PSC -the ideal platform to solve national question - Dilan Perera
By Uditha KUMARASINGHE

Foreign Employment and Welfare Minister Dilan Perera said the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee is an ideal platform to bring about amendments to the constitution aimed at a political solution to the national question. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said we must try to get the TNA, UNP and all other political parties involved in the Parliamentary Select Committee to evolve and fine tune a solution that will go beyond the 13th Amendment. If any political party feels this select committee is going to be an exercise to mark time, the option is not to boycott it but to participate and request to have a time frame to finish its deliberations.
Excerpts of the interview:


Q: Are you optimistic that the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee would be able to evolve a solution to the national question?

A: I have been very optimistic in any attempt which has been made throughout history to bring about a solution to the national question. Even in this instance, I see the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee as a very positive step to bring about necessary amendments to the Constitution aiming at a political solution.
It is time that we made use of this opportunity to push things ahead as fast as possible. If some political parties which feel that this Parliamentary Select Committee is a waste of time, the option is not to boycott it but to say we will participate but let’s have a time frame to finish its deliberations’.
It is very easy now for any Parliamentary Select Committee to have a time frame because a lot of things have been discussed at length during the Thimpu talks, the Mangala Moonesinghe talks and Prof. Tissa Vitharana’s APRC talks. So it is very easy now to have a time frame and have a process that is going to be a positive one in the Parliamentary Select Committee. Because the Parliamentary Select Committee is one place where you can have hundred percent inclusivity.
Any solution to the national question must have as far as possible all the stakeholders in it. Only then concept of inclusivity becomes successful. So I think the Parliamentary Select Committee is an ideal platform for us to move forward towards a political solution and this is the ideal forum to propose the necessary amendments to the Constitution to bring about that political solution because President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said, whatever the Parliamentary Select Committee proposes he will agree.
Whatever the solution that comes out of the Parliamentary Select Committee has to be a solution that is going to fine tune the existing 13th Amendment. Nobody can now say that we don’t want the 13th Amendment because the 13th Amendment is a part of the Constitution. All members of Parliament who have given oaths in Parliament today have given oaths under the present Constitution. The present Constitution involves the 13th Amendment. Nobody when taking oaths said I am taking oaths under the Constitution minus the 13th Amendment. Nobody to my knowledge said I am taking oaths minus the 13th Amendment.
Nobody can violate the Constitution. So we have taken oaths under the present constitution of which the 13th Amendment is a part. We must try to get the TNA, UNP and all other parties involved in the Parliamentary Select Committee to evolve and fine tune a solution that goes beyond the 13th Amendment. Some people are calling it 13 plus. I would say there are two ways to get the 13th plus. One way is 13 plus, one is 13 plus. The other is 13 minus one plus two is also 13 plus.
If things are not very rosy with the 13 plus, forget about it and let’s take the other route which is 13 minus one plus two. But any route we take, everybody must realise that we have already given oaths under the present Constitution which includes the 13th Amendment. We are already a part of the 13th Amendment. This Parliamentary Select Committee will have to look into ways and means of fine tuning the 13th Amendment so that the solution can go beyond the 13th Amendment.

Q: What is your comment on the JVP and UNP’s decision to boycott the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee?

A: I can understand the JVP boycotting, because the JVP normally boycotts anything. They will even boycott their husbands and wives. I have never heard the JVP saving ‘yes’. They will always say ‘no’. I have never heard the JVP say ‘can’. They always say ‘can’t. I have never heard the JVP ever being positive. For a negative minded party like the JVP, I am not one bit surprise or shocked that the JVP is boycotting.
The JVP as a political party is in the political doldrums. They are not taken seriously by anybody. But the UNP is a party which has ruled this country and is the Opposition.
At present the UNP is divided into various camps such as the Ranil camp, the Sajith camp, the new emerging camp known as the medium camp led by Dayasiri Jayasekera as well as another camp led by Rosy Senanayake which is saying that she should be the next leader.
I think the UNP as a party, boycotting the Parliamentary Select Committee is only going to throw them into the political doldrums that the JVP is in.
The UNP’s boycott only shows that they don’t have a proper policy to bring about positive suggestions to the main problem. I think it is high time the UNP stopped playing political football with the national question. They must now be serious about it.
They must now work towards a political solution. I am sure Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe will get all the factions of his party together and tell them to stop playing political football with the national question and to make use of the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee to evolve a practical solution based on power sharing mechanism that can bring about a sustainable forward looking political solution to the national question.

Q: Will it be another landslide for the Government at the elections to the remaining local bodies on the July 23?

A: The entire country must look at July 23 election not with the intention of only seeing that their party wins. I was in Jaffna last week and signs are very good for us. A lot of people are disgusted with the LTTE and TNA politics in those areas. The UNP has no say whatsoever. The competition is really between the UPFA and the TNA.
The UNP is not in the race at all and is lagging far behind. All parties while canvassing support for their own party at the Northern Local Government Election must get together and canvass people to come to the polling centres to vote, so that we can show the entire world that democracy is rapidly gaining ground in these areas. During Prabhakaran’s time, there was no democracy at all.
The people who went to vote were killed and the children did not have the right to attend school.
They were forced to go to the war front. Instead of school bags on their shoulders, 11 and 12-year-olds had to carry cyanide pills around their necks.
The people in the North under went a lot of problems. I see the Local Government Election as an election which will definitely bring positive results to the UPFA and the UPFA is going to do very much better than the last time Local Government elections were held in the North.
My ultimate goal while working in Jaffna for the UPFA is to see that democracy wins and more and more people are allowed to cast their vote in a free and fair manner, so that the people will have a right to choose the leaders who should lead their local level organisations which is very important for the people in the North and the East.

Q: As someone who is very close to the media, what do you think about the defeat of the Right to Information Bill and is the Government planning to introduce a better RTI bill in due course?

A: The Right to Information Bill (RIB) was not defeated, the government has it in the pipeline.
When UNP MP Karu Jayasuriya got to know there was a Right to Information Bill being drafted by the Government, he wanted to score some cheap political points by bringing it up by himself. But he knows that it is only the Government which can bring about a proper act to give the people the right to information properly.
I think it is high time to stop playing petty games with major issues like the Right to Information.
The vote taken in Parliament to defeat Karu Jayasuriya’s bill doesn’t necessarily mean that the vote was against to Right to Information. We only defeated Jayasuriya’s motion which was politically motivated to score cheap political points.
We defeated the low thinking politics of Karu Jayasuriya. We did not defeat the Right to Information Act. It will come very soon.
The people in this country and entire world will know that this Government like in other instances will surprise the world just like defeating the LTTE and establishing a new port in Hambantota. This Government has surprised the world in many ways. The Government will surprise the world by bringing this Right to Information Bill as soon as possible.

Q: There was a report that the British Government was probing the Channel 4 for its ‘Killing Fields’ program. The doctored version has also been found. How can Sri Lanka face conspiracies like the Channel 4 conspiracy?

A: As we know the Channel 4 documentary was a fabrication. I don’t think the Channel 4 video is something we should even talk about. The due place for the video is not even the dust bin. The best place is the lavatory pit. It only shows how they doctored the entire film. The prime objective of the Channel 4 producers and those who took part in producing that film is to tarnish the image of this country and undermine war heroes who defeated the LTTE.

Q: Don’t you think that there is a strong case for streamlining the whole ambit of foreign employment in view of the increasing number of deaths among expatriate workers?

A: If you take the number of deaths among expatriate workers and compare it with the number of people who went abroad, it’s not very surprising that the number of deaths have gone up because the number of people who have gone abroad has risen up.
It is wrong if some sections of the media try to twist and say the majority of deaths are mainly due to suicide or killings. Among the number of deaths more than 75 percent is due to natural causes. But the Government is seriously looking at suicides and the killings among expatriate workers.
Some people say the number of deaths has been increased without taking into consideration the number of people who left Sri Lanka for foreign employment. They can see the real situation by comparing the two. We must look at ways and means of how we can decrease the number of deaths due to suicide and killings.

Q: Foreign Employment is the biggest foreign exchange earner. But facilities such as security of life, compensation where necessary and occupational hazards have received minimal attention from the authorities. Your comments?

A: I don’t agree that the authorities have paid minimal attention to the problems you have raised. Sometimes the authorities have gone beyond the limit to canvas and find solutions to the issues that you have raised. For instance the Rizanas case, certain section of the media are trying to create various problems with this issue, trying to create a situation where Rizana will be placed in an uncomfortable position in that country.
The Government, the Foreign Employment Bureau and the Ministry have worked together. President Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote a letter on October 25, 2010 to his Majesty King Abdullah seeking clemency for Rizana thus setting the course for future action based on humanitarian grounds. We must not forget that was a turning point in Rizana’s case because the President’s letter to his Majesty the King sought to set the course for future actions based on humanitarian grounds.
There are instances where our Ambassador in Saudi Arabia has gone to the extent of seeking legal advice on behalf of Rizana by talking to the Deputy Prime Minister , Minister of Interior and the Deputy Governor of Riyadh. Our Ambassador managed to get the assistance of all the 17 Ambassadors of the European Union group who requested clemency on behalf of Rizana.
Because of the request made by our Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, the US Ambassador in Saudi Arabia made a very strong request and appealed to the Saudi Government for the clemency for Rizana. But we must realise the law in that country is the Sharia law.
It is said to be a Divine Law. Because it is Divine law even the king of that country cannot give a pardon to Rizana.
The Sharia law clearly states that we must get the consent of the parents of the victim for the first step to a pardon. Then there will be blood money stipulated.
The Government is willing to pay any amount of blood money on behalf of Rizana to get her release. But we must get the consent of the parents of the victim according to the law of that country. We must not forget the fact that an infant has also died on that side. So we must now try to work through the Shria law and follow the Shria law in getting a pardon for Rizana. Shouting on Colombo streets is not going to help.
I saw some UNP Parliamentarians shouting in front of the Saudi embassy in Sri Lanka. But that is not going to help.
How can we shout here and change the law in Saudi Arabia? One UNP politician asked me the question in Parliament as to whether I have heard any European or American person being executed in Saudi Arabia? I asked that politician whether he has heard of any American or European woman going as a house maid to Saudi Arabia? Sometimes I have seen actors in Tamil and some Sinhala films tossing a coin up and hitting 15 people and he takes the coin and puts it in his pocket and walks off.
That is only in a film. But this is not a film and this is a genuine case. The people who are shouting must realise that they must act in a way to see that this girl’s life is saved. We will do our utmost to see that this girl’s life is saved.
I know there are political elements specially led by two or three people who wants to create problems in this country so Rizana’s position is vulnerable. We must not make a mistake.
I am appealing to everybody not to play politics with Rizana’s life. We are trying our best to get Rizana’s a pardon. That pardon has to be obtained by following the law of that country which is the Shariya law.
Please stop shouting on the streets gain petty political advantages. Some people even visit Rizana’s house in Muttur and now they are trying to poision Rizana’s parents. I appeal to them not to stooop down to this level. Let’s get together and try to save this girl’s life.
I just took Rizana’s case as an example just to show how far this Government and the Ministry have gone to look into the affairs of various people. We have our Safe Houses in a lot of countries. We look after nearly 600 to 700 people.
The Government and the Foreign Employment Bureau are doing their level best to attend to the problems that these people are faced with.

Q: Indonesia has stopped sending maids to Saudi and some other countries. Are we also contemplating such steps?

A: Since the day I assumed duties at the Ministry, I have always thought that we must stop sending housemaids to the Middle East. My first step towards was to increase the minimum age from 18 to 21 for house maids.
That was the first cabinet paper submitted by me. My aim is now to increase the minimum age from 21 to 30 within the next three years. You can’t do revolutionary changes at once.
Then the whole thing gets upset. We must do things. That gradual increase of minimum age will bring about an automatic ban on housemaids going to the Middle East. While pursuing the line of discouraging housemaids, I am encouraging skilled, semi skilled and the professional sector by going on job specific, company specific and country specific training. I am now going to start training facilities and joint ventures with any Government or private sector institution relating to these three areas.

Q: There is evidence that many women workers have been harassed abroad. What are action you taken to enhance worker welfare and prevent such incidents?

A: Incidents of torture is on the decrease. Some of the incidents that we have brought have been found where the employer in that country is also at fault. But there are a fair amount of cases where our employees are at fault.
We can’t point fingers at the employer.
We are taking every action if the employer is at fault and we have taken action. But there are instances where our employees have brought disrepute to Sri Lanka by violating laws of those countries. I feel there is a well-planned and coordinated effort by some of the INGOs and Opposition political groups to disrupt the foreign employment market as it is the biggest foreign exchange earner.
While reporting and exposing true incidents, the media should also take note that there are interested elements who wants to make up more and more stories like ‘Channel 4’, to disrupt the highest foreign exchange earner in this country.

Q: What are the programs you are doing to stop illegal migration from Sri Lanka for overseas employment and seeking asylum? Are you working in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration in this regard?

A: It is not only our Ministry, the External Affairs Ministry and the Labour Ministry are also very closely working with various international organisations.
My Ministry is working very closely with the ILO and also the IMO in Sri Lanka. So our part is very well played to help the ILO and the IMO to minimise the problems that we have in human trafficking. I must also say that the ILO and IMO are playing a coordinated part in this regard.

Q: We have around 1.5 million workers abroad. Is there any possibility of granting voting rights to them?

A: This has been a demand made by them for a long time. I am in the process of getting Cabinet sanction to appoint a committee consisting of experts in this field so that they can study and observe how foreign employees of other countries where they have got voting rights. We have to wait for the report of this committee on how we can give voting rights to the workers overseas.

Q: What action is being taken against errant job agencies like the one which gave a false date of birth in the case of Rizana?

A: I have already suspended the job agency that gave a job to Rizana. But the question of Rizana’s passport giving a false age is not the fault of that job agency. Because the job agency does not go to the passport office. The person who wants to go abroad goes to the Passport office. When there is a forged age in a passport, the job agency is not to blame.
When we talk about a forged age in a passport, the responsibility lies not only with the job agent or the sub agent, it also lies with the person who obtained a passport.
In the case of job agencies, I am following the method of two yellows and one red, the football method. I will give two yellows for lenient offences that is two warnings and one red.
I will directly give red if there are major issues and allegations. I have also started a scheme to grade job agencies as gold, silver and brown with effect from this year. So the people will know from next year which job agency has black marks and which does not have.
This grading system will be done in abroad as well. The coordinating job agents in those countries will also be graded similarly.
We have also started grading and black listing Sri Lankan employees who get involved in illegal activities abroad. I am sure this sort of system will help put agencies in the proper perspective.

 

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