State Minister of Vehicle Regulation, Bus Transport Services and Train Compartments and Motor Car Industry Dilum Amunugama said the Government has taken all possible steps to control the Covid-19 situation and Health authorities are trying their utmost to trace the last contract of every patient. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the State Minister said the Government hopes it will be able to get the pandemic under control soon. Even if it is brought under control, perhaps there will be another cluster growing up in another place and it will be the same situation. This is the worldwide scenario and we may have to learn to live with it.
Q: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has said that the 20th Amendment should not be proceeded with, in its entirety, and what the country needed is a new Constitution. What is your comment on this?
A: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference says exactly what we are saying. We also want to abolish the 19th Amendment and go back to the 18th Amendment and introduce a new Constitution. The only way to do that is to bring the 20th Amendment, there is no other way. That is why we don’t wish to add pluses and minuses to 20A. Even Government lawmakers wish to add various features to the 20A draft. We don’t need to do that at this particular time because soon after the 20A, we will go for a new Constitution. They can propose those salutary features at that time. If we try to add those features now, it would be like trying to draft a new Constitution in a couple of weeks.
That is not practical. At present, our main objective is to abolish the 19A. What is happening at the Presidential Commission on Easter Sunday attacks makes it clear that more than the terrorist attack, the cause for that disaster was the 19th Amendment. All churches and bishops need to understand this. This is a good example to show that we don’t need the 19A.
Q: Even some Opposition lawmakers question why the 20A is introduced without going for a new Constitution in a year?
A: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected to office for five years. One year has already elapsed. A new Constitution cannot be drafted within two months. It would take another year to draft a new Constitution.
The President will then have only three more years. We can’t wait for another year to start work. We have to commence work on behalf of the people and they want us to fulfil that task immediately. Therefore, a new Constitution can be introduced while work is in progress. If we try to carry on for another year without abolishing the 19A, it will be another year with no work done.
Q: SLPP parliamentarian Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said that the nine-member expert committee couldn’t fulfil the aspirations of the President and the people so that a parliamentary select committee should be entrusted with the task of drafting a new Constitution. Your comments?
A: That could be done. The nine-member expert committee was appointed not to draft a new Constitution, but to seek the views of the people, organisations and NGOs regarding the new Constitution. We need a high protocol parliament select committee to look into this. There should be constitutional experts in the committee to study the present Constitution and come up with the initial draft which will be first debated within the Government parties and then with the Opposition and thereafter arrive at a final conclusion.
Q: The Opposition tries to portray that the Government is not in a position to pass the 20A in Parliament with a two-thirds majority?
A: That is not their business. No Government MP or a constituent party in the Government has said they are against the 20th Amendment. Certain constituent parties in the Government and some others have intimated their personal ideas to be included in the 20A. All these suggestions are good.
But they should realise that we should first abolish the 19th Amendment and then go ahead with their ideas on the new Constitution. There will be debates and statements on the 20A. At the end of the day, we will vote as a team. As a team we voted for the 19th Amendment knowing well that it could be a disaster for the country. So why should Government members vote against 20A which was drafted by us.
Q: The present Government had to take over a country with an economy which had suffered a severe setback due to the mismanagement of the former Yahapalana Government. Once again the economy has been adversely affected due to the Covid-19 outbreak. What are the Government’s plans to rebuild the economy?
A: We have already implemented financial strategies and managed to stop the depreciation of the rupee. At least it is not falling anymore. While trying to stabilise the rupee, ‘you cannot eat the cake and have the cake’. There are shortages such as not importing vehicles and various other items. However, I would say our recovery strategy is successful as the rupee is not depreciating anymore.
Within one year, the Government’s recovery strategy has been good amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We knew that Covid-19 would have an adverse impact on the economy.
However, the damage caused to the economy by the ‘Yahapalana virus’ was much worse than the Covid-19. We have to move on and that is what we plan to do. We are trying to start local production. There is nothing else to do than take advantage of the Covid-19 situation that has flooded the world. When our neighbouring countries are at their worst due to Covid-19, we have started to do something economically beneficial for the country. Unfortunately, we too have been hit by the Covid-19, though we hope to recover soon.
We need a new budget for the New Year, to carry out the development drive and restructure certain institutions. All that will be done at the beginning of 2021.
Q: Another Covid-19 cluster has emerged and what are the steps taken by the Government to address the situation?
A: The Government has taken all possible steps to control the situation. We are trying to trace the last contract in all cases. On the previous occasion, the largest cluster was the Navy cluster but it was restricted to one camp. Unfortunately, Brandix has its workers scattered throughout the country. Though they work in one factory, they lodge mostly in the same places so that the contract rate is high.
We hope to get it under control soon. Even if it is brought under control, there could be another cluster growing up in another place and it would be the same situation, perhaps. This is the worldwide scenario and we may have to learn to live with it.
Q: Will the Government go for a total lockdown within the next few days depending on the situation?
A: I don’t think we should go for a lockdown at this juncture. Although the total number of Covid-19 infected cases is around 5,000, most of them have returned to their homes now. Actually, the number of cases is something close to 3,000. Some have tested positive for Covid-19 while some are recovering and are discharged from hospitals.
The death rate has dropped to a low level. For example, if we go for a total lockdown for one month and open the country again, there is the possibility of growing up another cluster somewhere. But if we need to go for a lockdown, we have to do it.
The health sector says the situation is not so bad.
As the State Minister of Transport, I have been talking to them daily and asking them whether we should stop public transport as it is a risky area which could lead to a large spread of the Covid-19. They say we need not go for a total stop of public transport yet.
Q: Some complain that the Government has failed to bring the Treasury bond scam culprits to book. Your views?
A: Certainly it has to be done. However, a court decision is awaited. The Government can bring them down from any country they are living at present. We have done that before with the terrorists. We can do the same with anyone else.
Q: What are your views on the ongoing investigations by the Presidential Commission on the Easter Sunday attacks?
A: The proceedings of the Commission show that the main reason which led to that disaster was lack of coordination and mismanagement among the President, the Prime Minister, Police, Security Forces and the intelligence services. This happened due to the 19th Amendment.
The proceedings of the Commission are remarkably good as they have been able to go into matters in detail. There will be a final verdict issued, and whoever is responsible will have to be brought before the law. There will be two parties, one the terrorists who carried out the attacks and the other, those irresponsible in the political sector.
Q: Over 100 Government MPs have made a written request to the President to re-arrest and conduct a fresh probe on former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s brother Riyaj Bathiudeen in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks. Could you explain?
A: Whatever the information we received was through the comments made by the police. It was shocking to hear the same police spokesman reverting and saying there is no evidence whatsoever even to proceed with the case. It was the police which made a comment at one time that this person was involved in this incident.
Even the evidence given by former Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake and the statement by the then police spokesman said this person was deeply involved.
Government MPs have handed over a letter to the President requesting to conduct a fresh probe into this incident. I think someone should inquire why this has happened at the CID as well.
Q: Some SJB parliamentarians try to portray the arrest of former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen as a political witch-hunt. Is there any truth in this?
A: You can call it whatever you like, political or non-political. But it is clear that bombs were exploded at churches and hotels and close to 400 injured and dead.
There is no one in jail now responsible for this terrorist attack. When such an incident happens, there should be at least someone in custody.
This is a country where nearly 400 people were killed despite intelligence warnings but no action taken and no one is in custody up to now.
Some are appearing before the Presidential Commission and merely giving evidence. Unfortunately, none has claimed responsibility for this tragedy so far.