By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Three days from today (23rd) the nation will be going to the polls to elect the most powerful person in the Country
Twenty-Three potential candidates handed in their nominations on December 17th 2009but with the Commissioner of Elections rejecting one there were only twenty-two in the fray.
Of these two dropped out from the race with one-a Buddhist priest-transferring his support to Mahinda Rajapakse and the other-a Muslim parliamentarian-extending his solidarity to Sarath Fonseka.
Of the twenty contestants for the Presidential stakes, Sixteen are contesting from big, huge, medium, small, tiny and miniscule parties. Four are Independents
The Front-runners are of course incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse and his chief challenger Sarath Fonseka.
Adding sizzle, sparkle and spice to the presidential campaign are other candidates such as Dr. Wickramabahu Karunarathne, UB Wijekoon, Sirithunga Jayasuriya, Sarath Kongahage, Wije Dias, IM Ilyas, MK Sivajilingam, Achala Suraweera, ,Aruna de Soysa,Sarath Manamendra and MCM Ismail.
Of course, there is no secret about the pivotal theme around which this presidential election is revolving-The clash of the Titans between the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his erstwhile Army commander and Chief of Defence Staff!
It is indeed a remarkable turn of events where an ex-Army chief is contesting his former C-in C in the aftermath of a magnificient military victory.
As I wrote in an earlier article in “Daily Mirror” of Nov 21st 2009, it is as if Bernard Montgomery is challenging Winston Churchill after world war two or Sam Maneckshaw is contesting Indira Gandhi after the Bangladesh war.
What was supposed to be a one-horse race at first has transformed into a keen tussle with the entry of the old warhorse. What is certain at this stage is that Mahinda or Sarath will win Presidential stakes 2010.
None of the others in the race are “dark horses” capable of causing an upset. They will either canter or trot far behind while the two main contestants gallop towards victory.
With Presidential stakes 2010 turning into a violent but exciting campaign there is no doubt that it would be observed with keen interest by Sri Lanka watchers worldwide.
Since the two tipped to win are either Rajapakse or Fonseka, it is in the nature of things for both to be topping publicity centred around them.Both are hogging the limelight.
Against such an interesting backdrop I was pondering for quite some time about writing on one of the “also rans” for this column on the eve of the Presidential poll.
During the 2005 presidential polls I wrote in “The Sunday Leader” about the maverick “Siddhalepa Vedamahathaya” Hettigoda. His-out of the box-ideas captured my imagination then. Besides I have this fascination for underdogs challenging top dogs.
In that sense I felt that I should focus on an underdog this time too. Someone who has absolutely no chance of winning but is contesting on principle.
Initially I thought of the leftist trio Bahu, Siritunga or Wije. I have the greatest respect for these three comrades who have not betrayed their policies for political gain or office.
Besides all three have consistently adopted a progressive outlook on the Tamil national question. But the problem was which of the three?
Finally I decided on someone who may have been a well-known personality years ago but was now in the realm of the forgotten being away from the public eye for more than a decade.
Ukku Banda Wijekoon ~ http://apeyswarajya.com/
I am referring to the mild-mannered gentleman in politics UB Wijekoon whom I knew to a limited extent when he was Jaffna district minister and I a reporter on the Tamil daily” Virakesari”.
Subsequently UBW became cabinet minister and later an ambassador
Wijekoon has come out of “retirement” to contest as an Independent backed by the “Apey Swarajya” movement. He stands for a partyless people’s democracy where the rural areas would have some form of self-rule.
However Utopian his vision may seem to appear UB Wijekoon strikes a responsive chord in my heart.
In this mega-campaign for the Presidency Wijekoon and his policies are strikingly different. I do not know whether they will ever be allowed to work but I do respect his clarity of purpose and the sense of dedication with which he is facing the hustings.
Wijekoon Mudiyanselage Ukku Banda Wijekoon generally known as UB Wijekoon is contesting presidential elections 2010 as an Independent candidate with the Jak fruit as his symbol.
UB Wijekoon is contesting as a party-less candidate but is representing and is backed by the organization known as “Apey Swarajya” (Our Self-Rule) Movement.
He espouses the ideals and policies of the movement which wants a radical transformation of our system of governance whereby power is given back to the people and the rural or village unit becomes a self-reliant entity.
In present day Sri Lanka where existing systems of governance are being misused or abused by vested interests to centralise powers in the urban areas or concentrate power in the hands of an elitist few the idealistic vision of UBW and those of his ilk provide a refreshing contrast.
Their Utopian dream of empowering the rural areas with a reverse flow of power and setting up virtual village republics in this world of mega-cities, mega- projects and mega-corruption evoke memories of that classic by EF Schumacher “Small is Beautiful”.
UB Wijekoon does not project himself as a presidential candidate. He portrays himself as the messenger. His message is that of the policies and ideals of the Swarajya movement. The message is the candidate, he says.
Ukku Banda Wijekoon and his ideological fellow-travellers have a Utopian vision for Sri Lanka. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s goal of empowering the villages they hope to re-structure the prevailing political system in a novel manner
This objective however quaint and unattainable it may seem to appear strikes a responsive chord in my heart too. However archaic it may seem in this modern era rural empowerment is a cause I am in harmony with.
Furthermore UB Wijekoon the messenger deserves some exposure on the merits of his message too. The Swarajya movement which he represents has an original plan to radically transform the existing structures of power for the better in this country
That by itself warrants the spotlight being turned on the man and his mission. The ideas espoused deserve greater scrutiny and consideration.
I first met the gentle, soft-spoken UB Wijekoon after he had been appointed by Junius Richard Jayewardena as District minister for Jaffna in 1979.
This was two years before the District Development Councils were set up in 1981.
Section 45(1)(a) of the Constitution enables the President to appoint non-cabinet ministers from MP’s and assign them functions.
JR appointed district ministers as a form of de-centralised administrative measure where he as Executive President delegated some of his powers in practice to the newly-created district minsisters. This was not an exercise in Devolution.
Jayewardena appointed people from his UNP as district ministers to the North and East though the provinces were pre-dominantly represented in Parliament by the then chief opposition party the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF).
People like GD Mahindasoma for Vavuniya. MH Maharoof for Mannar, Nelson for Trincomalee etc were appointed district ministers.
JR held back from appointing a District minister for Jaffna (encompassing present Kilinochchi district also) thinking the Tamil United Liberation Front may accept that post.
The TULF then held all fourteen seats in the Northern Province.
The political atmosphere was electric then with the emerging militant movement beginning to challenge the TULF “old guard”. The TULF was trying desperately to ward off this challenge.
It was however shackled by the mandate of Tamil Eelam which it claimed to have received in 1977 elections.Unable to co-operate with nor confront the govt the TULF kept on asking JR Jayewardena to provide them with “a viable alternative to Tamil Eelam”. JR was in no mood to oblige
Also Jayewardena was of the opinion then that a reasonable amount of de-centralisation would be enough. Devolving powers to the regions was not something he favoured
JR had also centralised power in the institution of the Executive presidency. He was not prepared to reduce such powers through actual devolution
What he wanted to do was delegate some of his powers in practice to the district minister.
It was only when it was clear that the TULF would not accept that JR filled the vacancy with UB Wijekoon.
It was a master stroke because only a person with “soft power” like UB Wijekoon could have got on amicably with the TULF Politicians of that time.
Appointing a Sinhala Politician from Govt ranks as district minister of an overwhelmingly Tamil district represented by an opposition Tamil party was a delicate issue.
Despite the turbulent political climate and the sensitive nature of the office he held, the non-strident, quiet, amiable Wijekoon established good rapport with the Tamil leaders elected on a separatist mandate.
In what was perhaps another of JR’s Kautilyan tactics he had transferred out of Jaffna, the enormously popular Lionel Fernando (Envoy to Paris now) as Government Agent and replaced him with ex-diplomat Yogendra Duraiswamy
Now Yogendra Duraiswamy had contested the Kayts constituency as an Independent in 1977 and lost. There was rank hostility between him and the TULF in general and “Pundit” KP Ratnam the Kayts MP in particular. Both hailed from Velanai.
Most meetings presided over by the District Minister soon turned into verbal fireworks displays among the MP’s and the GA and it was left to the “outsider” UBWijekoon to uphold peace among the natives of Jaffna
Though shuttling to and from Jaffna, UB Wijekoon had his finger on the Jaffna pulse through his secretary Balasingham (Not Anton). I believe UB was District Minister of Jaffna from 1979-89.
In UB Wijekoon’s own words the “function of the District Ministers happened to be the implementation and coordination of government policies and development activities of the districts”.
There was also another irony in UB being appointed to Jaffna. He was then representing the Dambadeniya electorate in Parliament. Dambadeniya had for long been represented by the Sinhala hardliner RG Senanayake as MP.
It was indeed a refreshing change to see the “dovish” UB from Dambadeniya capture the hearts and minds of the Jaffna Tamils whereas the “hawkish” RG had only helped deepen the ethnic divide during his time.
The UNP government of JR also introduced the District Development Councils (DDC). The pre-election violence in Jaffna where indisciplined policemen burnt down the Jaffna public library and other buildings marred the atmosphere.
The cops were retaliating for two policemen being shot dead by members of the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE.
The political fall-out from the violence saw the TULF winning all ten elected seats of the Jaffna DDC. This feat was deemed impossible under the proportionate representation scheme of voting.
The tough-talking ex-Senator S. Nadarajah became Jaffna DDC chairman. There was now a shift in the power relationship. There were two manifestations of district authority.
The District minister appointed by the President on the one hand and the District Development Council Chairman elected by the people on the other.
Again to his credit UB Wijekoon straddled these “divides” with tact and compromise. Sadly the DDC experiment came to naught despite efforts to make it work.
With the 1983 July anti-Tamil violence the climate altered utterly. The TULF refused to take oaths disavowing separatism under the 6th amendment to the Constitution and forfeited their seats in Parliament
Jaffna was devoid of elected representation with the DDC and local authorities being defunct and the MP seats remaining vacant. The new authority in Jaffna was the Army. The Tamil armed groups challenged this authority.
Under these circumstances UB Wijekoon continued to function as district minister of Jaffna and attempted to serve the Jaffna people to the best of his ability.
It was during this time that former UNP Parliamentarian Thiyagarajah Maheswaran was involved in shady deals transporting petrol, diesel and Kerosene to Jaffna
Maheswaran was not in politics then and on one occasion forged UB Wijekoon’s signature to get things done. He was detected and for a while Maheswaran was derisively described as “UB Wijekoon” because of the impersonation. Later he was to be called “Mannennei” (Kerosene) Maheswaran
UB Wijekoon’s yeoman service to Jaffna amidst adverse circumstances was much appreciated by the people and politicians. He endeared himself to the people of Jaffna.
Wijekoon made no waves but he did not drown or sink either. Instead he steered himself successfully through choppy political waters.
He evoked cheers from even the ranks of Tuscany!In this case it was the TULF.
Former opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam said of him “Mr.UB Wijekoon was one of the best district ministers in the country. The Tamil people in Jaffna respected him not for his title but for his human qualities”
I still remember my first interview with him for the “Virakesari” after he had been appointed District Minister. An interview with the newly appointed Jaffna district minister was crucially important to a Tamil newspaper.
In a bid to scoop the other scribes I went to his house before the crack of dawn in order to “catch” him early.
But what I saw there surprised me. There was a long line of Constituents waiting to meet him. Though looking sleepy, UB was up and active listening to each person sympathetically and doing the needful wherever possible.
He was surprised at seeing me with his constituents but very kindly obliged and I had my interview-feature.
Those were the days when each MP was tied to his electorate and catered to the needs and concerns of the people he or she represented in Parliament.
Since my family has had links with Kurunegala for three generations I had thought the then-Dambadeniya MP was from Wayamba too. But I discovered that his roots were in the Uva.
Ukku Banda was born in Madowita in Uva province. He was from a farming family.He did not have elitist schooling having studied at the village school and then Welimada Central school from where he entered Peradeniya University.
His headmaster at Welimada central school was Mr.Aseervatham who later taught at STC Mt.Lavinia.Aseervatham recognized the potential in young Ukku Banda and guided him and encouraged him thus enabling his prize pupil to enter varsity.
Wijekoon graduated from Peradeniya in 1959 and then entered the Ceylon Administrative service in 1960. He served as District Revenue Officer(DRO in Vavuniya, Nuwara-Eliya, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala districts.
The DRO of old was equivalent to the Assistant Government Agents (AGA) or Divisional secretaries of today.
UB Wijekoon was “attracted” to politics when he was in charge of the Polgahawela DRO division.
Polgahawela in the North-Western province had for long been represented by the UNP veteran MD Banda.Impressed by Wijekoon’s work and sense of duty it was MD Banda who drew him into politics.
Banda, a much respected, simple, efficient, honest politician had passed away by the time Wijekoon successfully entered parliament as Dambanediya MP in 1977.UBW was part of the UNP landslide in which the party got 141 of 168 seats in Parliament.
I have written much on Wijekoon’s role as Jaffna district minister because that was the phase in his life that I inter-acted with him.But district minister Wijekoon later became cabinet minister and distinguished himself in that capacity.
I had left Sri Lanka by then and did not have a ringside view of how Wijekoon functioned. But I did hear a lot of good things about what he did then
UB Wijekoon later became cabinet minister for Home Affairs, Public Administration and Provincial Councils and also Textile Industries under President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
As Public Administration minister , Wijekoon re-organized the Grama Sevaka divisions into small and efficient units. He also strengthened the AGA divisions. These changes reflected his genuine interest in fostering grass-roots democracy.
It was during his tenure as minister in charge of Provincial councils that UB developed a distaste for that structure. As Provincial councils minister he saw how it was functioning in the Sinhala-majority provinces and perceived it as a “white elephant”.
The irony of the situation was that the Provincial council scheme introduced through the 13th amendment to the Constitution was primarily intended to help the people of the north and east to share power at the periphery.
But due to reasons well-known the North-Eastern provincial council became a non-starter. Now the two provinces are de-merged.
The Eastern Provincial council was flaunted by the Rajapakse regime as a political showpiece of devolution. But the harsh reality has been that of a tussle between the Provincial governor and chief minister where the former is accused by the latter of concentrating all power in his hands and refusing to concede a meaningful role to the elected chief minister.
In this situation where the Provincial councils have been imposed on provinces not desiring them there has been no motivation to make them work satisfactorily. As such the whole scheme stands discredited in the eyes of many including Wijekoon.
His viewpoint on the Provincial councils was illustrated clearly in a letter to the Editor (The Island)that he wrote in June 2006. Responding to another letter, Wijekoon said:
“I fully agree with the view expressed by him regarding the Provincial Councils.”
“I had the opportunity of gaining some experience on provincial councils sometime ago when I was the Minister of Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Home Affairs”.
“I strongly recommended the abolition of Provincial Council system. Provincial Councils have failed to achieve the objects for which they were created and they have become a financial burden to the country”.
It is this disappointment and disgust with the provincial councils that has perhaps fuelled Wijekoon’s efforts in seeking a different power sharing arrangement through his vision of “Gramarajya”.
Coming from a simple, rural background Wijekoon appreciates and understands the problems of the ordinary people well. Realising that most people preferred to work at a place near their homes he advocated the idea of “walk to work”.
As Textiles minister he reversed the trend to concentrate garments factories in investment promotion zones or urban areas regarded as being more conducive for locating them.
Since another political leader sensitive to rural needs like Ranasinghe Premadasa was then at the helm, Wjekoon was able to inspire his president with the idea of establishing garments factories in rural areas.
A blueprint was laid out for 200 factories in all parts of the country other than those controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Factories were opened even in districts like Batticaloa,Puttalam, Amparai and Vavuniya where members of the minority communities live in large numbers
When UB Wijekoon relinquished office as Textiles minister 155 of the envisaged 200 garments factories were in operation providing gainful employment to rural women.
It was then that the colourful expression “Kollanta pavement,Kellanta Garment” came into vogue
Wijekoon also served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia in 2003-2004.
In his phase of semi-retirement from active politics UB Wijekoon was enamoured of the “Apey Swarajya” movement that espoused the ideal of setting up a pary-less democracy empowering the rural regions further.
He became an executive member of the movement and was selected as its candidate to contest the presidency in 2010.
“Apey Swarajya” movement has no illusions about winning the election but hopes to promote its policies and message through the election campaign
AS Wijekoon himself has stated “It is our message that is the real candidate at this election. I am only the Messenger.”
What then is the essence of Presidential candidate UB Wijekoon’s message? What does he stand for?
At this juncture I would like to mention some objectives of the Swarajya movement and its candidate.
Presidential Candidate Wijekoon stands for Transparency and Accountability essential for good governance. The ‘Right to Information’ is another fundamental right he is for.
Wijekoon also calls for the public declaration of assets of all Parliamentarians and pubic officers. He wants the present practice of Parliamentarians declaring their assets to the Speaker to be discontinued .He is of the view that the public should have a legal right to know the assets of all those who aspire to hold public office.
Wijekoon also wants the Bribery act to be amended so that the Commission would be required to take note of any reported acts of corruption and have investigations instituted, a power presently denied to the Commission.
Wijekoon is for the enthronement of the Rule of Law and seeks reformation of the Police service and revision of the Judicial system.
Wijekoon also calls for the appointment of a Constitutional Council and the establishment of Independent Commissions such as the PSC, the Judicial Service Commission, the Police Commission the Elections Commission and independent Media Commission, and an Anti Corruption Commission.
The Swarajya movement is firmly against the politicization of public institutions.
Wijekoon’s states that a fundamental aim of the movement is “the uniting of all the people of the motherland to be truly free and independent and to live in a democracy in which all citizens of this country have equal rights and opportunities to live where ever they choose and to pursue their life goals without fear of discrimination”.
The Swarajya movement and UB Wijekoon opine that the Soulbury Constitution was imposed by our former colonial ruler and that the two subsequent Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 followed the same path. These Constitutions have divided the people, they feel.
The Swarajya movement suggests an electoral process in the form of a direct democracy. They advocate the establishment of self governing Village Committees or the Grama Sabha.
These village Committees in a particular Division elect the Division level Committee-or the Pradesheeya Sabha-and the Pradesheeya Sabhas in the district elect the District SabhasThe District Sabha could then nominate members from amongst them to an Apex body known as the “Desheeya Rajya Sabha” akin to the present Parliament.
This system envisages a party-less democracy where the peoples’ real representatives and not representatives of political parties would govern the country.Power would not percolate downwards but escalate upwards.
The Swarajya movement also wants to establish a Second Chamber known as “Buddhi-Sabha” (the Chamber of Intellects) This chamber would be like a Think Tank and consist of representatives from professional organizations, Universities, Chambers of Commerce and Industry and recognized experts in their own fields.
This Buddhi Sabha would nominate a Vice President. The Parliament or the Desheeya Rajya Sabha would be elected from and by the District Sabhas and the Prime Minister would be elected from that Parliament.
The two Chambers would at a joint session elect the President who would preside over the Supreme Council which would comprise the President, the Premier and the Vice- President. The PM would preside over a Cabinet of 21 members only
The Swarajya movement is utilising the presidential poll as a sounding board to propagate their ideals as well as gauge the response of the people. The unassuming UB Wijekoon is a mere messenger in this Utopian exercise.
Let me conclude this article by quoting from an appeal made by the Swarajya movement’s independent candidate to the public at large. It encapsulates the Utopian vision of Ukku Banda Wijekoon:
“By contesting the Presidential election I intend to convey a message to the country. We need to change the present political culture and move in a new direction. Today, we are caught up in a trap due to not facing realities. If we are to achieve any progress in the political, social and economic spheres, I firmly believe that there has to be a real change in the present Constitution and system of governance.
Our present Constitution and administrative system are of western origin and devoid of any indigenous features. The political party system, which is one of its main features, has caused immense harm to our country. It has led to political instability, societal problems, ethnic disharmony and conflict, youth unrest, terrorism, mutual hatred, corruption, violence and even character assassination.
Instead of bringing about unity, everyone is seeking to gain power by dividing themselves on political lines. This process has caused a huge setback to the country’s progress.
The country that was once the granary of the east is today dependent on external aid. We continue to live by mortgaging the country’s future. People are lulled into a state of complacency, by narrating fables and hiding the reality. This situation has to be changed.
As a preliminary step, we should strive to set up a Government based on a party-less system. A question may surface as to whether we would be able to break with this system having been used to it for over 60 years. It can be done and it is to explain this point, that I have come forward.
The Article in the Constitution to the effect that sovereignty is in the people, is limited solely to marking ballot papers at an election. Thereafter, the people who voted become the slaves of the elected representatives. Those elected fly past in luxury vehicles waving at us while we watch them helplessly. We have to make the people participate in administration and development.
Let us hand over village administration to those living in the village as was done by our ancient kings. Let us give them a system of self-administration. This is a system that is workable. It has been so proved by an experiment we have been trying out. That is the concept of GRAMARAJYA.
If the Government is prepared to accept this concept and provide funds, it would be possible in three to four years to build up villages that are self-sufficient. That would mean the emergence of Gramodaya which would pave the way for deshodaya (national awakening) and sarvodaya (awakening of all).
My other commitment is to move our country towards a culture of gentlemanly politics in which personal accusations and character assassination will be unheard of. I genuinely feel sad that character assassination has already commenced in the current campaign.
Presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapakse is the Commander-in-Chief. Another candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, is the former Army Commander. The country expects them to set an example with regard to discipline. I earnestly urge them to conduct their election campaigns in an exemplary manner, without character assassination.
Please give careful thought to what I have stated here. Reflect on them. Understand them. Discuss them. Thereafter, let us all unite to implement them.”
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org