As Sri Lanka tries to rebuild its battered economy after last year’s devastating crisis, the country’s political scene is gradually heating up, in the run up to two national elections scheduled next year — parliamentary and presidential — that will give citizens their first chance to vote, after they dislodged the Rajapaksas from power in 2022. The National People’s Power [NPP] alliance, led by the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front) is drawing attention, with its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake topping opinion polls as the people’s preferred choice for President. In a wide-ranging interview, the 55-year-old parliamentarian from Colombo spoke to The Hindu at the JVP’s headquarters and laid out what he has to offer.
The government says there is relative stability now. The IMF programme is being implemented, and austerity measures are coming into effect. What is your assessment of the economic situation in the country now?
The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has not been fully resolved. One major issue is that the country’s goods and services sectors are not being developed. Due to that reason, we are not able to earn enough foreign exchange, or rupee revenue needed to run the country.
According to the budget for the next year, the government is expecting a revenue of over 4,164 billion rupees [LKR], while it is expecting to spend around 11,277 billion rupees [LKR]. Of this revenue, a big portion is going to come from indirect taxes as well as PAYE taxes from the professionals.
Sri Lanka has not been servicing its debt for almost two years. The country needs LKR 7350 billion in 2024 to finance its [domestic] debt obligations. We are not spending in dollars, and we are not paying our debt. That is why the government is able to import gas and fuel. The government has not really found solutions to the real economic crisis.
Corruption and economic democracy have been two focal points of your current campaign. You are adopting a slogan of ‘rich people, rich country’. Could you explain?
In our country, wealth or the means of production is concentrated among a few people. Especially, if someone wants to do business, they must have the right connections with the government, to procure tenders, or government land, or to be able to sell their products at government-run stores or cooperatives. There is no economic democracy. A majority of our people cannot participate in economic activities, because you must have some kind of government connection to do that, especially to do business. There is no transparency. Because of that, the country has become poor, and the people also have become poor.
In Sri Lanka, the top 10% of the rich own and control about 38.4 % of the wealth in the country, and the lowest 10%, or the poorest, they own only 1.1 % of the total wealth. A majority of our people are poor. That is why we need an economic plan which can develop the country and bring people out of poverty.
You highlight corruption, what in your analysis is the source of corruption in Sri Lanka?
The root cause of the corruption in Sri Lanka is the political culture here. Another reason is that the economic [liberalisation] and social policies introduced in 1977, promoted only money/financial relationships rather than human values. It was all about making money. For instance, a person could have made big money by selling drugs, but would have got elected to parliament. For the last 45 years this country has been abandoning human and social values, siding with the power of money. Principles were lost. This socio-economic setup has also fuelled the culture of corruption.
When you say you have to make people rich in order to make the country rich, what kind of policies do you have in mind?
In our economic policy, there are three major fundamentals. First, we have to develop our economy. Second, people should be allowed to participate, that is, people’s participation in economic activity should increase. And then, the benefits of this should be distributed to all the people.
We have developed an economic plan to fulfill these objectives. When we consider the first aspect of economic growth, to develop the economy, we are open to investments. In this regard we need capital, technology, and investments which can help Sri Lanka go to the world market. So, we are encouraging investments that can help Sri Lanka go to the world market and secure a portion of it. We don’t think we should invite investors to come and sell petrol and diesel here.
When you look at the economic strength of provinces in Sri Lanka, 36 % of the GDP is from the Western Province [where capital Colombo is located], 5 % from North Central and 4 % from Uva Province. Our economy is highly concentrated in the Western Province, it should be expanded to other provinces as well. We have developed an economic policy based on Sri Lanka’s location, our natural resources, human resources, civilization, and contemporary global political affairs.
What about Sri Lanka’s continuing import reliance, and its exports’ basket that has not been diversified in decades?
The needs, wants or requirements of human beings have not changed very much over time. They remain similar. The mode or the modes of fulfilling those needs, they are changing. And the market relies on these modes. As a country, we have not been able to cater to these new modes which could have allowed us to secure a portion in the world market. Our research and development have been very weak. Due to that, we are still limited to traditional exports as you said, like tea, rubber, coconut. Just like tea, rubber, coconut, our political leaders are also old, stuck where they were.
As a country, we have not been able to seize the moment and penetrate the markets. We have always missed the opportunity. Sometimes our leaders have tried to seize the opportunity but could not. We have been studying and identifying what are the sectors, especially in goods and services, that Sri Lanka can enter, and what are the new markets we can enter. We cannot continue with this old model.
Shifting to the political scene, opinion polls say you are the most preferred candidate for President. Next year, Sri Lanka’s presidential and parliamentary elections are due, what do you think are your chances realistically?
Governments can collapse within a very short period of time, sometimes within a year, sometimes within four to five years. But systemic change in society takes decades, sometimes even centuries. When we look at the economic, social, and political realities of our country, [it is evident that] this country needs real social change. Other parties can change their leaders, Cabinet of ministers and government. But the country needs social transformation. We think we are the only party that can fulfil this requirement. We do think we have a good chance of winning the elections. We are confident.
When we look at countries that have developed well over time, we see that it [the development] is very much aligned to a national liberation struggle. For example, a country like the US became a developed country, it was linked to a liberation struggle. India also had a big liberation movement.
You mean the anti-Colonial resistance and subsequent nation building exercise?
Yes, yes. But in Sri Lanka we did not have that sort of a movement. For the system change that the country is asking, we need a national liberation movement rather than a political party. That is what we are trying to fulfil. Our party is the JVP, and our national movement is the NPP. We have not only built a party, but also built a massive national liberation movement. That is why we think that we are capable enough to win [polls], and capable enough to fulfil the contemporary requirements of the country.
Right, when you say liberation movement, what are you liberating the country from?
We must liberate the country from this corrupt political culture. That is the first thing we must do —liberate this country from this corrupt elite political leadership which has been ruining the country for the last 75 years.
Your movement, or the NPP, is drawing more attention and support now, including from disillusioned supporters of other parties. With a more diverse support base, how will you accommodate the expectations of traditional JVP supporters, as well as those of others?
The JVP was built for this social change. Ideologically and politically, since the inception of our party, we have believed that we need to build a mass movement. In some periods of our history, we were unable to build a mass movement that was influential, sometimes we faced failures, but today we are satisfied that we have been able to build a massive and capable movement. To answer your specific question, the JVP has been working for this from the beginning. So, there is no contradiction. Although people from other political backgrounds are joining us, after having voted for Pohottuwa [as the Rajapaksas’ party is referred to, based on its lotus bud symbol] or the UNP [United National Party] in the past, when we talk to them, we really know that they had supported them with good hopes and objectives.
Moreover, it is not the functionaries from these parties’ corrupt layers that are joining us. It was a small group that was corrupt. People were not corrupt, they just voted for them. We are not allowing this corrupt lot to join us. Ordinary people are joining us, so we are not really facing any contradiction between them and our party’s support base.
I also ask this because the business community or some affluent sections are wary of the NPP, seeing it as a Left formation. Some within the Left criticise you for not being Left enough. You seem to be getting attacked from both sides. How do you position yourself?
Getting attacked from both sides goes to show that we are in the correct position. We will establish a government to serve the needs of the majority of the people. We are trying our best to provide fair chances for everyone to participate in the economy. We are trying our best to unite the three main [ethnic] communities of this country, we do not do politics based on ethno-nationalism or communalism.
We will engage all the countries while analysing the recent political developments in the world. We will remain a non-aligned country. We will try to build a country where everyone is law-abiding, where no one is above the law. Everyone can debate about the “isms” of the NPP, but we are focussed on for working for the people.
So you don’t care so much about the label?
Labels have always given wrong perceptions. Left politics is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. Some people demonise this. That is why we say we are focussed more on working for the majority of our people, rather than on labels.
You talked about engaging all countries. In recent times, you have stepped up your international outreach – meeting head of missions, including India’s. Historically, the JVP has held an image of being anti-India, anti-West, while being perceived as pro-China. What has changed now?
The world has changed, our party has also changed. In the contemporary world, there are big political centres, and we know there are huge political and economic contradictions among these power centres. We are trying to keep Sri Lanka out of this big power rivalry.
We do know that India, who is our closest neighbour, has become a major political and economic centre. So, when we take economic and political decisions, we will always care about how it will impact India. Afterall, there is no contest between India and Sri Lanka. The rivalry is at the geopolitical level, between big powers, it is not between Sri Lanka and India. We are mindful of that.
Elections bring about compulsions. Is the NPP open to alliances, and if you are, are there alliance partners that you see yourself working with next year?
We have built the NPP to fulfil that objective, to make alliances. As I told you, what our country needs is not a mere government or a regime change, but a real social transformation. So, we are ready to work with groups and parties who are ready for that social transformation. We don’t see those in government or the opposition, who have ruled this country, as being eligible for such an alliance.
Next year, it will be 15 years since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended. The political solution is still pending, the Tamil people are concerned about ongoing land grabs, they are not allowed to remember their dead, there were recent reports of torture, of custodial deaths. As you build a national movement with the aim of coming to power, what will you tell the Tamil citizens of this country?
The problem in Sri Lanka was not the war, the problem took the form of a war. Although the war is over, the national question remains. We believe and accept that there are issues, especially regarding the Tamil and Muslim people of this country, in regard to their language rights, cultural issues as well as their participation in governance. We must find solutions for these pending issues.
It was a civil war that was fought here, it was not as if one country defeated another. We think what happened was a catastrophe. As a party, we don’t think that we should celebrate it as a “war victory”. We don’t think the 19th of May [final day of war] is a day to be celebrated. We believe everyone has a right to commemorate their loved ones lost in war. If we can find a common date, to commemorate the victims that would be better.
On the other hand, not only in the north, even in the south this commemoration has been losing its genuine meaning, it has become a political project for some. While people in the north try to commemorate their dead, some from the south want to disrupt it. It has become some kind of game or sport.
You have been trying to mobilise the support of ex-servicemen. How do you think that will be seen by families of JVP cadre who have faced military violence during the insurrections, or the Tamils who continue to have a tense relationship with the military, that is accused of committing war crimes?
Even though it is not our desire, we believe that much of our political work is with the people of the Sinhala community. Among the Sinhala community, we have been organising various sectors, and the ex-servicemen are also part of that. In the north, we are actually weak among the [Tamil] people and ex-militants.
In our history there were armed struggles, military responses. However, we can’t live in our history, we have to allow everyone to participate in this new national movement.
We didn’t have a strong national liberation movement, as I told you. We had two opportunities to build such a movement. First, when the British were ruling the country, we had an opportunity to form a national liberation movement, but we failed. After the British exited the country, our local leaders had a chance at a nation building project, a national movement. They didn’t do that. This is the third opportunity.
We think we have to unite all the people and the communities and the groups in north, east and south, to defeat this corrupt political ruling class. Our appeal to people of the north is not ‘please join us, we will fulfil your needs’. That is not what we are saying. We are appealing to them, to be part of this movement to defeat this corrupt ruling clique. We are saying let us unite, rebuild this country, and fulfil the requirements of the all the communities together.
In our history, political leaders have always asked the people of north to join them saying, we will solve your issues. They always looked at the people of the north as others, the other people. We do not think they are other people, so we ask them to become an organic part of this movement. Even though we are weak [in the north], that is our ambition and that is what we have been doing for the last 15 years.
Next year, it will be 10 years since you became the JVP’s leader. The party’s past remains controversial, how does its future look to you?
The party is not built on one person or one leader. We are a collective movement. We have been working for this for decades. In the near future, we will be able to reach that objective and we will be able to build a better future for the country.