Speaker Karu Jayasuriya in a candid interview with the Daily Mirror said the country could have saved billions of rupees had the respective Presidents elected since 1994 to date got the presidential system abolished as promised on election platforms.He also criticizes the current presidential system, ‘designed to serve the interests of one man or woman’ as going against the fundamentals of democracy.
The Speaker pledges to ensure that the presidency is abolished in his lifetime. “My position is that the next President should be the last President,” he says, calling for a candidate who will ensure its abolition.
The Speaker set out several policy proposals ranging from devolution of powers, measures to strengthen the independent commissions and prevent crossovers in parliament, as well as a vision for enhancing the abilities of the Various Factions of the UNPthe intelligence services and preventing their abuse in the future. He said the intelligence services need ‘enabling legislation, facilities and credibility with their peers on the world stage’ and not a licence to kill journalists and MPs. Those who abused and denigrated them in the past, he said, must be held accountable.
On his prospects for becoming a ‘common candidate’ for the presidency, Jayasuriya said he would be willing to accept the candidacy on an abolition platform if such a nomination was supported by ‘all progressive forces’ including the various factions of the UNP.
However, the Speaker stressed the importance of uniting all progressive forces behind a single candidate who is democratically elected. He warns direly that if progressive forces split across multiple candidates, “we will end up being the enablers, or the people who opened the door to fascism in Sri Lanka”
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have both announced their presidential candidates, but your own United National Party (UNP) has not. Who do you believe would be the best candidate for the UNP to put forward?
First, we should be asking why we are having another presidential election. Since 1994, every presidential candidate has come in on a promise of abolishing the presidential system. In 2010, the Rajapaksa government amended the Constitution to remove the two-term limit. In 2015 we promised the people that President Sirisena would be the last executive president of Sri Lanka.
The power of the presidency has been diluted, but it is still there. The presidency consumes the officeholder over time. The people have seen it. This is why at every election the country votes to abolish the presidency. It is also why Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s movement to abolish appealed to me from the beginning. As long as the presidential system is in place, there is no changing the political culture of this country. A system designed to serve the interest of one man or woman goes against the fundamentals of democracy.
The only President who has ever fought to weaken his powers is Maithripala Sirisena. He did it as soon as he took office. We do not have to agree on everything that has happened since, but if President Sirisena had not rallied the SLFP behind the 19th Amendment in 2015, Sri Lanka would still be facing a Constitutional crisis.
As Speaker, it is improper for me to involve myself in deciding on candidates. My position is that the next president should be the last. I have to see that the presidency is abolished in my lifetime. I owe that to my grandchildren and every grandchild in this country. The only way to make sure it happens is to find a candidate who will ensure it is abolished. That should be the primary objective.
Why is abolishing the Executive Presidency more important to you than all the other issues for a government? Wouldn’t you say that you are the ideal candidate for this issue?
I have long felt that the Executive Presidency has become a burden and a danger to the proper functioning of democracy. A head of State who is above the law can jeopardise the very existence of our democracy by wielding power over the judges, Parliament and the executive including the public service. We have seen how this has hurt the rights of ordinary people and caused corruption.
It has trained the public service to wait for orders from the top instead of acting independently and thinking for themselves. And when someone’s own need for power makes a Constitutional crisis, every time it is the country that suffers. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero understood this. He explained it in very elegant terms on his 70th birth anniversary in 2012. From that day, I have been determined to see the Executive Presidency abolished in my lifetime.
But it is up to political parties to decide on a candidate. Whoever the candidate is, my goal is the abolition of the Executive Presidency. I will support that mission with all my heart. That is an oath I will sign in my own blood. What is most important to me is that we put forward any candidate, whoever it is, who can be trusted to finish the abolition of the Executive Presidency. If Ven. Sobitha Thero was here, he would want us all to remain united, and work as one movement to get behind a single candidate who will finish the process of restoring real accountable democratic government to this country.
My position is clear. I could only be considered as a candidate if this is the common consensus of the others come together and entrust me with the duty of abolishing the Executive Presidency. I will not canvass for this role, and I will support any candidate who can deliver this promise. If I were to become President, my priorities would be strengthening independent institutions and abolishing the Executive Presidency. The Prime Minister and cabinet would handle the running of the government per the 19th Amendment. I do not want to head any party. This is not a time to think about individuals. We must put the mission first.
Given your dedication to abolishing the presidency, wouldn’t you be the best candidate for this purpose? Didn’t you show strong leadership during the Constitutional crisis?
Many people displayed strength and humility during the crisis. Parliament has never faced a situation like what some MPs put us through, using violence and rioting to try and get their way when they didn’t have enough votes. I don’t credit any one person for resolving the crisis. Many people played critical roles. It was a team effort by the legitimate government. They gave strength to me and the power of Parliament.
Even President Sirisena, who had openly vowed not to reappoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister even if all 225 MPs asked him to, finally showed incredible moral courage by going against his supporters for the second time and doing the democratic thing.
Like any major national issue, that crisis was resolved not by any single hero, but by many people and institutions that did their job and defended the Constitution. Aside from politicians, the Parliament staff, the judiciary and the police all performed in an exemplary way.
As Speaker, I did my part in putting the Constitution before any other consideration, by enforcing the will of Parliament. The police did the same by entering the chamber with me under attack by some members who went to shameful lengths to stifle democracy, even attacking police officers and destroying Parliament property in front of the nation. The judiciary too acted very quickly to defend and interpret the Constitution. But these were not political roles.
I cannot decide who the best candidate is. Nor can any other single person or single faction. The candidate who comes forward to safeguard democracy must also be selected through a democratic process with the consensus of all progressive forces. More than whom the candidate is, it is important that those who support democracy put forward only one candidate.
There are some in the UNP who accused the Prime Minister of making deals with the party’s opponents, and others who say Minister Premadasa’s policies are more aligned with the SLPP than the UNP. Doesn’t that leave you as the only choice?
These are things for the party to decide. But the fact that they are engaging in conversation and having a democratic process is healthy for any party. In the UNP, candidate decisions are not made by one family around a dinner table.
I believe that the Prime Minister’s role must be acknowledged in the UNP’s accomplishments such as the 2015 presidential election victory and the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. There are other things also that the UNP has accomplished in the last 25 years that were all done under his leadership. For example, he was instrumental in decriminalizing defamation, to enhance media freedom. Before he did that, it was routine for journalists who wrote against politicians to be summoned and charged by the CID. When Wickremesinghe’s legacy is written, it will contain many accomplishments in support of democratic and liberal values in Sri Lanka.
I have known Sajith Premadasa for most of his life. It is ridiculous to say that he supports SLPP policies. It was his father, President Premadasa, who first invited me into politics and the UNP. I remember picking up Sajith from the airport after his father was killed. He had been thinking about how to serve this country and carry forward President Premadasa’s legacy from his childhood. I have watched him grow and mature as a politician. He has shown his ability as a Deputy Minister and as a Cabinet Minister in implementing programmes, and he has earned a huge amount of popular support among the people for delivering results in whatever task was assigned to him.
He is only 52 years old and has matured a lot during his career. Sajith Premadasa belongs to the UNP and he has always supported that party and its policies in good times and the worst times. He represents the next generation of the party. During last year’s constitutional crisis, he played an essential part in defending democracy and ensuring that Ranil Wickremesinghe was reappointed as Prime Minister. Under the circumstances, he could have easily sought power for himself like people in the SLPP did, but instead, he stood on principle. We should not forget that, and that is not the mark of someone who is aligned to SLPP policies.
What the party needs now is unity. The Leader, Deputy Leader, Assistant Leader, Chairman, General Secretary and National Organizer must work together with a common purpose and make a responsible decision consistent with the will of the party and its allies.
Even this government said it would make the public service and commissions more independent, but the public service is still beholden to politicians. How would you respond to this criticism, and how should it be addressed in a future administration?
As a former Minister for Public Administration, this issue remains of paramount importance to me. A strong and independent bureaucracy keeps a country running even when there are political issues. This is why people are nostalgic about the old Ceylon Civil Service, where we had permanent secretaries to ministries irrespective of changes in government. We are still paying the price for dismantling this system. It will take a lot more work to restore the strength and independence of the public service.
Since 2015, lots of steps have come to strengthen the independent commissions and restore their independence. Many of these commissions have shown good results. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the RTI Commission have demonstrated their independence and issued independent directives supporting the public instead of politicians. We can all be proud of these institutions. They are the gold standard and have got worldwide acclaim.
At the same time, I believe there is more work to be done with two other commissions – the National Police Commission and the Public Service Commission. They deal with personnel who are constantly working in close contact with the general public. A lot more could have been done to protect these institutions from political patronage and influence, and to make them an engine of real reform for the Police Department and the Public Service, but we are proud of the progress they have made over the last few years.
Sometimes it takes generations to strengthen these institutions, but the Human Rights Commission and RTI Commission have shown us how it can be done much faster.
This government has come under serious criticism for failing to take action against Military Intelligence for the white van abductions and murders of journalists during the Rajapaksa administration, such as the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Would you do anything differently to bring justice to the culprits?
We can’t deny that many of these investigations have taken a long time. But so many years after these events, we must give credit for the excellent work that the CID has done. These investigators have done an excellent job, but unfortunately, they got very little support or protection to finish their work. Senior DIG Ravi Seneviratne and SSP Shani Abeysekera have set a strong example of how a professional law enforcement body should function.
But the handful of intelligence officers caught to these cases was a small part of a large organisation whose power was abused by their superiors. This has not only happened in military intelligence. The same thing happened in the police. The CID has taken in several DIGs and Senior DIGs for involvement with murders and for helping to cover up murders. This does not mean that the entire police force is a killer squad. There were abuses by some people. Catching them only strengthens the police.
It is the same with Military Intelligence. There are thousands of people in Military Intelligence. Most of them are unsung heroes. During the war, they risked their lives to pinpoint targets in LTTE areas for the air force. They played a huge role also in locating the LTTE arms smuggling fleet for the navy to destroy. As the largest intelligence group in the country, they are now involved in assisting the navy and STF to stop drug smuggling and underworld activities. After the Easter attacks, they have played a big part in suppressing terrorism.
However, with any powerful organisation, there is room for abuse. If the suspects are guilty, that means someone was using them for a private agenda. This can’t be tolerated. Anyone who gave orders to them to attack the media must be brought to book. The CID and Military Intelligence are national treasures, and we should never tolerate them being exploited for personal vendettas. The common enemy is those who abused the intelligence services with illegal orders for personal agendas and tarnished the name and reputation of these agencies.
The CID has arrested or convicted several DIGs and senior DIGs for their Those who abused the intelligence services for murders and attacks must meet the same fate as those DIGs caught by the CID. That is in the interests of all Sri Lankans, and especially in the interests of the real professionals and heroes in the intelligence services and the military.
There is no more deplorable abuse of power than for people to abuse the armed forces and police to attack and murder journalists for political agendas. The next government must support the police by doing whatever is necessary to ensure those who did this are held accountable. I have the highest respect for the CID and the highest regard for the integrity and calibre of the judiciary. I do not doubt that if the CID can finish their work and put the facts before the judiciary, justice will be done. It is not just a matter of justice, but one of national security also.
Those who oppose investigations into these crimes say that by arresting intelligence officers this government has jeopardised national security. There are calls for amnesty for intelligence officers. Why do you say solving these crimes will help national security?
Intelligence services, like military forces, are a vital function of any nation on the world stage. Their capabilities must be built up to detect and deter threats to the security of a country. In a democracy, we don’t exterminate journalists and MPs threats to national security just because they may expose individuals in power. Lasantha Wickrematunge and Nadarajah Raviraj were not threats to national security.
There are real threats like separatist terrorists, radical Islamic militants, infiltrators and other external threats. Just like the independent commissions and public service are being reformed, the intelligence services too must be reformed to enjoy not only independence but the capacity to do their real job for the nation. They need enabling legislation, facilities and credibility with their peers on the world stage, not a licence to kill journalists and MPs. All their needs are easier to get if the handful of people who had exploited their power for political purposes are identified and removed so the real professionals can be recognised and rise in the ranks.
Anyone who asks for amnesty for people who killed journalists is only showing us who they are on the inside. The real threat to national security and the sovereignty of anyone who would reactivate killer squads to target people who disagree with them or embarrass them. This must never happen again.
This Government swept to office pledging to root out corruption in the state system. It has been almost five years, but still, no one has been successfully prosecuted for any of these crimes. Why should the public believe that this will change in a future government?
It is important to understand that corruption has taken root over many generations. Undoing the damage cannot be achieved overnight. Even the idea of properly investigating corruption in government is one that started only in 2015. It takes time to build the capacity to do this work properly. Bringing accountability and transparency into governance takes time. We must keep working and making reforms until the system is properly cleaned up. Sometimes it is easy to give up. But look at the strides made in such a short period.
The former president’s Chief of Staff was convicted for misusing public TRC funds for an election campaign. A powerful MP was convicted of murder. Last year, the Bribery Commission caught the sitting President’s Chief of Staff taking a multi-million-rupee bribe. A year later, he has been indicted and the trial has started. This could never have happened before 2015.
Central Bank Governors and other senior Government officials being investigated and made to step down over allegations of corruption. People who exposed corruption in the last government, like Lasantha Wickrematunge or Sirasa TV, ended up dead or bombed. Today, the Criminal Investigation Department was free to arrest even the highest-ranking military official without political interference.
It is easy to take this new independence in law enforcement for granted when we feel disillusioned by other failures. But these are huge changes in the culture of government. It is far from perfect, but after so many years of zero accountability, the system is finally starting to develop accountability and trigger checks and balances.
The amendments to the Judicature Act set up the permanent high courts at bar to hear corruption and financial crimes cases and increased the number of high court judges from 75 to 110, the largest increase in history. The salaries in the Attorney General’s Department and the judiciary were increased to recognise the value of their role to the country. All these things make the justice system better, and less vulnerable to corruption. There is much more to do, but already the judiciary and the Police are no longer political instruments.
Saying that we have not gone far enough and that the system was not entirely fixed overnight is not a reason to consider returning to the days of the police and judiciary being answerable to a single person. We must keep going and finish the reform process. If we need more reforms and more improvements to solve and prevent complex crimes and corruption, then we must make those reforms. We cannot give up and give in to reverting to fascism and autocracy. Not in my lifetime.
But the Bribery Commission, for instance, has been largely inefficient ever since Dilrukshi Dias Wickremesinghe, who was one of the most efficient DGs, was forced to step down. Can you say the Bribery Commission is truly independent?
Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe’s decision to step down was extremely unfortunate. Officials of that calibre value integrity and independence are above everything else. When you build a career on these values, even the hint of impropriety cannot be tolerated. The fact that these hints were directed at her from the Head of State made it impossible for her to continue. We still have more to accomplish. These institutions should be operated above the political fray, and measures must be put in place to prevent politicians from undermining their ability to carry out their duties.
Having said that, I believe much of the criticism levelled against the Bribery Commission needs to be put in context. This year alone, the Commission got over 1,000 complaints. They have a backlog of thousands of cases. The Bribery Commission has only 200 investigators and 28 prosecutors to handle this workload. Compare this with Hong Kong’s Corruption Commission. They get the same number of complaints, but they have five times the number of investigators.
It is only now, after about 25 years, that CIABOC is expanding capacity, recruiting new staff, increasing salaries and engaging in corruption prevention initiatives. For the first time, anyone can see what they are doing through their website giving regular reports. Agencies like CIABOC need to be strengthened and given the necessary resources and expertise to meet our expectations. That is the only role of the politician in the Commission’s business. But even now, they have filed charges against former ministers and military officers, and senior officials in the current government. This has never happened in the past.
They have already begun expanding to meet the challenges of preventing and prosecuting bribery and corruption around the country. Several hundred university graduates are being interviewed, recruited and trained. This is the first time in our history that graduates are being hired and trained in large numbers to go into law enforcement. Whether it is CIABOC, or the FCID or the CID, it will take time to build the capacity to detect and investigate complex financial crimes at scale. None of this had ever been attempted in Sri Lanka before 2015. Before then, law enforcement turned a blind eye to large scale abuse within the government. Whatever the shortcomings, this is an achievement that must be recognised.
If you were President and you succeeded in abolishing the Executive Presidency and winning two thirds in Parliament, would you seek to return as Prime Minister?
Definitely not. In my view, the only thing left to do with the powers of the Executive Presidency is to devolve them to a newly empowered Prime Minister. I am determined to do this sooner than later. Once the Executive Presidency is gone, I have no interest in the Executive office. From that point, it is up to the younger generation to lead this country. You can see the pulse of the people. There is strong support for a fresh generation of leadership to develop the country and chart its future course. To give them that opportunity, we must bring in a system of government that allows us to protect and harness the talents of all our people and protect all citizens from discrimination. After that, I will leave it to the next generation to decide how best I can serve.
Do you believe there is still an appetite in Sri Lanka for this kind of reform? Would it be possible to win two-thirds support in Parliament?
Definitely. The 19th Amendment was passed by a 95% majority. Only 12 members did not vote for it. This was under Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa. Many Joint Opposition MPs such as Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Namal Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara participated heavily in the debate and amendment stages, and ultimately voted for the bill. It was the product of all parties together and approved also by the Supreme Court.
We can find a consensus for future reforms also. Whether abolishing the Executive Presidency or even reforms to support the justice system. For example, we could empower the Human Rights Commission to directly file cases in Magistrates Courts or recommend indictments to the Attorney-General. We could have a special body to focus on discrimination in terms of Article 12 of the Constitution, whether on religious, age, gender, ethnic, economic status or any other grounds. And we could look at using the strong body of jurisprudence from the Supreme Court in Fundamental Rights applications and move that jurisdiction down to a lower level of courts. That way cases can be heard faster and have the possibility of an appeal step.
The fact that FR applications can drag on for years is a major issue that was unforeseen by the Constitution, which requires applications be dealt within 60 days. This is an essential reform. Similarly, we can give Parliament more authority to assist the judiciary through oversight with ensuring case flow management and institute an independent procedure for handling disciplinary issues for higher court judges that fall short of impeachment.
Assuming that you agreed to be a presidential candidate and were elected, what would be your priorities as President?
Whoever is elected, the priority should be a legislation package to further strengthen independent commissions, public institutions and take further steps towards de-politicising the public service and the media. We must also finalize anti-crossover legislation. These things are crucial to paving the way for abolishing the presidency. We have to make sure our democratic institutions are strong enough to fight against interference and obstruction. This government has started that process but there is more to be done. If we are all dedicated to the task, it should not take long.
Then we must table a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Presidency. We will have to build consensus to pass the amendment with a two-thirds majority in Parliament and win the support of the people at a referendum. The President is essential for this process. We saw this when the struggle was on to get the 19th Amendment enacted. President Sirisena got personally engaged in the negotiations to push it through. That was his legacy. He showed us that when the President is pushing to curtail his powers, it is very difficult for anyone to stand in the way.
At this stage, if all parties are in agreement, Parliament can be dissolved. Together with the general election, we can seek a mandate on the amendment to abolish the presidency through a referendum. If the amendment is approved by the people, we will have a Prime Minister who is accountable not only to Parliament but also through other mechanisms. For example, the sovereign immunity from prosecution and judicial review of the President will not remain for anyone.
Are these plans unique to you, or do you believe that the other possible candidates will share this agenda?
At this moment I can only speak for myself, but I want to stress something. There are many political parties, including the UNP, SLFP and JVP, minority parties, clergy leaders and civil society movements who are dedicated to strengthening democracy and safeguarding the security of all Sri Lankans. All these people can’t be candidates. Everyone must put their egos and parties aside and rally behind one candidate if they want to see these dreams realized.
The candidate is only one person. What is most important is that after the election, there is a team to work together and follow through. Last time also there was a winning candidate, but it was this unity and joint dedication that was missing.
Personally, it would be a tremendous honour for me to be the presidential candidate who wins and goes on to lead the abolition of the presidency. But all of us who might feel that way will be cursed if we fail to unite behind a single candidate. Instead of being the champions of abolition we will end up being the enablers, or the people who opened the door to fascism in Sri Lanka.
My first and number one priority is to bring everyone together so that all efforts can be brought behind whichever single candidate can be trusted by most of the electorate. Then we must keep everyone together even after the election to deliver the governance and security that our people have been wishing for over the last several decades. The country comes first.