Nothing can be published about corruption in the first family



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Interview with Mangala Samaraweera


Sunday Island (SI): Why would the people of this country  want to vote for the UNP at this point in time?


Mangala Samaraweera (MS): Because the country is facing an unprecedented crisis as far as governance, democracy and the economy is concerned and the UNP is the only party with the proven track record, the vision to provide the alternative that this country needs.


SI. Though you say there is a crisis in governance and in democracy, I would say that this is one of the most liberal periods in our recent history. You don’t see the government unnecessarily harassing the opposition. This government has been more liberal than the J.R.Jayewardene-Premadasa governments and the 1994-2001 phase of the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.   What we have now is a continuation of the political peace that Ranil Wickremesinghe established in 2001.


MS:  Your saying that this is a golden era for this country is something that I cannot even comprehend. I am amazed that you can associate the word liberal with the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime which I would say has driven the country more towards the national socialism of Hitler of the 1930s. Do you call the open chauvinism and triumphalism of this government and its attitude to the minorities and other religions a liberal attitude? Do you consider their attitude to the media as liberal? Today Sri Lanka stands as one of the countries where the intimidation and harassment of journalists is at its highest. As a former media minister I am proud to say that during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time, I used the state media in a robust manner to defend state policies – I don’t deny that – but I also ensured that the views of the other side were not obstructed. In fact it was during my time that you had the highest number of debates in the state television stations like Ettha Netta, Janatha Adhikaranaya. At that time people like Rajitha Senaratne, Ravi Karunanayake and other opposition MPs used to come and fare extremely well. I was under pressure from my own party not to have these debates with the opposition but my contention was that just as we had a right to express our views in a robust manner, the opposition also had a right to express their point of view.


SI:  I would grant the fact that when you were the media minister, the state media did invite members of the opposition to TV debates. But you used the state media against the opposition as well. Today the state media does not invite opposition members to live TV programmes (though they do get interviewed in the press). But then you don’t see the state media unleashed against the opposition in quite the way it was during earlier governments.


MS:  I disagree. The way the state media is being abused is nauseating. For example if you listen to some of the programmes of the SLBC every morning, this is vitriolic nasty invective.  If you listen to some of the programmes on ITN by that chap called Mahinda Abeysundara, it is absolute hatred that is being spewed out. Then a government  newspaper goes to the extent of using all kinds of derogatory terms calling me a silly poofter.  Even in the freest of free countries like the US and the UK, using such words would have cost him his job and he would most probably have been prosecuted. And as for someone like you though I don’t agree with many of the things you say, I would say you have been practicing an honourable form of journalism throughout your career, but for you to even imply that this is liberal, is something unbelievable.


SI:  But people like Mahinda Abeysundara cut their teeth during your period as media minister. He was doing the same programme even at that time.


MS:  Mahinda Abeysundara and all these people were certainly around, but we kept them on a leash. They did not spew out hatred as they do now. We would not have allowed them to do so. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government knows how to bring the worst out in people.


 Persecution of


opposition parties


SI: Since this government came into power in 2005, we have not seen the intense persecution of the opposition that we saw under the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime.


MS: For you to say that there is no persecution today, is absurd. Ever since I was removed from the government seven years ago, I have been persecuted in the most incredible ways. After the first month or so, I was invited back into the government by people like Alavi Moulana and my old friend Mahinda hugged me and embraced me and said we all make mistakes sometimes in our lives, and invited me back to join the government and. I said that before we can even discuss that, Sripathy who was in prison at that time and Tiran Alles whose accounts had been frozen and was to be arrested had to be let off the hook, and I refused his offer.


SI:  Was that really the only impediment - just those two matters?


MS:  Yes, there was nothing else.


SI:  But once you were back inside couldn’t you have settled those issues?


MS:  In order to answer that I have to go back to an earlier period but ever since I refused to join his government I have been dragged to the 4th Floor  CID HQ five times in the last seven years. They came up with various fantastic allegations. The present SSP in Matara was at that time in charge of some Division belonging to Gotabhaya in Colombo. One day he came and took a statement from me claiming that there was an anonymous letter alleging that I had ordered some priest to be killed in Ampara some years ago. It started with that. Then they started looking into the various dealings I had in my ministries to see if they can fix me and in the last few months, in the run up to a very important election year, there is an intense campaign to incarcerate or intimidate me.  Last October they arrested me for supposedly stealing a set of speakers and I am still out on bail for that. Then last December, a minor cat burglary was turned into a witch hunt against my private life. My cook made the complaint to the police because I was worried as my desk had been forced open. Had I known that only a few bottles of whisky was missing I would not have bothered to make that complaint.


SI:  Is it really the government or a faction of the UNP that is talking about your private life?


MS:  I can’t see why you are defending the government.  This casual hand who was in and out of  my house was arrested and he confessed to breaking into my house. But later he gave another statement about sexual matters and was joined in this by his wife. Then a President’s Counsel who is the father in law of another MP in the Matara district and a great friend of the Rajapaksa family who doesn’t do anything for free, starts appearing for this cat burglar. Later, the police spokesman starts talking about an archaic law under which I may be prosecuted. When the magistrate dismissed it saying that he is only interested in the burglary and nothing else, they seem to have dropped the matter.


A week later there is another allegation by a gentlemen with a dubiously colourful past from Weligama who claimed that I had taken a huge bribe when I was minister for Ports and Aviation. This bribe is supposed to have been taken for a favour that had not even been granted – approval for a dry port. When I was minister I refused all proposals for a dry port because that would have eaten into the profits of the SLPA. These are all being done to intimidate and harass me and if possible to incarcerate me. Behind all this I do see an organized group of people but the leadership is provided by the government.


And I say it with full responsibility that the Destroy Mangala Mafia is being handled by the defence secretary himself. In this group there are a few people who were very close to me. There is the owner of a private TV station and the owner of a newspaper who is desperate to curry favour with the Rajapaksa administration by proving that he has no links to me whatsoever. There would also be one or two members of parliament from my side. But it is a government initiated operation. Never at any point between 1994 and 2001 and the worst of the Premadasa years did we have so many journalists living abroad because their lives are in danger. It was not only Lasantha Wickremetunga – just a few days ago Mel Gunasekera was killed.


SI:  That had nothing to do with politics.


MS:  How do you know? They rushed to show it was personal. I don’t think so.


SI:  If we go back to that instance where you were nearly arrested following the kurundu polu incident in Matara – the information that I got is that you were responsible for provoking the other side on the morning of October 5, 2012 on Beach Road Matara by attacking a vehicle which was proceeding towards Devinuwara.


MS: Absolutely not. I have video evidence to prove that in the morning when we went to Devundara from Matara, we were totally unarmed but when we arrived at the Devundara Devale, the other party concerned was distributing kurundu polu at 8.30 in the morning. These are videos taken by police informants themselves. We were dispersed and then the other party started moving towards Matara. At that point the police should have dispersed both crowds and prevented anything further from happening. But having been assaulted, some of our crowd returned to Matara before the procession and confronted these people. The whole thing was distorted by this newspaper and television station.


SI: In retaliation for what you call distortion, you tried to bring the owner of a TV station to courts under Section 81 of the Criminal Procedure code. Had you succeeded, that would have been the end of press freedom in this country.  That section is for a magistrate to take pre-emptive action to prevent a breach of the peace.  But if you tried to use it to prevent a media organization from broadcasting news, that could have finished off all of us because the government also could have used it to prevent the media from saying or reporting certain things.  A magistrate anywhere in the country could have imposed restrictions on the press on the grounds that reporting certain things can cause a disturbance of the peace in the country.


MS: If that possibility was there, I’d rather that the government resort to legal methods of doing so, rather than the extra legal methods they are using now to control the media such as assaulting intimidating and killing and on the other hand binding them with laptops and vehicle loans.


SI: During every government that of JRJ, Premadasa and Chandrika there have been charges of suppression of the press.  But during this entire period, the press has been saying whatever they want to say. Even now, I would say that the press is saying whatever they want to say.


Corruption allegations


MS: Absolutely not. If you ever say something in relation to the corruption of the first family, no newspaper would dare publish it. They will publish details of corruption in relation to certain ministers or important people in the government whom the government itself wants attacked. But nothing can be published about the first family. Even when we have said anything about these deals in parliament, under parliamentary privilege, the newspapers have not reported it. When I give an interview, if I say anything about the family, that is not published. Today self-censorship has become a way of life. The president himself tells journalists whom he knows, "You can write about anyone and anything in my government but not about my family". Without talking about the family we cannot talk of corruption or any of the issues that really matter.


SI: I was in Matara just last week and some individuals were telling me, that Mr Basil Rajapaksa actually owns the Lalitha Hotel. (This was an old story that is doing the rounds again.) And that Namal Rajapaksa is building a new hotel in Deniyaya.


MS:  During president Premadasa’s time, it came to a stage where the people would believe anything that was said about the man. The story about the virgins bathing him were more or less cooked up but everyone believed that.  Because corruption is so rampant, it has become established in people’s minds so that if someone buys a piece of land in the next village, the next day you will find people saying it has been bought by Basil Rajapaksa. We are not talking about such malicious gossip. What I am referring to are facts and figures, matters that can be proved.


SI: I went to a university reunion some time ago and the moment I sat down, a member of the lawyers collective asked me "Who owns the house next to the Museum? That’s Namal’s."


MS:  That’s Dhammika Perera’s house.


SI:  Corrupt govt. politicians may not be buying up assets in their own names. But if an asset has changed hands and you know it has been bought on behalf of somebody in the government, why can’t the front man’s name be exposed with the deed numbers and all that? When Lasantha used to rake up such things during the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, he always had something in hand, a sworn affidavit, a copy of a letter or something. 


MS: At that time, to our credit, Lasantha was able to publish those things even against the president. We do have things we can prove but how many newspapers are willing to publish these details if it is against anyone in the first family?


SI:  There are websites operated from overseas.


MS:  Some of these websites have published some of these details. I have never seen any website making silly allegations about Lalitha Hotel because that is just gossip. We may have details that point in a certain direction and one or two documents. But in order to conclusively prove these things you need the reins of power.


SI: What you are saying is that if you make allegations of corruption without state power, the allegations will be inconclusive.


MS: Inconclusive but, as members of parliament, if we are taking responsibility for what is being said even though it may be inconclusive, I think the newspapers have a right to publish it. That is my argument. We may not be able to say that the 100 million commission per kilometre of the airport expressway is in such and such a bank, but we can at least show that the price per km for the airport expressway is twice the price paid to the same company for a similar highway in Kenya.


SI: Wouldn’t the terrain have something to do with that?


MS:  Not such a large difference. In that case, there has to be a proper investigation and they must say these are the reasons for the difference. But even to initiate a discussion, the newspapers must publish these things.


SI: There may not be sufficient grounds to publish such allegations.


MS: You don’t write with all details in your hands. If it is felt that there are sufficient grounds the newspaper should be able to publish it.  


SI:  Every government that we have known has faced allegations of corruption.


MS: But never to this extent. There has always been an element of corruption in South Asian politics. I am not denying that. Corruption has become a way of life. The PS member serving the village is now being encouraged to steal because even the contracts for building all these small concrete roads, are being given to them so that the contract can be done by a member of their family and some money goes into the pocket of the PS member.


SI: Wasn’t that always the case? President Kumaratunga was fined by the supreme court for under pricing  a piece of state land.


MS:  Okay, she was fined but she had absolutely nothing to do with it. That was one of Sarath N.Silva’s eccentricities. If President Kumaratunga was corrupt this government can prove it. When we come into power we will not be just making allegations but we will prove the extent of the corruption that is taking place.


Investigating the opposition


SI: When you come into power and try to investigate, you’ll be hearing cries of persecution.  Even you just characterized the corruption allegation made against you as persecution.


MS:  That was persecution because what they should have done is to go ahead and prove the allegation. But they couldn’t, so it’s obvious that it is persecution.


SI: If you get into this mentality of conducting investigations, what is that going to do to democracy in this country? When the Chandrika Kumaratunga government came into power in 1994, they initiated various investigations but the UNP saw that as absolute persecution. And it WAS persecution.


MS: No it was not. There was a Commission appointed to look into the Batalanda allegations against Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe and that absolved him of any responsibility. Had we not appointed such a commission the allegations would still be hanging above Ranil’s head. If we are going to restore people’s confidence in governance, certain things will have to be looked into.


SI: What about the tension that this creates? The Chandrika Kumaratunga government fell within seven years even after getting 62% of the vote, in 2001 because of the unnecessary political tension they themselves had created.  The reason why this government is coasting along without any major issues (except from overseas)  is because they have not been persecuting members of the opposition and creating unnecessary political tensions in the country.


MS: Don’t say that. Mr Ravi Karunanayke is in courts and his passport has been impounded over some crazy thing. As for the others, it was to escape persecution that they crossed over. We know for a fact that they were blackmailed into crossing over.


SI: But they seem to be doing quite well.


MS: Having all these elections does not make a country a democracy. Don’t forget that Mubarak of Egypt was very punctual with his elections. These people have access to endless amounts of money. But when you say there is no persecution, there is a type of persecution there never was before. Those who crossed over did so due to persecution and blackmail.


SI: That will be rather difficult to establish.


MS: Those who know, know the truth.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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