Chief Government Whip and Minister of Highways Johnston Fernando said that it is very obvious the protest against cremation of Covid-19 victims by a certain section of the Muslim community is a politically motivated move. It is only the main Opposition SJB and those who campaigned for them look at this issue from a racist perspective. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said if the Muslim religious leaders say the cremation of Muslims who have died due to Covid-19 is wrong then the Catholics can raise the same concern as cremation is not permitted by their religion as well.
The Minister said this is not an issue just confined to one ethnic group. However, some bankrupt political parties and political leaders attempt to make use of this Muslim burial issue to gain cheap political mileage. As a responsible Government, we have given our utmost priority to protect the people from the Covid-19 pandemic rather than considering whether the deceased due to Covid-19 should be buried or cremated. The Government would always act strictly adhering to the instructions given by the health authorities.
Q: The Maha Sangha says when the people are facing severe hardships due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation, it is not appropriate to hold the Provincial Council elections at this juncture. Your comments?
A: There is nothing wrong in the Maha Sangha making that statement. The first wave of Covid-19 was fully controlled but the second wave has gone far beyond that. Therefore, we would take a decision at the appropriate time to hold the Provincial Council elections. We are a democratic Government. Holding elections is one of the key fundamentals of a democratically elected Government.
That is why we fought as the then Opposition MPs when the Yahapalana Government deliberately postponed the elections. Even without any Covid-19 outbreak in the country, the former Government didn’t hold the Pradeshiya Sabha election and they even changed the Pradeshiya Sabha Act.
They also introduced Bills in Parliament to postpone the Provincial Council election. Therefore, it was the former Yahapalana Government which deliberately postponed elections. As a democratic Government, we are of the view that the elections should be held on time.
Having taken into consideration the views expressed by the Maha Sangha, the President, Prime Minister and party leaders decided not to hold the PC elections at this juncture. The PC elections will be held when the Covid-19 situation in the country returns to normalcy.
Q: How do you view the Gama Samaga Pilisadara program launched by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to provide immediate solutions to the problems faced by the rural masses?
A: The President always goes to the rural areas to provide speedy solutions to the burning issues faced by the people in remote villages. It is a very timely move that the President visits rural villages countrywide and directly discusses with villagers about their issues.
It was the majority of the people in these villages who voted for the President. During his visits to these villages, the President will be able to identify the true problems faced by the villagers and obtain their genuine views.
The President has also instructed the Ministers to visit backward villages and sort out the issues faced by the people. The significant gesture of the Rajapaksa family is that they are highly concerned about villagers and always committed to work for their wellbeing.It is very praiseworthy. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also taking that same idea forward.
Q: The main Opposition SJB says the Government has muddled the Muslim burial issue. What is the actual position?
A: It was the World Health Organization (WHO) which decided to cremate the deceased due to Covid-19. Same rules are applied to our country as well. We became one of the countries which successfully controlled the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the decision was taken by the WHO to cremate the Covid-19 dead, nobody raised concerns about it. I see the protest against cremation by a certain section of Muslims as a politically motivated move.
If the Muslim religious leaders say the cremation of Muslims who have died due to Covid-19 is wrong then Catholics can also raise the same concern as cremation is not permitted by their religion as well. This is not an issue confined to one ethnic group. However, some bankrupt political parties and political leaders attempt to make use of this issue to gain cheap political mileage.
As a responsible Government, we have given our utmost priority to protect the people from the Covid-19 pandemic rather than considering whether the deceased should be buried or cremated. At present, the main Opposition SJB is making various statements to mislead the people due to their political bankruptcy. The President and the Government cannot decide on the final rites of the deceased due to Covid-19.
All such decisions are taken by the health authorities. One particular group attempts to turn this into a racial issue and criticise the Government. This is not a new phenomenon as we witnessed this before the election as well.
It is only the main Opposition SJB and those who campaigned for them that look at this issue from a racist angle.
The Government would act entirely based on the instructions given by the health authorities. The Government has taken a series of decisions to ensure the safety of the people.
Q: Should not health recommendations be given priority over religious rites when disposing of the Covid-19 bodies?
A: Definitely. We should do everything in keeping with the guidelines issued by the health authorities. We have to admit that this is a serious situation. After one year has lapsed no country in the world has been able to fully control the spread of the Covid-19. This is not a situation just confined to Sri Lanka.
The entire world has faced this Covid-19 threat.
Therefore, we should act cautiously based on the instructions given by the health authorities. If we grant permission to the Muslims to bury the deceased, then this very same Opposition would say the Government ignored health guidelines by targeting their votes.
As a responsible Government, we would strictly follow the concept of “one country one law” without concentrating on the petty issues raised by certain groups to realise their narrow political objectives.
Q: The UNP says the Government should reach a consensus and take a speedy decision after consulting all communities and religious leaders on the final rites of the deceased due to Covid-19. Your comments?
A: I am not surprised by these comments by the UNP. They are the people who promoted racial sentiments among the people. They divided communities based on ethnicities to get their votes.
This is the true situation. We are not surprised they are fishing in troubled waters on the Muslim burial issue. However, they didn’t appear for the Catholic community in this manner. They deliberately allowed the killing of hundreds of innocent Catholic people on Easter Sunday.
Former Yahapalana Government imprisoned some Buddhist religious leaders, prominent bhikkhus and they even attacked the Maha Sangha. Some of the politicians of the Yahapalana Government said this is not a Sinhala Buddhist country. Therefore, we should not be surprised by this conduct of the UNP. They attempt to divide the North, East as well as Sinhala and Muslim villages.
Q: The Maha Sangha and certain sections of society say that the country should be governed based on the principle “one country one law” without subjecting to the pressure of various ethnic groups. Would you like to comment on this?
A: “One country one law”, that is what is being implemented right now. I have no opposition to the Maha Sangha staging demonstrations in this regard. If the Muslims can stage protests, there is nothing wrong for the Maha Sangha in this Sinhala Buddhist country to hold demonstrations on behalf of their motherland.
Q: Don’t you think the main Opposition SJB should help the Government to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic without looking to fulfil their personal political agendas?
A: We could have placed such confidence if there were responsible leaders in the Opposition. This situation would have not occurred if we had an Opposition consisting of intelligent political leaders who think of the country and its people. It is regrettable to note that we don’t have such an Opposition Leader as well.
At present various leaders in the SJB are separately organising themselves and acting against the Opposition Leader. This Covid-19 issue has affected all the citizens in this country. The responsibility of the Opposition should be to extend their cooperation to the Government in a natural calamity like this irrespective of their petty political differences.
As a Government we have faced this challenge in an organised manner. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Opposition to extend their support to make this endeavour a success. Without doing so, the Opposition attempts to sabotage the task and take undue political advantage from it.
We have an Opposition which attempts to get cheap political mileage even from the dead. The Government regardless of political differences has already taken steps to assist the industrialists affected by the Covid-19 situation. The Government provided Rs.5,000 relief allowance to all without any discrimination.
When we are doing all these things without any politics involved, Sajith Premadasa and his group are making use of this situation to realise their narrow political objectives. The people gave them a very good reply at the last General Election by reducing the number of their MPs to nearly 50. The people gave an overwhelming majority of two- thirds to the SLPP.
Q: There is the allegation from the SJB that politicians are interfering with the work of medical specialists in Covid-19 related issues. Your comments?
A: It is the Opposition politicians who make such interferences not the Government politicians. Sometimes, the instructions to be given by the health authorities are given by some Opposition politicians. We could see how Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa even recommended some medicines to Covid-19 patients. They are the people who imprisoned intelligence officers, Army and Police officers. The Yahapalana Government deliberately allowed the people. So, what else can we expect from them?
Q: During the recent anti-burial protests, sections of the Maha Sangha alleged that the Government is now on the wrong track. Is there any truth in the allegation?
A: There is nothing wrong that the Maha Sangha thinks in such a manner. Unlike the Yahapalana Government, we don’t imprison the people who conduct demonstrations or attack the Muslims who promote racism. We allowed demonstrations.
Sometimes, we don’t take action against those who breach health guidelines. The country is ruled by a President and a Prime Minister who have placed their utmost confidence in democracy.
Unlike the former Government, we didn’t imprison the people with the interference of the FCID and the CID. Therefore, the Maha Sangha may also get the impression that we are not so active like the former Yahapalana Government. We govern the country in a more democratic and transparent manner. We don’t resort to any action which would go against health guidelines.
Again, I state that there is nothing wrong in the Maha Sangha staging demonstrations. If the Maha Sangha don’t come forward, who will appear for the majority of Buddhists in this country?
Q: Is the Government’s decision to open the doors to foreign tourists prudent when more serious corona strains are reported from the UK, South Africa and Nigeria in addition to an increase in local cases?
A: Earlier the Opposition made a big hue and cry to open the country. They also said the tourism sector has totally collapsed. After a lapse of one year, the other countries have also opened their doors.
We have also opened the doors to tourists by strictly adhering to the guidelines issued by the health authorities. We don’t know how long the Covid-19 pandemic would remain. Therefore, we cannot close the country anymore. The true situation is that most of the people are not cautious about the prevailing situation. We call on the people to be cautious and strictly adhere to health guidelines. We would bring tourists to the country seriously taking into consideration the health guidelines issued. However, precaution is the most important aspect. We have to consider whether we should continue to keep the country closed or open it by taking precautionary measures.
Q: A year has now passed. Will those Yahapalana politicians who interfered with the dispensation of justice by allegedly discussing pending cases be lawfully dealt with?
A: Definitely, they should be brought before the law. Some politicians of the Yahapalana Government insulted the judges and interfered with the judiciary. They exerted undue pressure on top CID officials. We could see as to how the Attorney General’s Department acted at that time. There are serious issues pertaining to all these actions committed by them. That was further confirmed when the recorded telephone conversations of MP Ranjan Ramanayake were exposed. This raises serious doubt on how many politicians of the Yahapalana Government had spoken to the judges and interfered with their duties. All these have to be seriously looked into and all those who have interfered with the judiciary should be bought to book. However, our Government has given its priority to develop the economy, take forward the development drive and create new employment opportunities. What the people requested of us was to give priority to rebuild the country and develop the economy ruined by the former Government. Their main concern was not to bring the culprits to book.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has already implemented a program to generate 100,000 employment opportunities and provide jobs to 50,000 graduates.
Steps have also been taken to develop 100,000 kilometres of road networks. Even in the midst of the Covid-19 threat, the Government has done its level best to rebuild the economy which had completely collapsed during the tenure of the Yahapalana Government. However, we think some priority should be given to bring those who interfered with the judiciary to book.
All this will be done in a democratic manner. The present Government will not interfere with the judiciary, Police, CID and the Bribery Commission. This should not be seen as a weakness as we have allowed those institutions to function independently.
We could see how the former Yahapalana Government filed bogus cases and imprisoned their political opponents starting with two sons of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to many Opposition MPs. They even imprisoned top Government officials and all these were done based on political revenge. Eleven cases were filed against me. However, justice was meted out to us as there were judges who didn’t subject themselves to political interference. Former Eastern Province Chief Minister Pillayan was kept in remand custody as a political prisoner for four and a half years and he was not granted bail. The former Government helped key underworld figures like Makandure Madush to flee the country. They imprisoned prominent Bhikkhus such as Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera. Therefore, justice should be meted to all those who were politically victimised during the tenure of the Yahapalana Government.
Q: As a former UNPer how would you view the present UNP debacle? Will the UNP under its Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe ever recover politically?
A: Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Rajitha Senaratne and Champika Ranawaka are all the same. Only their names are different.
The UNP has faced this severe setback due to the massive destruction they caused to the country. All those same faces in the UNP are now in the SJB. Therefore, these SJB front liners are also fully responsible for the destruction caused to the country by the UNP. At present the same old team is giving leadership to the UNP and the SJB. They are all like two sides of the same coin and both these political camps have been categorically rejected by the people.