Sri Lanka does not need a military response to tackle prevalent national security concerns; the country needs a sound political response, according to Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader and presidential candidate of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
In an interview to The Hindu on Thursday, at the JVP headquarters near the Sri Lankan Parliament, Mr. Dissanayake sought to debunk the “national security” pitch made by prominent contestant Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Defence Secretary, drawing many who want a “strong leader”.
His main opponent and the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) candidate Sajith Premadasa, too, has promised to involve former Army commander Sarath Fonseka in national security affairs.
Challenging both, Mr. Dissanayake said the “national security threat”, which has emerged a key election issue following the Easter Sunday terror bombings, must be compared to the civil war years. “The LTTE had its own army, navy and even an air force. They controlled parts of the country. That situation warranted a military strategy and response in the interest of national security.”
The current threat is more a case of extremist elements in one community attacking people of another community, he noted. “That is essentially what happened in the Easter attacks. That is also what happened in Digana .” The April 21 serial blasts, which investigators have attributed to a local Islamist radical group, were carried out in churches and high-end hotels, killing over 250 people. Authorities who probed the violence in the town of Digana, near Kandy, last year, found that Sinhalese mobs carried out targeted attacks on shops and homes of Muslims in the area.
Communal tensions witnessed in the last few years did not originate from within the communities, Mr. Dissanayake argued. They were “planted” by political actors for their own narrow gains.
“In such a situation, what can MiG aeroplanes, multi-barrels, brigades and army generals do? They cannot solve the problem,” he said. Racism and religious extremism had become part of a “political project” in Sri Lanka and therefore, needed a political solution. “Only an alternative political force or movement can solve the problem.”
A third force
It is such a political movement that the JVP aims to build, not only to ensure national and public security, but also to challenge and replace “the entrenched, self-serving” politics of Sri Lanka’s two main political parties that have alternated in power since independence.
The candidacy of JVP MP Dissanayake, 50, is significant. Not so much for the party’s electoral base — it polled about 5.75 % of the votes in the local polls last year — but more for its leader’s growing appeal.
Mr. Dissanayake’s sharp and evocative interventions in Parliament, also seen during the country’s infamous 52-day constitutional crisis in October 2018, won him many fans, particularly among intellectuals, artistes and the youth.
A staunch campaigner of the abolition of executive presidency, Mr. Dissanayake took the plunge this poll because the party couldn’t see itself supporting another candidate again. It is the first time in nearly 20 years that the JVP is fielding its own candidate in the presidential election, after having tactically backed — explicitly and indirectly — other candidates in the past. In 2015, their campaign was fiercely critical of the then incumbent Rajapaksas, effectively pointing voters to the Maithripala Sirisena–Ranil Wickremesinghe combine.
“But it is the same [Mr. Wickremesinghe’s] UNP that protected the Rajapaksas and created an environment where a family member could enter this contest. The UNP has no moral right now to ask the people to defeat the Rajapaksas,” he said.
In fact, some dreading the return of the “repressive” Rajapaka rule have been pressuring the JVP, to divert its supporters to Mr. Premadasa, seen as the only viable challenger to Mr. Rajapaksa. They fear that Mr. Dissanayake’s candidacy might split the anti-Rajapaksa vote and hamper Mr. Premadasa’s chances. In a presidential election, held under a preferential system here, the winner needs 50 % plus one vote.
“We appreciate their concern, but it is very unfair to ask us to do this again and again. We want to build our political and socio-economic vision for the long-term. The movement for change has to begin now,” Mr. Dissanayake said.
Mr. Dissanayake is also of the view that, if Mr. Rajapaksa or Mr. Premadasa comes to power, both will invariably tread an undemocratic path to secure power amidst the political-economic crisis facing the country. “Both their parties have a tendency for that. In such times, having a strong left, democratic force to challenge them is crucial.”
In building such a force, Mr. Dissanayake sees a potential partnership with the Tamil and Muslim minorities. “Many in both communities have been very receptive to our campaign. We see that as a victory.”
However, while the JVP and Tamil National Alliance stood together during last year’s constitutional crisis, the parties have not been able to come together ahead of this presidential election.
The TNA is yet to declare its position, but is widely expected to back Mr. Premadasa, since the Rajapaksas still evoke fear and discomfort among the Tamils.
“We are engaging with the TNA. We recognise that the Tamil people have unique political, socio-economic needs [after the war] and believe they have to be addressed.” However, suggesting that the TNA often chose “instant” or short-term gains, Mr. Dissanayake said: “From their perspective, they feel it is important to accept even minor gains and reforms, but we stand for major reforms now. Nevertheless, we will continue talking to the TNA and all other Tamil political groups.”