Minister of Ports and Shipping Arjuna Ranatunga speaks out on the recent strike at the Magampura Port, the fracas between a journalist and the Navy Commander, and the crisis which has embroiled the construction of the world’s tallest Christmas tree.
Q : The strike at the Magampura Port ended. Yet, some say that the strike was forcibly concluded. As the Minister in charge of the subject, what do you have to say?
A : As a government, we took a decision. We gave them a fair amount of time before we took the decision. No matter what anyone says, I see for a fact that the strikers realising the truth of the matter agreed with the government’s decision, as good. We did not influence anyone. However, discipline is essential for a country or an institution to move forward. Even if we don’t like it, when taking such decisions, we must take a singular stand. Due to the wrong actions of a certain group acting without understanding, a larger group falls into trouble. As a government, during such instances, we must dedicate ourselves to safeguard and protect the majority.
Q : As per the Government’s order, the strikers have ended their action and returned to work. What is their job security?
A : We must respect the right to wage professional struggles to win rights. There is no issue with that. Yet, if the situation is exceeded, one must look into such. In this instance, there is no issue with regard to their job security. However, we will have to investigate and take disciplinary action against those who during the strike, damaged property belonging to the Ports Authority, attempted acts of sabotage. It includes those who led certain actions which affected ships and their shipping activities. Also, if those who joined in the protests did so on their off days, then there is no issue. However, if they did so during a day or days on which they had to report to duty, then their daily wage will get cut. If we don’t do this, this will become a trend. The society will get the wrong message.
Q : Even though the strike ended, their demand is still the same. When will this matter be resolved?
A : Their only demand is that they be recruited to the Ports Authority. Yet we cannot do that. During the period when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, this group of workers had been recruited by the Magampura Port Management Company Limited, a private company. Back then, they did not take these workers under the Ports Authority. I think that on one hand, what was done was good in terms of the situation at present. Otherwise, we cannot pay them a salary from the Ports Authority. This is because they work for a different company.
Q : The demand made by these workers is not unreasonable. What they demanded was that their job security be guaranteed while the deal between the government and the Chinese company was being proceeded with.
A : I did exactly that. Somehow, they too got some political clout, and thought that they too could do the same. That is precisely where they went wrong. They will not get any minister who unlike me to protect their jobs. If I was someone who danced according to the tune of the Chinese company, I could have just waited after sending nearly half of the workers home. Not just me but the Deputy Minister, the Chairman of the Ports Authority and the officials of the Ports Authority all took the stance that not one worker should be sent home.
We said that if even one worker was sacked, I and the Deputy Minister would go and sit on the road. Actually, it was due to our influence and pressure that we were able to bring the Chinese company to this level. The Deputy Minister even put forward a Cabinet paper. At times, he had to face the ire of others and many unpleasant conditions. Yet we did not think about ourselves. We thought about these people. Yet they did not realize or understand this aspect. We haven’t signed the main agreement yet. We are attempting to get the majority of them to us and in our favour.
Q : How many workers are there at present at the Magampura Port?
A : At present there are 482. All of them are employees of the Magampura Port Management Company Limited.
Q : Certain media report that there are around 600 workers?
A : Even I said that there were 550 workers. Due to the protest, we lost around 60 to 70 jobs. I talked of increasing the salaries of these workers. Now they will lose that too. This is their own fault. They did this on their own. This is a hell of one’s own making. What I say is that they should go to the houses of those who came to them and ask for the monies and positions they promised. They are the ones who created this destruction.
Q : During the strike, there was a fracas between a journalist and the Navy Commander. How do you see this incident?
A : Actually, this is an unfortunate incident. Various viewpoints have been aired with regard to it. Yet, there is something we must all accept. That took place at the time of an operation. The Navy Commander was in charge of it. It was when he was acting to make the operation a success that the issue regarding the journalist took place. There are many practical problems in this instance. One is that the journalist did not have permission to enter the area. The other is that there was an ongoing operation. The Navy Commander is bound to protect certain aspects of the operation. Media institutions must especially pay more attention to regional correspondents. They must be made aware on how to behave and act during such a situation. Today, media ethics in the country is at zero.
It is not only the journalists who have to take responsibility but all of us. Look at the difference in how journalists in other countries conduct themselves when covering such a situation and how our journalists behave. The other aspect is that there is no way to identify a journalist. Just because someone has a camera, how do we know whether s/he is a journalist? However, I say that in this instance the Navy Commander performed his duties and discharged his responsibilities perfectly, in an exemplary manner.
Q : Aren’t you attempting to whitewash the Navy Commander and his actions and conduct?
A : No. I never do that for anyone. I only speak of the bitter truth I see. We are people who led the opposition against any journalist or media organization being harmed. Today, there are people who come before the television and shout, who are making this issue a scapegoat. Where were they when Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated? Where were they when then Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon was assaulted? Why didn’t their mouths work like now when their Tamil media colleagues were killed? Did they utter one word about the murder of Prageeth Ekneligoda? We must see the right thing in the right way. It may be bitter. Yet this is the truth.
Q : This government came into power saying that the journalist’s freedom would be protected. No matter what you say, one cannot condone the assault, can you?
A : The incident that occurred is clear from the videos. None of us approve of the assault of a journalist. However, like I said earlier, the journalist must understand his role correctly. The journalist must use the freedom in the proper manner. If the freedom is being used in an inappropriate fashion, then there is an issue. Let us look at where the journalist was. He was in the area where the Navy had said that no one could enter and be in. Where were the other journalists? Did they face an issue? No.
Q : You planned to construct the world’s tallest Christmas Tree. What is the state of it now?
A : This is not a decision I took. Harbour and Ports employees requested from me to be given an opportunity to do such a thing. I supported them. It must especially be said that we are not the ones spending for it. There is no government involvement in this whatsoever. The money is coming from various business folks. All including small time business folks are involved in this. This was started by buddhists. Today, everyone is working as one without any religious barriers. Because of this, on the one hand, we will enter the Guinness Book of World Records and on the other hand, the world will come to know about us, more and more.
Q : Didn’t the Archbishop of Colombo oppose this?
A : It is like this. He had thought that it was the government that was spending for this. However, when the President and the Prime Minister clarified things, he gave his blessings to the process.