when the Prime Minister visited Japan that this loan facility was received. There are accusations that there was some scandal about the awarding of tenders. This rumour is being spread by an organization that is upset that their associates were not awarded the tender.
Why are you giving this task to the Taisei Company?
A: When tenders were called for, it was the Taisei Company that bid at 159 billion dollars.
Didn‘t the Fujita Company also come forward?
A: It was like this. Taisei bid 159 billion dollars. There were two other Japanese companies bidding. Anyhow, the other companies did not turn up. So, the tender went to Taisei Company for 159 billion. However, since they did not provide the Bond, the tender was cancelled. We informed the Japanese Ambassador’s office. They said that both Taisei and Fujita will be there. Finally, neither of them came. Fujita gave a bid of 147 billion. But we had put in a specification that a company should have carried out a similar contract within the past five years. Since they did not fulfil that condition, it was rejected. Even though their bid was 147 billion, they had informed us unofficially that they were willing to reduce the amount to 134 billion. The Taisei Company got to know about it. Then they too said they will do the contract for 134 billion dollars.
Then how did Fujita get involved in one section?
A: That was a request made by the Japanese Government. They requested us to have Fujita Company as an extra contractor if we preferred Taisei. That is what happened.
There are accusations that there was an ‘under the table‘ deal here?
A: Not even a cent’s worth of fraud has taken place here. No tenders were called for any of the highways built by Mahinda. He awarded the contract to anyone he felt like. The other thing is, for corruption to occur the tender has to be awarded. The tender has not been awarded as yet. If it was said that when the highway was being built there was corruption, it could be believed. So, before that happens how can you talk about corruption?
The Japanese Government is not too satisfied with the Taisei Company. Once due to tender scandals, the Japanese Fair Trade Commission filed criminal accusations against this company too, didn‘t it?
A: No. The Japanese Government told us to get Fujita also involved in this. Japan has no objection to our having given this to Taisei.
There is an accusation that an extra 36 billion was used to extend bridges on the Southern Expressway
A: Those are completely false accusations. There is no report from the AG about it. If there is suspicion about such a thing, one could complain to the Bribery Commission. Actually it was first decided to construct this section in a valley area. However, it was later decided to construct it on pillars due to floods. So that costs something extra. Are you aware of the fact that a Monitoring Committee has been appointed to supervise the use of this money? None of them have said that this is wrong.
The President is saying that work is at a standstill in many places
A: He is talking about the work on the Kandy-Colombo Road in the Kadawatha area. I am the one who is keeping him updated on this. That road has been widened already. Now what remains to be done is to remove lamp posts, telephone poles and water.
Didn‘t the President speak about your ministry in an accusatory manner?
A: It was an internal discussion. I do not know who told the media about it.
What you are saying is that someone has engaged in some sort of ‘game‘
A: I do not know. These are political games. However, the good things that were talked about on this occasion did not come out. The Kandy-Colombo Expressway was talked about in that manner. That did not appear in the media.
Meanwhile, it seems apparent that the Government has ‘messed up‘ many things
A: What are they?
Three ministers left the government
A: That is good governance.
The Government came into power saying a new constitution will be brought in. There is public opinion that shortcomings in the existing constitutions will be remedied
A: We always looked at things with suspicion. As a result, we attracted a number of crises. A thirty year war prevailed. In the fifties, Tamil people asked for their language to be used for official documents as well as for obtaining evidence from them in court. We did not even give into this. When other countries were developing, we engaged in war. Now the war has ended. Will we stay separate further? We will bring in a new Constitution which is acceptable to all.
“Tamil parties did not get involved in preparing the ’71 Constitution. They did not join in ’78 either. It is now that they are joining in. In ’71 and ’78, the Constitution was prepared in secret. This is not how we are doing it now. We have allowed every party to join. Each party is submitting their ideas from Clause to Clause.”
The Steering Committee interim report which the Prime Minister submitted to Parliament on 21 September was presented to the Chief Prelates. What was their reaction?
A: The Malwatte Chief Prelate accepted it. Similarly we explained it to the Asgiriya Chief Prelate, too. We have received a good response.
When the new Constitution is being drafted, will it be based on this Steering Committee report?
A: Most certainly, yes.
Can certain facts in it be changed?
A: Yes. However, we will prepare the draft with initial agreement. We will give it to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court says that we have to hold a referendum, we will do so. We will ask the people.
With the environment that is being created, can the Government win an election?
A: Even if we win or lose, we have to go to the people.
Although at first, everyone was in agreement regarding abolishing the Executive Presidency, now the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has taken a few steps backward, hasn‘t it?
A: We have to realize who has the people’s mandate. We have that. The SLFP did not receive a mandate. The people’s mandate was received to abolish the post of Executive President. The President’s view is the same. He is a leader who will give up power. It was to strengthen the government that the SLFP joined. They should honour the people’s mandate.
The opposition is saying that an attempt is being made to hand over the powers of the Central Government to Provincial Councils
A: The basis of this Constitution is the 13th Amendment. What is being done through this is further strengthening Provincial Councils. When the Donoughmore Commission was brought, Up-country Sinhalese said they wanted a separate region. Even the Low Country and North asked for that. However, that did not happen. Even when Soulbury came, the next generation of Up-country people said the same thing. Free India also devolved power. Today, India is protected. However, we did not devolve power. The Up-country people who approached Soulbury told him this. Those in the circle of power in Colombo did not allow that. If there was devolution of power then, today our country would have been a heaven.
Should matters such as religion and race be included in a Constitution?
A: There is nothing like that, in this. We consider everyone to be Sri Lankan citizens. However, we have not modified in any way the Clause regarding Buddhism. The other thing is that the concept of a unitary state is accepted even by the TNA. They say that they will agree to whatever the two main parties agree too. Some persons have caught on to the ideas of extremists such as Shivajilingam and Gajan Ponnambalam.
The government has completed two years now. Everywhere there are protests. What is the reason for these?
A: Now people are enjoying freedom. During the past era, there was no freedom for a protest or to even to talk about things. We do not hinder these things.
The worst situation among these protests is regarding your ministry?
A: No. It was the previous regime that introduced these things into our government. Consider the SAITM problem. It was the Mahinda government that commenced it. Everyone who is shouting out today did not even open their mouths then. Mahinda gave 600 million rupees towards it. These students were given scholarships. Now they take to the streets, shouting.
It is not Mahinda who is running the Government now. What are the solutions to the SAITM crisis being provided by this government?
A: There is a court verdict in favour of SAITM. If we close it down, the students will take us to court. Today, it has become a political issue.
Has SAITM been actually taken over by the government?
A: Ninety per cent ownership is for the government.
But then you are paying Neville Fernando too, aren‘t you?
A: No. But when it is a Government hospital, salaries have to be paid. Those payments are being done.
Does Sri Lanka need private universities?
A: At present, hundreds of institutions in our country are sending students abroad for studies. According to information received from about 25 of these institutions, the country is losing seventeen million rupees.
SAITM has been blacklisted in several countries. The basic accusation is that, those with the least qualifications obtain a medical degree there
A: Students of SAITM say that they are ready to face any examination that is recommended by the Medical Council in order to show off their abilities. Those accusations are completely false. It is only 40% who come to Government universities based on marks. 60% is based on district level. So, students with three B’s from Colombo and Kandy cannot enter the Medical Faculty.
However, those with three S’s from Hambantota or Moneragala and Kilinochchi enter the Medical Faculty. This just shows that students with three S’s come to our universities too.
Doesn‘t the Ministry have the authority to inquire into problems of private universities and regulate those institutions?
A: Previously, there were institutions to carry out regulations. We are establishing an institution to regulate government universities as well as private higher education institutions in this country. These tasks are being carried out by our Deputy Minister. We will present it to Parliament very soon.