"JVP will never be
allowed to swallow
the SLFP"

T
ourism Minister Anura
Bandaranaike fears that with the
increasing violent attacks in the
north east, the tourism industry
would face severe
consequences if urgent steps
are not taken to work towards
peace.
Bandaranaike says that in order to move forward, the government and the
LTTE should make a firm commitment to finding a lasting solution to the ethnic
conflict, which is a pre-requisite for economic advancement.

He says that while Colombo is likely to become the target of violent attacks,
the country’s tourism industry would be doomed if steps are not taken to
ensure the security of the city and its people from explosions and clashes.

Steps are now being taken to project a positive image of Sri Lanka amongst
the international community, he says, adding that the government would have
to yield part of its powers to the private sector to fortify the island’s economy.
"The government cannot hold on to everything. At the same time the
government cannot have the private sector calling the shots and controlling
the show. We both have to work together for the betterment of this nation," he
said.

The Tourism Minister also said that despite the state of Sri Lankan politics
today, plagued by internal rivalry, divisions and dissension, the future of the
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) founded by his late father was not under any
threat. He pledged that the SLFP would survive and would never be dissolved
as long as his sister and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was at the
helm of party affairs.

"My sister has changed the entire image of the party and what she has done,
no one has been able to do. She will not let anybody dissolve the party and
neither will I," he said in an interview with The Sunday Leader.

Following are excerpts.

By Jamila Najmuddin

Q: How do you see the state of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry at this
juncture?

A: Well, with the explosions in Colombo on Tuesday, Sri Lanka has received
negative publicity internationally. When an explosion is reported in the
international media, they do not see the number of casualties or how many
have been injured but instead just flash headlines saying that there have
been explosions in the city. When this happens it is bound to have a negative
impact on the entire tourism industry.

However, the Tourism Ministry is going to launch a massive campaign in
Europe in March in countries such as Germany, London and Hungary to win
back the confidence of the tourists and inform the international community
that the country is safe for travel and leisure.

Although Tuesday’s explosions have not made a huge impact on the country’s
economy or tourism as the country is still trying to figure out the purpose for
the explosions and who exactly they were aimed at, steps will be taken to
regain the country’s ‘fit for leisure and travel’ image.

As for the problems in the north and east, the country has been facing this
problem for over 20 years. Therefore, I don’t think the current spate of attacks
in the north and east will have a major impact on the tourist industry because
the violence in those areas has not been aimed at the tourists.

Sri Lanka has faced greater explosions and violence in the past, but this has
not had an effect on the country’s tourist arrivals as tourists mainly visit
Colombo and safer areas such as the south and upcountry. My only worry is
that if violence begins in the city, then it is bound to destroy the country’s
image in the minds of the international community.

Q: What are the steps you are taking to promote tourism?

A: The government is in the process of launching two enormous projects in
Kalpitiya to promote tourism. Safari parks, five star hotels, beach hotels,
restaurants and parks will all be constructed on 6000 acres of land and as the
area is surrounded by beautiful islands, bridges will be constructed to connect
the islands. The islands will be rented at the highest possible price in order to
attract the upper class tourists.

I am also glad that Ceylinco Chairman Lalith Kotelawela has begun
constructing the Hyatt because I had been going around the world boasting of
constructing the Sheraton in Sri Lanka. But I am glad that the Hyatt is at least
being constructed so that tourists have a wider choice of hotels in Colombo.

With all this, I think the country’s tourism is looking good but I would add a
word of caution and that is, if any explosions of a major nature take place in
the city of Colombo, tourism will collapse.

I hope to God, and God knows who else, that nothing will happen in Colombo
because if that happens it will be useless. Whatever promotion the
government does, tourists will not come because nobody would spend
thousands of rupees and come on a holiday to get bombed.

Q: Do you think that Sri Lanka has the capacity to cope with a higher
number of tourist arrivals in the country?

A: As at present, no. But with the construction of the Hyatt and the possible
construction of the Sheraton, I think we should be able to get somewhere near
our target. I am not the kind of minister who will say that Sri Lanka has already
exceeded the original tourist arrival mark when we haven’t but all steps are
being taken to get somewhere near our target.

We had 550,000 tourists in the country last year, which is totally insufficient. If
we can get about 800,000 tourists in a year, then we might be able to reach
the one million mark by 2010.

Q: What are the current drawbacks in the industry that you see?

A: There are no major drawbacks that I currently see because the private
sector has also been responding very well. The only drawback that I see is
internal rivalry, which in Sri Lanka is a common issue.

Q: There were reports earlier of a clash between Chairman, Sri Lanka
Tourist Board, Udaya Nanayakkara and the tourism industry. Has this
issue been sorted out?

A: Well, the choice of the selection of the SLTB chairman is a matter entirely
for me. I have also cleared this with President Mahinda Rajapakse. Now if we
are to go forward, the new tourism law which I brought to parliament one
month before the election needs to be amended. That law was created by the
UNP. It’s a good structure but it has given too much power to the private
sector.

The tourism minister must have control over the Tourism Ministry because you
cannot have a minister sitting at home and handing over all the powers to the
private sector. Therefore, a committee was appointed on Wednesday (25),
which comprises former SLTB Chairman, H. Samaranayake and two other
tourism experts. The committee will study the law and amend it accordingly
where the minister will keep his powers whilst handing over some of the
powers to the private sector.

Q: The tour operators in the country claim that Udaya Nanayakkara is
arbitrarily using monies from the fund and CITS and they cite the
WOMAD show as one such example. What are your views?

A: WOMAD was not recommended by Nanayakkara but instead was
recommended by the advertising firm, Bates. Nanayakkara, as far as I am
concerned, has been an excellent chairman of SLTB. I don’t know about his
personal decisions with the private sector.

However, what annoys me the most is how he is being described as my ex-
brother in law. Just because he married my sister and divorced her 15 years
ago, that has nothing to do with me. He is a good friend of mine and there is
no other connection between us.

Q: Though the private tour agents claim that they are the force behind
the tourism industry, would you say that the country’s tourism industry
is a one-man show today?

A: I would not describe the tourism industry as a one-man show. It is to clear
this image that I want to amend the tourism law. If more power is given to the
private sector, then this one-man show image will disappear.

Q: There were reports that the President had opposed the
privatisation of the Ceylon Hotels Corporation. Is it correct?

A: The privatisation of the Ceylon Hotels Corporation was a move by Dr.
Sarath Amunugama when he was the finance minister. This was because all
the Hotel Corporation shares were owned by the Finance Ministry and Bank of
Ceylon. I had nothing to do with it. We were only spectators.

The Finance Ministry decided to sell their shares because they needed the
money and I think they got a very good deal because shares which went at
Rs. 2 at one time went at Rs. 600. Although I have had differences of opinion
on the privatisation of the Hotels Corporation, the matter does not come under
me. It came completely under Dr. Amunugama and Dr. P.B. Jayasundera so I
only supported it. President Mahinda Rajapakse was also a member of the
cabinet at the time it was approved.

Q: Given the current unfavourable security environment in the
country, there is the prospect of war breaking out. If this is to happen,
do you see the tourism industry suffering a serious setback?

A: Please do not ask me that question because if war were to break out, then
the tourism industry will crash. Even if I go around the world on my knees
begging tourists to come to the country, nothing will happen. The country’s
tourism industry will be doomed and there will be no salvation.

This will also cause a severe blow to the economy, as the tourism industry is
our third highest income generator. People will never spend money to come
into a country that is at war.

Q: Would you say the commencement of talks between the
government and the LTTE is of paramount importance today?

A: Peace talks between the government and the LTTE should begin without
further delay and I am very glad that President Mahinda Rajapakse and the
Leader of the LTTE have decided on a venue to hold the first round of
discussions. Switzerland is an ideal country to hold talks.

However, there was a qualifying statement by the LTTE Political Wing Leader,
S.P. Tamilselvan on Thursday saying that talks would only concentrate on the
Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and nothing more.

The CFA is only the first step. The CFA has been violated by the LTTE 3,000
times and by us, 300 times. However, what is of importance today is not
discussing who has violated it the most, but what urgently needs to be
discussed is the permanent halt to violence in the north and east and the rest
of the country.

However, now that the government and the LTTE have decided on the venue,
we hope that talks on achieving permanent peace in the country is achieved
soon which my sister, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was always
keen on achieving.

Also, the fact that the LTTE and the government have decided to talk is a
positive sign but I do not know what the outcome of the talks will be. This is the
first step and the country has 1,000 more miles to go.

The country also has to be wary of one thing. The LTTE had entered into
negotiations with past leaders such as J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and
Chandrika Kumaratunga and they had gone along with them only to a certain
point after which the Tigers broke away. I hope these discussions do not end
up in the same manner.

I speak in such a way because I am a historian and I have learnt the lessons
of history and since three competent leaders have all experienced the same
process, I hope these discussions end on a positive note and are not left half
way.

Q: If that is the case and it is in the greater interest of the government
to ensure there is no outbreak of war, why was the government
haggling over a venue?

A: Well, all I can say is that the government and the LTTE have decided on a
venue and we hope that peace talks will begin without further delay and a
peaceful solution is achieved so that the country can return to normal.

Q: Do you feel that the JVP and the JHU are an impediment to the
resumption of talks and the country striding back towards war?

A: The solutions proposed by my sister, Chandrika Kumaratunga in restarting
the peace talks, have all been implemented once again. The Mahinda
Chinthana does not state the presence of the Norwegians during the
commencement of the peace talks and the JVP and the JHU have been
stressing that Erik Solheim should be dropped, Norway should not be included
in the peace discussions between the LTTE and the government, and the
CFA scrapped as fast as possible.

However, they are all back again in grand style, so my sister has been totally
vindicated and in that situation the JVP and the JHU have to realise that they
cannot play politics with an issue as delicate and sensitive as the
recommencement of peace talks.

This country needs governance and it has a long way to go and the JVP and
the JHU also have an important role to play in that. I cannot say much about
the JHU but the JVP certainly has responsibilities in assisting the government.

Q: The UPFA vehemently opposed the CFA and called it the betrayal of
the country. However, doesn’t the government’s decision to now
negotiate the strengthening of the CFA without abrogating it, an
acceptance that the basic document has been beneficial to the
country?

A: In the world of politics things change overnight. The CFA has definitely
been beneficial to the country and I have stressed on this and so has my
sister when she was the President of the country. During her time only seven
people were killed due to the violence as compared to the 100 odd security
forces killed in the past few weeks.

I am not saying that the CFA has been perfect but whatever the shortcomings
it had, it has had a very positive impact. President Mahinda Rajapakse has
also complimented the CFA in public on several occasions.

Q: You have been foreign minister and the Bandaranaike family has
particularly strong links with India. In that context would the country
not have benefited more if you were included in the President’s
delegation during his recent visit to India, which according to all
reports was a disaster?

A: First of all, it is up to the President to decide on the delegation. I know the
Indian leaders personally and extremely well, much more than anyone else. I
cannot play a role by force but if the President wanted me to play a role, then I
would have done it. However since it is not up to me to decide I went away to
Dubai when the delegation left for India.

But in fact when I went to India as Foreign Minister, I met with the Indian Prime
Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and
they both told me the same thing they told President Mahinda Rajapakse and
his delegation. They told him nothing new. The basic essentials that I went
and discussed with the Indian leaders four months ago was exactly what they
repeated to the President this time. So if the President had asked me I would
have told him everything.

Q: Your father founded the SLFP, your mother nurtured it, you
weathered many a storm for the party and your sister propelled it back
into power. But today it is in danger of being marginalised by the JVP.
Do you see this as a serious threat to the long-term stability of the
SLFP?

A: Of course this is a very serious threat and let me tell you this, as long as
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga remains in politics, the SLFP will not
be dissolved by anybody because the party is her heritage and she has ruled
it well.

I am not saying this because I am the son of the founder of the party but
Chandrika changed the entire outlook of the party on her own. What
Chandrika has done, no one has been able to do so far and certainly she will
not allow anybody to dissolve the party and neither will I. We will definitely not
allow the SLFP to be swallowed by the JVP.

Q: Local authority elections are due before April. The JVP has asked
for 50% of the seat allocations. Wouldn’t this sound the SLFP’s death
knell if conceded?

A: My sister returned from the UK on Thursday night and she as the leader of
the SLFP will decide on what to do.

Q: Chandrika Kumaratunga was, as President, a formidable force.
Today, simply as SLFP leader, do you see people deserting her and
does this disappoint you?

A: Unfortunately in Sri Lankan politics, people only follow those who have
power. I remember my sister, six months before the presidential election once
saying at a cabinet meeting that after she gave up her term as President and
quit the SLFP, no one including her party members would look at her even if
she was the only one on the street, begging on her knees. She was right.

I think there are people who have been very loyal to her in the party and there
are others who have been her total creations because they were introduced
into politics by her. They owe their political existence to her and if they think
she is a goner then they are sadly mistaken. My sister is not the kind of
person who bows down to anybody.

Q: President Rajapakse in the agreement with the JVP had pledged to
abolish the executive presidency before the end of his first term. It is
also included in the Mahinda Chinthana. In such a situation, do you
see the possibility of your sister who is also the party leader making a
comeback as prime minister and ruling the country again?

A: My sister will never re-enter politics but she will guide and support the
government in every possible way she can. She ruled the country as a true
leader for 11 years and her guidance will be beneficial to the country.
[Courtesy: Sunday Leader]