Upul Wickremasinghe (Daily Mirror)
The role played by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in changing the political landscape in January 2015 was praiseworthy. In this exercise there is no doubt that she had to face great danger in undertaking such a risk. Upon the completion of two years of the unity government it is opportune to discuss issues that had surfaced in the recent past. The former President in a recent interview expressed her views on such issues, including the actions of the government and internal struggles among the rank and file of the SLFP.
Reveals how Maithripala Sirisena was chosen as Presidential candidate
Q It is now two years since your direct involvement in the political change that took place in January 2015. Are you satisfied with the process that had taken place since then?
Despite criticism by some individuals, I am satisfied to a certain extent. We intervened in the January political change because of our love to the country. People do not seem to understand the challenges we had to face at that time. By the time this government came into power the entire government service had been destroyed.
During the time I was in London, most of these officers used to call me and inform that the Police, Judiciary and all sections had become corrupt. We had to begin by rebuilding this country which had been destroyed. As promised we appointed the Independent Commissions, and as assured took steps to establish police, judiciary and the government service to work independently.
However a country that had been destroyed over a period of ten years cannot be rebuilt in just one or two years. During the first nine months of this government, it was not allowed to function by MR. This proves that the government has not completed even one and half years. During this period so many things had been put on the correct track.
That is why I say that I am satisfied. I will be very happy if the government could act faster. Among the Ministers from the UNP, there are many who had never been ministers early, and many SLFP members who are holding portfolios had been ministers of the earlier corrupt government.
This may be the reason for the government to be slow. However it is a happy coincidence that these two parties had been able to work together, which is historical. Another matter I want to state is that there are rogues in this government as well. I know it clearly well. No meaningful steps had been taken to arrest that situation. Even what could have been done initially had not been done. My thinking of good governance is that not only the former Ministers, but even the present ones who had done wrong should be punished.
Q Even though it was possible to defeat MR politically at the last presidential poll, charges of financial fraud and corruption levelled against him are yet to be proved. What are the reasons for this delay?
Do not forget that this is a Democratic State. We accused MR of having committed frauds. Just because we accuse him he cannot be put in prison, and a democratic country like ours cannot act that way. We cannot do the same thing what they did to Sarath Fonseka, or what a UNP government did to Wijaya Kumaratunga. We are doing everything in a democratic and in a legal manner. I am observing all these from outside. Those who are investigating these matters are doing it perfectly well. Those who are demanding that MR should be brought back, have been discussing with him while remaining with the President. I am aware of them. What they say is that they will not engage in splitting the party, what they want is withdrawal of all charges made against the members of the Rajapakse family.
Q In this background people may be tempted to believe that the firm commitment shown by the President earlier in conducting probes against the Rajapaksas has now diminished. How do you see this?
I do not agree with that. Coming to that point, I can tell that some ministers who were close to Rajapakse making such requests were turned down by President Maithripala Sirisena and completely rejected them, showing that he is strongly bent on implementing the promises he made to the people. He is not in favour of splitting the party, and his desire is to rally round everybody and go forward. Leaders differ in how they decide. If I have proof of someone involved in fraud, I will immediately sack him. The way the President acts is different and history might someday prove he is correct. He is not a robber and he is anxious in honouring the pledges given to the people.
Q It now appears that the ministers in the unity government are criticizing each other. Would this be an obstacle in the future of the government?
That is what I said before. There are many who had plundered everything during the past nine years. They are eager to bring in the old regime so that they can continue in their quest for filthy lucre. We have to take a decision on this issue. For them the yahapalanaya government is similar to pouring kerosene on rat snakes.
Q People have also begun to query your role in this scenario…
I have no scenario. I am only a patron among four or five others in the party. I have also stepped forward to resolve disputes among both parties at their request.
Q What do you think about your decision to propose Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate?
I think it was the correct decision. Maithripala is an honest; Sinhala Buddhist leader. He is one who shuns communalism. That was why the entire nation accepted him irrespective of creed or race.
Q How was Maithripala Sirisena chosen from the other names that were proposed?
We had to choose someone who could win, and there were no objections. We discussed this matter for over three years. During this time I was telling the UNP that this cannot be done alone by them or the group that would leave the SLFP. Therefore we need to get the support of civil organizations. In 1996, I proposed to Ranil Wickremesinghe to vote for my Constitutional proposals and immediately I would have invited the UNP to form a National government. It was a tragedy that the UNP did not agree to it at that time. When we were worrying over the rule of MR, I told Ranil it would have been better if you had agreed to my proposal. He agreed with me that the two parties should join, and it is much better to form a broader alliance. Thereafter we could decide on a common candidate. Many requested me to come forward. But I was determined not to contest, because I was not greedy for power. The question as to who was the common candidate surfaced. By this time, the common alliance had been formed.
I told even though there was a common alliance, the burden of taking it forward rested in the hands of the UNP, I reiterated. While this was in the process, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake crossed over. But Kabir Hashim who took over carried out the task far better. Ven. Sobitha Thera said that he was not going to contest, I proposed Maithripala Sirisena. At first he did not agree. At that time there was an intelligence officer attached to the security division of each minister.
There were two attached to my security division as well. There was a fear psychosis prevailed at that time. There was no freedom like today. All our telephones were tapped, my emails were also not spared. Despite all this, we nominated Maithripala Sirisena. There were many who asked whether we could trust him; not only the TNA, even Ranil raised this same question. I vouched to them, placing my palm on my chest that I trust him. This trust I placed on him is still there without any break. Like us, he also took a heroic decision and walked out of the government. His doubts of obtaining nomination with the support of the UNP were cleared by my assurance to him. He walked out of the government asserting that he would contest as the common candidate was a great act showing his love for the country. After effecting the change and establishing a government, it is regretting to note that a group of our own members having negotiations to split the party joining with MR. Not stopping at that, they are scheming to spur differences between the President and the PM and between myself and the President.
Q Did the President discuss these issues with you?
He used to earlier, but I did not trouble him about these issues always, as I considered that he should act independently. Whenever there is a big issue, he would call me or visit me at home and discuss. He is a very unassuming person. He seldom speaks about party issues with me. He discusses with others and take decisions. I have a feeling that I could do a lot with my knowledge and experience. I only intervene when requested.
Q The President was firm when he contested the presidential polls that he would not contest again. But now some of his allies have made statements that he would be the SLFP candidate at the 2020 polls. What is your stance over this matter?
His confidante ministers are saying various things and my problem is my inability to shut them off. This should be done or sack them. A party should be democratic and also disciplined. He had never said that he would contest. I do not think he would break the pledge, which he made to all of us. It is not recorded anywhere that he was one politician who broke a promise made. Executive Presidency should be abolished, and there is no second word about it. Those in the SLFP with MR, dreaming to cripple this idea.
Q During your presidency in 1994, you made a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, but you failed, what could you say about it?
Ranil was the one who did not allow me to do it. I was concerned about the abolition of this post from the beginning. More than that I was keen to find a solution to the ethnic issue. By August 1995, I presented a draft of a new Constitution to the country. But it was brought to Parliament after improving it only after five years.
But it was set on fire inside Parliament. In one chapter of that draft, there was a clause saying that the post of Presidency should be totally abolished. But it was not mentioned that after my second tenure of presidency (1999-2005) that this would be done. We had discussions with the UNP led by Ranil on 33 occasions about every word of the draft Constitution. With the approval of the UNP some of the clauses in the draft was changed, and finally a draft acceptable to all was prepared. Whenever discussions on the abolition of the Presidency was discussed, the UNP always differed the matter.
Finally Ranil did not come for these meetings. Karu Jayasuriya and Tyronne Fernando and a group of UNP members attended the discussions. However, they kept saying that they had failed to arrive at a decision. On seven occasions I allocated dates for discussions, but the UNP representatives always said that they were still to arrive at a final decision.
They might have feared that I would continue to hold office for another five years, I categorically stated that if they had voted for this, I would definitely leave this post in two years. There was no reply to this as well. Then I called Rathnasiri Wickramanayake, who was the PM at that time and instructed him to inform Ranil that I would be leaving the post not in two years, but in one. But the response from everybody was for me to go on. Even Tamil parties too wanted me not to give up.
They were of the opinion that my leaving at that moment would create issues. The UNP never gave a definite answer to these questions, but resorted to burning the draft proposals. Rajitha Senarathne had said recently that I wanted to stay for another two years and they objected to it. No one had ever attempted the sacrifices I made towards the abolition of the post of Presidency.
Q In 2005, you gave the SLFP nomination to MR at the presidential polls. What do you think now about your decision then?
That was the biggest mistake in my life. I never expected him to become so bad. I knew about his mistakes. He created much issues for our party. He caused my mother great distress with this actions. When MR was given a portfolio in my cabinet and after swearing in, he came and knelt and said “Thank you” and when I asked him what it was all about, he said that he had never expected him to have been appointed to the Cabinet. I knew why he was saying so, because he created many problems to my mother, and I told him it was not necessary to thank me but do not get into rash activities hereafter for the party or its leadership.
Q It now appears that a more centred objection for the new Constitution is brewing up in the SLFP quarters. They raise their concern about a federal system and their opposition to it. How do you analyse this situation as a former leader of the SLFP?
The Party leaders should create an awareness among them. When the 13th Amendment was brought in some of our party members joined my mother and sat under Bo trees and displayed their opposition to it. I made them aware of its good side and was able to turn round the opinion of the party. Except a few many accepted my thinking. Therefore in a similar manner, the facts should be cleared with them by educating them. I am ready for that and I should be given a chance.
Q As a solution to the ethnic issue, there have been many discussions on the political implications, and you played a role in implementing same. With the culmination of the war, there appears to be a new trend. What is your thinking now?
During MR’s time, I was unable to raise my head. Even at that time I was invited for many international forums where they kept on asking me even after the LTTE made an attempt on my life how come you still continue to be propagating peace. I do not know what was moving me towards this aim. While attempting to find a solution to this problem, I lost my father, and with the JVP terrorism, I lost my husband (Wijaya Kumaratunga). In the events that followed, I lost one of my eyes in an attack by the LTTE. Despite all these setbacks, I had in my heart the belief that peace should be established. Towards this end I introduced a new Constitution, which was opposed by the UNP and Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera staged protests in public roads. But later he also realized the correct position and came to a stand, and I was able to join him and work closely. Though I was not able to do it due to the opposition of the UNP, now both parties had joined together. But because of some of our own members, this cannot be done. MR arouses from outside, and today, he has become the father of racism. In order to overcome this challenge, we should take control of the party and explain to the membership the truth behind all this and after removing all who disagree take the decision.
Q Do you think with the present political environment and the pressure from within the party, is the President in a position to tackle this precarious situation.
Yes, I believe. Because he has a good knowledge. He reads well and also explains well. He is a good listener. When it is necessary to take stern action, I have no doubt that he would do that. But now the time is running out.
Q This government had entrusted to you the task of building national reconciliation. What is the present position of it?
It is successfully carried out. In the face of opposition and a handful of extremists, activities are continuing with the blessings of the majority. Reconciliation means a lengthy activity. What is urgent now is to bring in a new Constitution, and then comes the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons. With these in place, there would not be any necessity to have courts to probe war crimes.
Q A few days ago after the release of a report by Manori Muththettuwegama, a direction had been made to the effect that Foreign Judges should be included to probe the issues during the final stages of the war, and the Joint Opposition had been very critical on this issue. Would you like to share your thoughts on this?
They have no right to comment in that manner. The committee was entrusted to obtain the views of the public and submit its report to the government. That was the responsibility of the committee. Their own ideas too had been incorporated in the report.
Q If we are to go back on the issues confronting the SLFP, do you accept that there is a conflict in the party.
The whole world knows it. MR wants to break a piece and form a new party, in the same way he did earlier.
Q Splitting parties are Basil’s way of doing things and it is not strange for MR. It seems like a trend among the grassroots level members to show solidarity with the Podu Jana Peramuna. Do you consider this as a challenge to the party?
It is a minor challenge. With our stepping out it would change.
Q Certain SLFP ministers themselves declare that in order to resolve the crisis situation in the party, both Maithri and Mahinda should join. What is your opinion on this?
I am completely against such overtures. Why did the people of this country vote for Maithripala Sirisena? Why did we defeat MR at the risk of our lives? If the latter had won, I would have been the first to have been killed and then Maithripala Sirisena. It is an utter lie, to say that SLFP cannot advance without MR. When I was brought into the party in 1993, MR vehemently objected to it. But I was able to win without his support. In the same way we can win.
Q There was a talk sometime ago that your son is keen to enter politics. Would it become a reality?
He is not willing to enter politics and I also don’t want him to see he enters into politics.
Q You were at the forefront of the political change in this country. What would be your role when all these come to an end?
Who knows when it will end? It could be five years or twenty years. I spend most of the time in building peace and reconciliation and then on education.
I do not get involved in other issues. We assisted in establishing this government. At this point, I would like to record my appreciation to PM Ranil Wickremesinghe for enduring so much patience. He had been working in that manner from the beginning. He had not made any statements against President Maithripala Sirisena. He works as a versatile politician. He listens to others. He gives a very good leadership on economics and international affairs.
Both the President and the PM are giving leadership according to the short and long term plans in the development of the country. These have to be explained to the people in order to make them fully aware of the correct position. If this journey goes ahead with the support of the people our country, Sri Lanka would someday reach a position that we never anticipated.