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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

‘Rajapaksa’s Defeat is a Progressive Change from the Democratic Standpoint’

VARADARAJA PERUMAL ON SRI LANKA’S PRESIDENTIAL POLL OUTCOME

Saturday 31 January 2015

In the following interview Varadaraja Perumal, the former Chief Minister of the north and east in Sri Lanka, speaks to the Mainstream editor on the significance of the outcome of the recently held Sri Lankan presidential election.

How do you view the outcome of the Sri Lankan presidential election? 

VP: On the whole it’s a very progressive change because under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government the situation was such that the government was ruling with nepotism in a dictatorial way, curtailing freedom of the press, freedom of political parties, conducting military intervention, and attacking the judiciary’s independence. What is more, the militarisation of the state was carried out in a blatant manner, And the basic rights, human rights of the minorities, both Tamils and Muslims, were under threat from the military-oriented regime.

However, if I may go back in time, you had, in an interview that you gave me following LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran’s assassination on May 18, 2009 (it came out in Mainstream’s May 23, 2009 issue under the heading. “‘Major Hindrance to Democratic Movement among Sri Lankan Tamils has been Removed’: Varadaraja Perumal on Prabhakaran’s Death and Beyond”), exuded a lot of confidence in the Rajapaksa Government.

VP: That is because since Rajapaksa became the country’s President he had promised to the Sri lankan Tamils and India that he would carry out greater devolution for the Tamils. But after the war ended in May 2009 gradually his approach and attitude towards the minorities completely changed.

After he became the President of the country for the second time in 2010, he turned himself into an authoritarian head of state through the 18th Amendment of the Constitution. At the same time he allowed his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to use the armed forces as the Secretary of Defence against the democratic parties and minorities, and even against the Sinhalese at times. They transformed the state into a military-supported clannish oligarchy. It was an assault on democracy itself throughout the country. Sri Lanka was moving towards a military junta rule on the lines of several Latin American states and Marcos of the Philippines. That is way I too was compelled to change my attitude towards the Rajapaksa Government.

How did all the forces of the Opposition and even sections of the ruling SLFP come together against the Rajapaksa regime?

VP: Since Rajapaksa’s regime became a ciannish oligarchy with dictatorial proclivities, the space for opposition and dissent was reduced. The Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil, divided all the other political parties to strengthen their centralised rule and weakened the democratic process in the country. And in this endeavour they used the state machinery and resources. Only those who were favourites of the Rajapaksa brothers were able to politically function freely.

The day the Chief Justice, Shrani Bandaranaike, was removed unconstitutionally and illegally (because she had given a verdict against a bill which was violative of the constitutional provisions with regard to devolution) in 2013, the popular movement against the Rajapaksa regime started taking shape. And in due course the movement assumed an increasingly larger dimension and all issues pertaining to the authoritarian and anti-democratic functionng of the government came to the fore to eventually mobilise all sections against the Rajapaksa regime.

His clan was behaving as if the state was its private property. The regime not only promoted militarisation but also rabid Sinhala chauvinism. They demolished mosques in Muslim areas, claiming those areas to be sacred and holy places of Buddhists, and built Buddhist stupas in the country’s north and east dominated by Hindus, Christians and Muslims.

How would you compare this Rajapaksa regime with that of former President Premadasa?

VP: Premadasa’s was an individual authorit-arian rule based on and guided by the President’s executive powers. In Mahinda’s case, he used the military to dominate the entire state structure and intimidate and suppress all opposition.

Moreover, in Premadasa’s time the situation was completely different. A war was raging in the north and east. The Opposition and minority leaders did enjoy the democratic space at that time. While Premadasa tried whip up anti-India sentiments on the issue of the IPKF’s continued presence in the island state (inter-estingly he was backed by the LTTE on this issue), the Left and democratic parties were then able to organise rallies and demonstrations on various questions. Also the Opposition parties then were stronger than during Rajapaksa’s rule.

Premadasa did not enjoy two-thirds majority in Parliament. So in that sence the Rajapaksa regime was more dangerous and evolving into a far worse phenomenon. Had Mahinda won this presidential election, he would have turned more dictatorial with Sinhala chauvinist slogans.

So you are saying this development of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the hands of the united Opposition (National Democratic Front) candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, is a victory for democracy?

VP: It is a very progressive development from the standpoint of democracy and fundamental rights. It has really reversed the process of authoritarianism in Sir Lanka. This process was set in motion by Jayawardene, Premadasa and Rajapaksa. This process was under check during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency but not quite reversed. That is because she was unable to change the Constitution to bring about devolution of powers and also reforms in the Constitution since she did not enjoy a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

How would you analyse this latest development from the perspective of Sri Lankan Tamils?

VP: As far as Sri Lankan Tamil politics is concerned, the main issues raised by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest front among the Tamils that also enjoys Tamil majority support, are:

(i) military dominance and engagements in the north and east,

(ii) expansion of Sinhala colonisation in the Tamil-dominated areas,

(iii) devolution of powers to the provincial council.

The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena in this brief period has taken substantial steps to improve the situation and remove the fear and apprehensions of the Tamils with regard to all the three aforementioned issues. This is actually striking a new a path not only on the ethnic question but also on the subjects of democratisation, demilitarisation and decentralisation.

The 100-day programme promised by the new government of Sirisena is being implemented in right earnest.

But this government too does not have a two-thirds majority in Parliament, isn’t it so?

VP: Almost all the parties represented in Parliament have pledged their unconditional support for implementation of the 100-day programme, and these parties include the entire SLFP and UNP. Therefore the government will not face any problem in mustering two-thirds support in Parliament for making the necessary legal and constitutional amendments.

But after 100 days parliamentary elections are to take place and in those polls won’t the UNP and SLFP go their own ways? In the meantime the 18th Amendment is to be replaced by the provisions of the 17th Amendment thereby reducing the powers of the President and increasing the powers of the PM and Cabinet. Do you envisage any problem following this eventuality of Ranil Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister assuming a greater role in the coming days?

VP: As far as the 100-day programme is concerned, it does not include anything about devolution. However, administratively the new government has taken measures to carry out devolution of powers. This is something new marking a radical change from Rajapaksa’s policies and practices.

Not only the UNP, even if the SLFP returns to power after the parliamentary elections I sincerely hope they would implement the 13th Amendment of the Constitution (pertaining to devolution) with the genuine spirit of national unity and ethnic reconciliation.

Don’t you think 100 days is too brief a period to carry out such radical changes?

VP: It looks a brief period no doubt. However, since all the parties are in the mood of supporting the contents of the 100-day programme at present, the new government should not have the problem of mustering the necessary numbers in Parliament. Also 100 days may be extended by another 20 or 30 days. That extension could be only for making some practical adjustments.

After 100 days, during the parliamentary elections what would happen if the UNP and SLFP take diverse views on the question of devolution?

VP: Ranil Wickremasinghe as the new PM has already stated in public that he and his party are for regional autonomy. On the other side as far as the SLFP is concerned, in this government and also in future Chandrika Kumaratunga is going to play a pivotal role in guiding the SLFP as a whole. And her views on devolution are well known. She has always been for the devolution of powers. Therefore, whichever party—the UNP or SLFP—comes to power after the parliamentary elections, I hope and sincerely expect it to carry out the devolution process in a dynamic way.

The NDF comprises the TNA on the one side and the JVP and Jatika Hala Urumaya (JHU) on the other. How then can the NDF survive? And for how long?

VP: The first point is that the 100-day programme does not include the devolution aspect. With regard to the military dominance in the north and east, the JVP and JHU both stand for keeping the military out of the purview of interference in civilian life and civil administration.

But when devolution comes into effect what will be the attitude of the JVP and JHU?

VP: In these 100 days the TNA must also play its role carefully and responsibly without creating any situation that could cause embarr-assment to the present united government of the country.

What do you have to say about the new government’s foreign policy with reference to Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China in particular? 

VP: The new government, it is clear, will give priority to building good relations and friend-ship based on mutual trust with India.

As far as China is concerned, Sir Lanka may possibly reduce those projects with China that could endanger India’s security. However, friendly economic relations with China are expected to continue without causing any embarrassment to India.

The government’s approach towards India and China would be far different from that of the previous Rajapaksa Government. Rajapaksa’s government played a devious role by trying to use China for checkmating India. That approach is unlikely to be adopted by the present government of Maithripala Sirisena.

Rajapaksa’s government antagonised the West by tilting towards China. This government is expected to strike a balance between the West and China without tilting towards either side and playing one against the other.

Would you like to comment about the role of the Left parties, primarily the LSSP and CPSL, which went the whole hog with Rajapaksa?

VP: I personally expected these parties to take a different stand. I had talks with the leaders of these parties two years ago on the dangerous course which the Rajapaksa Government had embarked on and the role these parties could play in this context. However, they stuck to the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of which these parties were a part in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government despite the fact that these Left parties had all along stood for devolution and were also critical of the governance of the three Rajapaksa brothers.

But the fact is that while the leaders of these Left parties continued to back Rajapaksa (claiming that he was anti-West), the rank-and-file of these parties (including a few of the Central Committee and Polit-Bureau members of both parties) largely campaigned against the Rajapaksa regime as they were keen to remove the dictatorial government and restore demo-cracy and rule of law.

Has the outcome of the presidential election and desertion of the rank-and-file from the leadership on support to the Rajapaksa regime brought about any change in the attitude of the leaderships of these parties with regard to Rajapaksa’s government?

VP: So far not. In fact these leaders could and should have played a progressive role to bring about the change in the Sri Lankan political scene that has taken place. Unfortunately they missed the opportunity to do so.