Padma Rao Sundarji
Sri Lanka’s opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is the brains and chief architect behind the ‘Rainbow Coalition’, whose candidate Maithripala Sirisena challenges incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in presidential elections. The exhausted but upbeat politician, who will then be prime minister, spoke exclusively to Padma Rao Sundarji for the Hindustan Times on India, the international community and the charges that Sri Lanka could slide back into anarchy if Sirisena wins:
Q: All through President Rajapaksa’s second term as president–2010 to date–you lay low as opposition leader. ‘Where is Ranil?’ was the question often posed by Sri Lankans tired of the ‘Rajapaksa regime’ and its consolidation of all powers within the presidency and allegedly- therewith Mr Rajapaksa’s extended family, many of whom are in high places. It is only in November–barely two months ago, that you were galvanised into action. You stitched together a ‘rainbow’ coalition and you selected Sirisena–of your rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)- as the candidate for your ‘common opposition’ to challenge Rajapaksa today. What took you so long ?
A: You need the correct time and the correct strategy. Rajapaksa was at his peak, the civil war against the LTTE had just been won, there was no question of challenging him in 2010. Besides, once elected, a president remains in office. One could have impeached him but we didn’t have the numbers to do so. Or, one can take a president on during elections, when his grip is loosened. So we had to wait and watch. And the time came in November, when he brought forward the election in order to secure a third term for himself. That was the impetus we were all waiting for.
Q: But your coalition consists of a disparate lot: Tamil and Sinhalese nationalists, Buddhist clergy and Muslims, the former army chief Sarath Fonseka who commanded the army when the LTTE were defeated, your own United National Party (UNP) and your biggest rival the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to which your candidate Sirisena – as Rajapaksa himself – belongs. So far, the only glue bonding all of you is the resolve to get rid of Rajapaksa. If and once that happens, your coalition is surely doomed to disintegrate ?
A: Our goal is not just to topple Rajapaksa but to restore multi-party democracy too. None of us can survive without it. We can’t have a president with unlimited powers anymore. So the Rajapaksa regime has to go. We need to build a new political culture. Yes, we are aware that just getting rid of him won’t do. People expect solutions otherwise they would lose faith in all these political parties, which, as you correctly note, represent all hues of Sri Lankan politics. That is why we have drawn up a 100-day programme to put a policy framework in place for the next two years.
Q: Come on. The Tamils say they want the army out of the North and East, your own candidate Sirisena announced two days ago that there is no question of the forces being withdrawn from the former war zones. Attacks on Muslims by rabid Buddhist monks have been on the rise. Given such wide differences and whether you have a policy framework for the next two years or not, surely this coalition is doomed to split up within six months over such issues ?
A: Look, if we win these presidential elections, we will have parliamentary polls next. If – and I hope that – my UNP wins those, we would work with all others. Stability is ensured by one party achieving a simple majority in parliament. A less confrontational model of cooperation can be developed if other parties join hands with that single-largest party and form a government for at least two years.
Q: If Sirisena becomes president, you will be named prime minister. But your coalition is supported by former President and your political arch-enemy Chandrika Kumaratunga too. Your squabbles when she was head of state and you prime minister, are well known. She is a towering political personality. Aren’t you worried that she may try to push you around, manipulate the coalition against you?
A: Chandrika Kumaratunga is not coming back to representative politics. She subscribes to our objectives, felt that change was necessary and that is why she is supporting us. And by the way, there is no ill-will at all between us. All that was in the past. In fact after she left office and went into retirement and despite all the rivalries between her SLFP and my UNP, she says the only MPs who would frequently call on her after her retirement were those from our UNP. That says a lot.
Q: Eventually, you are going to have to face the issue of the 13th amendment: greater autonomy and powers for the formerly embattled Tamil-majority North and East of Sri Lanka. Some of your coalition members like the Sinhalese chauvinist JVP and JHU have been dead against any concessions to the Tamils. That key issue, if nothing else, is bound to trip you up……….
A: On the contrary. Having all these disparate parties under one roof is the only way to resolve such issues. The differences between the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the JHU are not that big so I am sure they will not be a cause for breakdown. It is just that both sides have emphasized different aspects of the issue you speak of. In fact, there has been a lot of discussion between the two sides in parliament and in some areas, they have virtually narrowed down or even overcome their differences.
Being in this coalition together is their chance to work it through. In any case, why do you keep harping on the 13th amendment alone? There are other fears now, even in southern Sri Lanka, that were not there in 1987 when that amendment was signed as part of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. The police, for instance. In the meantime, it is highly politicized even in the south. All Sri Lankans fear that if the Rajapaksa regime returns, the Chief Ministers of each of our nine provinces will convert their provincial police into private armies. That is a genuine and pressing concern too.
Q: It was during your time as Prime Minister and Kumaratunga as president that international mediation was invited to bring an end to the long, brutal civil war waged by the LTTE. But other than failed ceasefires, it brought little. Army generals say this is because each time they were on the verge of defeating the LTTE, Colombo would keel under international pressure and call for a ceasefire. Those ceasefires would then help the LTTE regroup and re-arm, violate the ceasefire and–hostilities would erupt all over again.
They say that Rajapaksa is the first president who kept mediation out, gave the army a free hand to take the battle to its conclusion and defeat the Tigers. As it is, there is a lot of international interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs since the end of the war. Now, it is feared that any combine featuring Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe – if your coalition comes to power–would heighten external participation all over again.
A: Oh please. At least India doesn’t fear that. Kumaratunga called Norway as a facilitator way back then and started discussions on a ceasefire with the consent of the Government of India. I concluded that ceasefire agreement with the full knowledge of New Delhi. Why, even Rajapaksa received support from the EU and the US in resuming the war, by assuring them, in return, that democracy would be restored and he would give the Tamils much more than merely the autonomy promised in the 13th Amendment. Then, you speak of constraints on the army during our time.
Kumaratunga always allowed the army to fight its way through. Unfortunately, there were setbacks. And by the way, our political combine had completely destroyed the LTTE’s Sea Tigers unit long before Rajapaksa took over as president. Coming to the international community and the UNHRC’s censure of Sri Lanka: may I inform you that it is Rajapaksa who invited UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to a joint communique agreeing to investigations into alleged human rights violations by the SLA. It is only thereafter that a resolution was moved in the UNHRC paving the way for a human rights enquiry. We in the opposition pointed this out to Rajapaksa: that he did all this by breaching the convention, if not the law, of consulting us, the parliament first. So in that sense, Rajapaksa himself opened up Sri Lanka to inquiry by the international community
Q: But sections of the international Tamil diaspora and escaped LTTE cadres overseas are still keeping the concept of separatism in Sri Lanka alive. Some are so influential that their host countries are taking orders from them on how to vote in the UNHRC on Sri Lankan issues. The LTTE is a banned organization in almost all countries. And yet, these groups are allowed to demonstrate against Sri Lanka, even carrying the old LTTE flag. Why, there is even a ‘transnational government of Tamil Eelam’ in place in those western countries now. Many Sri Lankans fear that given your known proclivity to ‘negotiate’, rather than take action, such forces may gain an upper hand.
A: Absolutely nobody is calling for influence by the pro-Eelam diaspora. The West itself has cracked down hard on them. As far as demonstrations go–well , those are free democratic societies. Lots of people demonstrate, that doesn’t mean that those governments support their various causes. Tamilians of Tamil Nadu, too, demonstrate. Some even consider (slain LTTE chief) Prabhakaran a hero. Does that mean that the government of India or even the government of Tamil Nadu subscribe to their philosophy? That is no argument. Finally, the so-called ‘transnational government of Eelam’. There are dozens like it–for Kashmir, for ‘Khalistan’, etc. all over the world. Who recognizes them? As long as the LTTE stays banned and any movement that advocates violence or separatism on our soil stays banned, that meets our needs.
Q: Your candidate Maithripala Sirisena has indicated that he will scale down Chinese investment and influence in Sri Lanka. That could only be music to New Delhi’s ears. And where will India-Sri Lanka relations stand, viewed through that prism ?
A: We will improve relations with India. But that doesn’t mean we will be hostile to China. Successive governments until the Rajapaksa regime have handled relations to both countries successfully and without bringing them into conflict. We will continue to do that. That goes for Pakistan too. We will also seek to develop stronger economic ties with India.
Q: What if you don’t win this week ? Would you be satisfied with having made a dent? Jolted the current regime?
A: That jolt was given in November when Maithripala Sirisena became our presidential candidate. I am confident we will win. Can’t say by what percentage, but–definitely over 50%!