Former President Maithripala Sirisena, who broke away from the Rajapaksas and secured a historic election win in 2015, is back with the Rajapaksa brothers, sitting with their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP or People’s Front] in Parliament — ruling party with 145 seats in the 225-member legislature — since the August 2020 general elections.
The SLPP came into existence by absorbing much of one of the oldest and foremost parties of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), whose rump — 14 MPs — Mr. Sirisena now leads. Thirteen out of those 14 legislators contested polls under the SLPP symbol, leaving only one MP to represent the SLFP in the House. In an interview to the The Hindu at his Colombo residence, the former President spoke about the future of the SLFP, devolution, minority rights, and democracy.
You recently remarked that the SLFP faced a “huge injustice” in the parliamentary elections and have hinted at possibly contesting the provincial council elections separately. Would you do that?
We were treated unfairly when the candidates were picked ahead of the general elections in August 2020. Our party didn’t get a slot in either Kalutara or Nuwara Eliya districts. In Gampaha, we were given only one. In Kurunegala, we were given only two slots. In the districts we are strong, we weren’t given a fair number of slots. We had asked for 30 candidates. Had we been given 30 slots in the last general election, we would have got at least 25 in Parliament. They [ruling party] organised political attacks on our candidates who had been nominated. So, while we still look forward to contesting provincial council elections as a coalition, we insist on the fair share of seats due to us. If we get that, we will have no problem going to polls together with the government. If there is no fair treatment, our party will decide on a solo journey. We are ready for both options.
We are bound to a platform of democracy and we want to strengthen it. Whenever we come into a coalition, we insist that democracy and human rights be respected. The Buddhist doctrine offers ample guidance on how to run a State.
What, then, is the future of the SLFP, or what is left of it, given that much of the party is already part of the SLPP?
We have a very strong plan in place in regard to the future of the SLFP. Next year, we are bringing an array of new faces on board. In the coming months, our organisers will launch a grassroots rejuvenation programme. The party has its own independent structure, with the decisions being taken by its central committee and politburo.
In this effort to rejuvenate the party, would you be willing to work with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, like you did ahead of your January 2015 poll victory?
She is not in the party anymore. In the November 2019 presidential elections, she supported Sajith Premadasa [now Leader of Opposition], so she was asked to leave the party. She led a breakaway faction of our party at his rally at the Sugathadasa Stadium, making it seem like the SLFP was behind this. That was against our party’s stance.
You say you are open to two options ahead of the provincial council elections when they are held. Some within the government want the provincial councils abolished, while the Prime Minister asked officials to expedite arrangements. Some others want the elections held after the proposed new Constitution is out. How do you view these contradictory positions within the government?
We have had the provincial council system for over 30 years now. We haven’t seriously evaluated if they have been successful in serving the purpose they were supposed to. The government should analyse if the councils have actually served our people. I believe there are some amendments needed in the provincial council system. One of the main problems is that of the total allocations to the provincial councils annually, only 25 % or so goes into the actual development of the provinces. Nearly 75 % goes towards salaries, vehicles, telephone and electricity bills. There is an excessive number of employees in the provincial councils.
When the central government pumps in money into the provincial councils, it is done as an investment for the development of the country. However, the return on such investment has been less. So we need to reduce wasteful expenditure, perhaps by reducing the number of councillors and employees, in order to increase the return on investment. There are differences within the government, and it is upto the government to decide on the right course of action.
From a development perspective, I think a set up at the district-level, like a District Development Board, would work better than the provincial councils, given the fact that we are a small country. You can set up a development board at the district level, comprising members of Parliament representing the district, chairpersons and mayors of local government authorities. For a big country like India, a provincial system is good, but we are a country of 21 million.
How can this arrangement ensure power devolution? You have been pro-devolution, but some others calling for abolition of provincial councils are opposed to power sharing.
We must empower the District Development Board, that should be the solution. We have to reduce wasteful expenditure, and at the same time empower local administrative bodies. Decentralising power through these District Development Boards can bring about a compromise.
Our experience has shown that even in the provincial system, it is the chief minister’s district alone that gets all the benefits. Not other districts in the province. They serve their districts in the hope of entering parliament one day. Even today, in the actual workings of the provincial council system, it is the districts that matter.
In principle, I believe in power sharing and devolution. In the areas where the war was fought, the incidence of poverty is very high even today. There is friction between the provincial councils and the national government, and that is not good. It doesn’t help serve the people.
So how would you respond to those within government, calling for the abolition of provincial councils established pursuant to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution?
The 13th Amendment is a product of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The Provincial Councils Act is a product of the 13th Amendment. So, I know it is not that easy to abolish provincial councils. India could get a little upset with us if we completely do away with the 13th Amendment. In our region, the friendship with India is very important to Sri Lanka. The friendship between the two countries is of utmost importance and should be strengthened by all governments. Abolishing provincial councils is like playing with fire.
At the same time, the 30 year-experience of running provincial councils has not yielded desired results in terms of developing all parts of the country. That is why it is important that we arrive at a compromise with understanding. As I mentioned, creation of the provincial councils was an investment, we have been keeping them going for 30 years, and when they don’t yield the benefits that were expected in terms of development, people and the government should take a fair decision.
Speaking recently at a symposium organised by the Japanese government, you said that Buddhist values and democracy are closely linked. Pointing to the three pillars – Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – you observed that one of them steamrolling power over the other two will signify the “death knell of democracy”. How do you view the 20th Amendment passed by this government you are part of – although you were absent on the day of the vote – that gives sweeping powers to the President? Your party supported it. Months after you assumed office in 2015, the 19th Amendment, clipping executive powers of the President, was passed.
I don’t like the fact that the 19th Amendment has been abolished. Had I been the President, I would have made changes to the 19th Amendment to strengthen it. There were some drawbacks in it, I would have addressed those.
The problems in the amendment were not really in its structure, but more in the people appointed to the independent commissions and Constitutional Council. The Constitutional Council had some members appointed to it, who were not fit to be there. Even the independent commissions were at times helmed by who were not suitable for the role. Some NGO representatives and allies, whom we cannot approve of, got appointed to these commissions. Those appointments were not made by me, but by the former Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe]. What the 19th Amendment did was to give the Prime Minister also some powers.
And I gave away my superior powers as Executive President. The powers until then were almost monarch like. The powers I parted with went to the Prime Minister, the parliament and the independent commissions. So how did some wrong people get into those institutions? It is because the powers given to the Prime Minister were abused. So, there was a lot of criticism of the commissions that were supposed to be independent. One example is the Election Commission, that lot of people found fault with.
That is why I said the 19th Amendment could have been amended in a way that strengthens democracy. I didn’t vote for the 20th Amendment.
Why, your party supported it?
It [20 A] is against my policy. Now the President has all the powers that he acquired through the 20th Amendment. I hope he will not misuse or abuse those powers. The Constitution gives you some powers, but it is the person who occupies the seat that decides how that power is used.
For example, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 acquired a lot of power through the 18th Amendment, but when I came to power in 2015, I gave away my powers through the 19th Amendment. I can’t predict now if someone who comes to power in future would amass more power beyond the 20th Amendment, or again, shed powers like I did with the 19th Amendment.
You keep referring to democracy. In your recent speech too, you spoke of many governments sliding towards authoritarianism, where rights of minorities are under threat. How do you see the Sri Lankan context in that respect?
As a majority ethnic group, it is our responsibility to seriously think about the minorities who form part of this country all the time. It is a fact that in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese are the majority. Bearing that in mind, we must ensure Tamils, Muslims and Burghers have equal rights as minorities.
For example, take the issue of mandatory cremation of victims of Covid-19. Muslims must be given the right to bury their relatives who succumbed to it. The WHO [World Health Organization] says it is possible to bury. As a former Minister of Health, I stand by the opinion of the WHO.
You cannot develop the country when the sentiments of minority communities are hurt. We have to ensure that democracy and economic development are shared equally by all ethnic groups in this country.
Buddhist philosophy offers us ample guidance on the principle of equality. There were hundreds of religions and languages in India when the Buddha was born. Although there were hundreds of religions and languages, the Buddha, when he began preaching the religion, had no problem with any other religion or community. He continued preaching without any conflict with other religions.
You spoke about the importance of the friendship between India and Sri Lanka. When you came to power in 2015, you vowed to follow a neutral foreign policy, and reset relations with many partners. How do you evaluate the foreign policy choices of this government?
It appears to me that the government has a good relationship with India. I am happy about that. The principle of non-aligned foreign policy was introduced to then Ceylon by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of my party, in 1956. I believe all governments that come to power in Sri Lanka should stick to a non-aligned foreign policy.
Do you have any regrets about your time in office?
I believe the people of Sri Lanka still enjoy the freedoms and the democracy that I won for them. The Right to Information Act passed during my term was a historic move. The powers given to the independent commissions and the people were significant. I pursued a 360 degree-friendship foreign policy. I pursued strong friendship with all countries — US, China, Russia, India, Japan, Pakistan.
It is not easy to be the President of a country [laughs]. I could balance everything only because of my over 50 years’ experience in politics. I am happy with what I did, they were done with good intentions. I have some regrets about the things I could not do. The internal strife within the government held me back from delivering on some things.
No leader ever goes home after his time in office after completing all that he intended to. When a parent passes away, a lot of children worry that they could have cared more about their parents. Similarly, when a really patriotic leader leaves office, he leaves with the feeling that he couldn’t do enough for the country. I am also like that.
Anything you did that you regret?
No, I am happy with everything I did. I did everything with good intentions. My time in office is historic for the fact that no government-owned rifle ever shot at a citizen. During my time, there were protests every day on the streets, by students, by workers. I had ordered the police and army not to ever resort to shooting. I told them they could take legal action later, but should never fire a single shot, even though the protests gave me a lot of mental agony. That is one of my greatest achievements as a leader.
In my time, I launched five major projects like the anti-drugs campaign, the environment programme, children’s programme, a programme for those suffering from kidney ailments – there are 5,000 new patients every year — and then one to enhance local food production. I am happy about those.