“We want the 13th Amendment to be fully implemented. We want Sri Lanka to be constitutionally recognised as multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious in nature. My view, which is now picking up support, is that Sri Lanka should be a secular state.”- TPA Leader Mano Ganesan

By Asiri Fernando

Sri Lankan politicians need to come together to form a credible government that can regain international confidence to lead the country to recovery, Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) Leader and Opposition Member of Parliament Mano Ganesan told The Sunday Morning.

Mano Ganesan

The trilingual member from Colombo stressed that the silver lining during the current crisis Sri Lanka was facing was a “God-given opportunity to change our country’s direction” and urged all parties to collectively support the interim government in its efforts to move towards economic recovery.

Ganesan also warned that Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) involvement in the interim government could undermine efforts to rebuild trust and credibility with the international communities at a time when Sri Lanka desperately needed help. While acknowledging that the President and Parliament did not have the mandate of the people, Ganesan called for early General Elections to seek a new mandate from the public. He also said that Sri Lanka needed solid policies on constitutional reforms and reconciliation, not words and slogans.

In an interview with The Sunday Morning, the Opposition MP and award-winning rights activist called for the removal of the much-criticised Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), clarity on law enforcement practices, and the full implication of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q;What are your thoughts on the current political climate and the ongoing crisis?

A; We are at a crossroads politically, economically, and culturally. I always look for the light in a dark situation. Even though the tunnel may be long, I can see some light at the end of it. Despite the crisis, I believe we have a God-given opportunity to change our country’s direction.

While the crisis is hard, we must use this opportunity to find answers for long-term issues that we have been facing. You need a crisis to trigger change. This is what history teaches us. Yes, there is a price to pay for it. However, we should not waste this opportunity to make Sri Lanka a better place.

How confident are you that the Wickremesinghe-Gunawardena Government can restore political stability, which is needed for Sri Lanka to move towards recovery? Will the TPA support an all-party government?

I don’t think the Government is fully formed yet. It’s a work in progress. I think the President is still trying to form his Government.

The TPA met with him recently. There are four mechanisms under discussion – the Jathika Sabha (National Council), National Government, parliamentary oversight committees, and the Mahajana Sabha (People’s Council). President Wickremesinghe wishes to bring in experts from civil society to contribute to the People’s Council. The National Council will be made up of party leaders.
Up to now, the public and media focus has only been on the National Government, its Cabinet, and ministries. The others need attention too.

Being the Head of the TPA and a leader in the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) alliance, and based on my experience as a parliamentarian since 2001, I believe in ‘Sri Lankanism’. First and foremost, I am a Sri Lankan. I feel that every party leader has a responsibility to support this interim government during this crisis time.

We need to understand that this Government and the Parliament today do not represent the views of the public. The Parliament has a twisted mandate, but it is lawful. Wickremesinghe is the President by law, but politically we opposed him being president. However, now that he is the lawful President, I would like the SJB alliance including all its elements to give a collective response to the President’s call to form an all-party government.

I respect Wickremesinghe; we have a long history with him. The TPA was told by the President that during the next shuffle, the Cabinet would not be expanded but that there was room for state ministers to be appointed. RW wants to open the door for the Opposition to come in and help the country. The President and the Government also need credible persons to work with them and take charge of some important duties; it is only then that Sri Lanka can project a credible government to the international community, with which it may be willing to work. That is what we want.

There is concern about the role the SLPP is playing in this Government and the influence it commands. There is a trust deficit related to the SLPP, with many of the opinion that it won’t act in the best interest of the public. Are you concerned about it?

Yes, we are. I think the SLPP, especially members who have allegations or are under investigations, should keep a low profile to allow this interim government to function credibly. It is clear that the SLPP has lost the mandate it got in 2019, but according to the law, it retains the numbers in Parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a fool, nor an amateurish politician; he can read the people.

I have witnessed the colourful success of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his failures too. Yet, I respect Mahinda Rajapaksa with all the political differences. But I have no such admiration for other American Rajapaksas. They are not ‘brother Rajapaksas’ but ‘bother Rajapaksas’ to Mahinda and the country. They are utter failures by themselves and they failed the country too. I am not referring to Namal here. He is of a different generation. American Rajapaksas destroyed Mahinda’s fortress.

Now, I have a request to Mahinda Rajapaksa in good faith: ‘You say you trust in Ranil, hence nominated him to the presidency by your SLPP votes. Now, allow him to function independently. Tell your American Rajapaksa brothers to get back to their chosen Fatherland. Until their exit time, let them have a low profile in party politics. Also tell this to your former frontline blacklisted ministers too. Tell them not to seek portfolios. I agree that by numbers the SLPP needs to have larger numbers in any all-party government. But name those clean seniors and young, able new MPs of SLPP-lot to the portfolios. If blacklisted ministers are re-appointed, there will not be an all-party government or even a government at all. If so, it will lead to total chaos and collapse. People who trusted the Rajapaksas are already suffering to an extent that has never happened in the history of Sri Lanka or in then Ceylon. Enough is enough. If any SLPP seniors want to continue in politics, let them face the next elections and come back with a fresh mandate if they obtain it. If you try to give them new life in this Parliament, the SLPP will end up as non-existent history.’

If Ranil Wickremesinghe is not given a free hand to do the task at hand by the SLPP, Ranil should resign and come back to Parliament with a new mandate.

The RW- DG Government continues to utilise the PTA against protesters and activists despite strong criticism from local and international parties. What is your stance on the PTA and its use?

The Government needs to clearly define who has violated the law by damaging public and private property from those onlookers who visited the President’s residence or the Secretariat due to simple curiosity about what the place was like. The people who elect presidents and prime ministers don’t usually get to visit such places.

I told the President that there are videos on social media of policemen in uniform at the President’s House playing the piano and taking selfies; some of them were laughing and cheering on protesters. So why didn’t the Police stop them? Why was the law not applied?

Many of those who visited these places, including my constituents from Colombo, are now being called up by the Police, the Colombo North Police, to come and record statements. I have taken this up with the Police too. The President told me that they are being called as witnesses. People are scared.

The way the Government is handling this needs to change. They need to communicate better. I told the President that such action by the Police against those who visited the places and against peaceful protesters will go against his own liberal democratic credentials. The world is watching and if this is the way the President works, having joined hands with the Rajapaksas to govern, it will reflect poorly on him too.

The PTA was brought into our law books in 1978 by J.R. Jayewardene. It was clearly brought against the Tamils, against the Tamil rebellion. We (the Tamil community) faced the brunt of this law alone. It needs to be removed. We had our youth, men, and women just taken away and detained on mere suspicion, not for taking up arms or resorting to violence. Those who take up arms and take to violence need to face the music. I am not in two minds about that; they have to face the music.

This law has been abused widely over the years. We have said this for a long time and stood by those who have become its victims. Now that the law is being used in the south against many Sinhalese, there is an expression of shock. While I would like to express my solidarity with the current victims of the law, I would like to remind you all that this has happened to us (the Tamil community) for the last 40-odd years. None of you came to help us. Some of you in the south kept on justifying its use.

I understand the responsibility of the Government to maintain law and order, but there is a thin line that exists between enforcing the law and violating the human rights of the people.

I raised the use of the PTA with the President recently; he told me that he would soon establish an Appeals Committee to receive appeals about PTA-related arrests and follow a timeline to respond to it. The arrest procedure should also be very clear and followed. The arresting officers should be clearly identifiable and must inform the suspect taken into custody who they are, which Police station they are from, where the suspect is being taken, and clearly tell the suspect what they are being arrested for.

Not following proper arrest procedure and using the PTA with impunity only worsens Sri Lanka’s image within the international community. The credibility of the nation is called into question. We need to be mindful of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), GSP Plus, and other issues.

The Government has indicated that it is open to improving engagement with Sri Lankan expatriate communities. Several organisations and persons who were blacklisted have been dropped from the list. What are your thoughts about this move?

I welcome this move. Six groups were delisted. I recall that the Government delisted Qatar Charity – which was used to prolong the detention of Hejaaz Hizbullah – when it was trying to buy oil and had to go to Qatar to negotiate.

Some people, including the SJB Spokesman, said that the delisting of the Tamil diaspora groups was linked to the upcoming human rights session in Geneva. I don’t agree with them. When I heard this delisting theory, I told some members of the Government and Opposition, don’t think that the IMF, EU, or UNHRC eat ‘punnakku’ (cattle feed).

People think that diaspora is only Tamils. That is wrong. The Sri Lankan diaspora has Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers – all of us. Both the Tamil and Sinhala diaspora want to see real change in Sri Lanka. The Tamil diaspora wants assurances from the Government on national unity and the acceptance of diversity. The Sinhala diaspora mostly wants fiscal discipline and for Sri Lanka to be corruption free. Sri Lanka should talk to all of them about their concerns and encourage them to invest in Sri Lanka. I am ready to go and talk to diaspora organisations as a Tamil Sri Lankan who has served many Sinhala constituents. I have no mandate to divide this country, we need to unite and improve Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has about $ 52 billion in international debt. India and a few countries have been helping us, but we don’t know how long that can be sustained. We should open up avenues for our diaspora to invest in Sri Lanka or we can open a development fund with transparency and accountability. Our own people living overseas will help us, provided the Government projects itself as a credible one. We need at least $ 500-600 million to get by each month.

Have the TPA and other minority parties presented their proposals to the Government on economic and constitutional reforms?

Yes, we have. One of the proposals that we put forward was to delist diaspora groups. The TPA generally represents a segment of the Indian Tamil community in Sri Lanka. This is one of the most disadvantaged communities in Sri Lanka. They are the most underprivileged and this economic crisis has impacted them the most. I have brought it to the notice of the Government. I also met the US Ambassador yesterday (23) and discussed how USAID could also help this community.

How would you describe the current relationship between TPA and the SJB? Are there differences in opinion on the all-party government request?

As a democratic party, there are some differences of opinion within the TPA. Similarly, there are differences of opinion between the TPA and SJB within the alliance. Even within the SJB, there is a healthy division of opinions. It is well known that SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa’s stance is not to join this interim government. However, Dr. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne feel differently. That is how democracy works.

This is why I am of the view that the SJB alliance needs to come to a collective decision on how to contribute to this interim government or process.

We can’t play party politics and stay outside and criticise until we form a government; that will not work. The culture of loyalty to political parties and individuals of power is diminishing. People are asking for change and they are leaving party identities and ‘hero worshipping’. I think that it is a good trend. We need to stand on policies, not individuals.

Do you and the TPA support the economic recovery blueprint tabled by MP Dr. Harsha de Silva?

We are still discussing the proposals. I think we need not only economic reforms but also social reforms. This crisis has root causes, which includes social issues. We must be intelligent to use this opportunity to address those as well.

What are your views on the proposed 22nd Amendment to the Constitution? Will TPA move to bring changes to it during the committee stage? If so, what changes will you propose?

Yes, we are in discussion, particularly with the SJB, about a range of changes which we plan to introduce during the committee stage. One issue is the president’s right to dissolve Parliament in two-and-a-half years according to the 20th Amendment. It is ironic that some SLPP members who pushed for the two-and-a-half-year regulation are now trying to push it back to four-and-a-half years, as it was in the 19th Amendment. I think it is better to move it to four-and-a-half years.

Are you of the view that Sri Lanka needs an early General Election to renew the public mandate?

When we spoke about this with the President, he gave us the impression that there won’t be any elections in 2023. Provincial Council and Local Government polls are long due. The TPA demands an early General Election.

I asked the President if there will be an early General Election for a new mandate. He told me, ‘Mano, I am a president without a mandate.’ So, I asked him, ‘Does that mean you will go for an early Presidential Election?’ He laughed in response.

Based on the unity that was witnessed during the Aragalaya movement, how confident are you that Sri Lanka can make meaningful progress towards reconciliation?

I hope so; that is what I have been wanting all my life. However, I am also careful not to be carried away by mere slogans. I know the difference between slogans and policies. We have experienced the difference first-hand. We have heard slogans from Bandaranaikes, Senanayakes, Jayewardenes, Wickremesinghes, and Rajapaksas. We have been told before, ‘We should live like brothers and sisters.’ But such talk will not work anymore. We want solid policies.

We want the 13th Amendment to be fully implemented. We want Sri Lanka to be constitutionally recognised as multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious in nature. My view, which is now picking up support, is that Sri Lanka should be a secular state. Religion needs to be kept away from politics and governance.

Courtesy:Sunday Morning