By Marianne David
The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has to rethink its strategies if it is to launch struggles against the Government, says SJB MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, who however warns against playing politics at a time when the country has hit rock bottom. “First you have to feed the people,” he asserted, in an interview with The Sunday Morning.
As for opposing President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Government, he said: “We have to actually oppose his other anti-people actions only, not the economic programme. If we are against the economic programme, then we have to submit alternative proposals.”
In terms of the SJB’s disputed alliances and way forward, Dr. Senaratne said there was no division within the party, but that it had to rethink its alliances.
As things stand in Sri Lanka, the best way forward is to have an all-party government, he emphasised.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
The protest organised on 2 November exposed dissension brewing within the SJB regarding how the party should steer its course amid the current political developments. How do things stand now and what can be expected?
There is no division within the SJB but with the other parties, actually. The other main component was the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) and we are poles apart. Our policies, our programmes, everything is different to them. They can never understand our feelings. We understand their feelings but they are completely different. Their path of capturing power may be different to ours. When you march together with this type of people, divisions come up. The decisions taken as part of the political process are different between the two parties.
Everybody can be on a joint platform, but when you organise a demonstration like this, the SJB should lead. It should be a demonstration led by the SJB and joined by the others, not that we go and join with those people. That is what is happening now. They have shown that they have no idea about the unity of the forces. They don’t want it. Therefore we have to rethink our strategies if we are to launch struggles against the Government.
Alliance partners charge that the protest was not properly organised. There was no clear outlining of the political demands. What was the purpose of the protest and what was achieved? What went wrong?
Some people feel that this is not the stage for demonstrations or protests. During Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time he brought the economy to rock bottom. This is not an economic crisis; this is a financial crisis, a monetary crisis. When there is a monetary crisis, we don’t have dollars and I think we don’t have rupees
It is without anything that Ranil Wickremesinghe took over. There is a feeling that he is managing in some way. This is the political reality. As an experienced politician, I am looking at the way he is managing the economy. He is trying to do his best.
We have to actually oppose his other anti-people actions only, not the economic programme. If we are against the economic programme, then we have to submit alternative proposals. Today the people won’t believe just the Opposition. The present generation is much more educated than our generations. If we criticise something, they expect an alternative. Therefore, is it a time to protest?
When I address the SJB Bala Mandala meetings, what I have observed and told the others also to observe is that when we are attacking the Pohottuwa and the Rajapaksas, there is a lot of cheering. But when our speakers attack Ranil, there isn’t much of a cheer because he was our former leader.
The UNP is a sister party, not our foe. We were a breakaway and we broke away not on party policies, not because we are different in policy programmes. On the economy and the national question, we are the same. There were problems with Ranil about the handling of the party; that was not a main cause for the people.
Therefore today, actually, the problem is there are divisions in the protest, numbers are less in the protest, and that is because the problems of the people in the villages are not the problems they discuss among the middle class of the urban areas.
Now we say we are fighting for human rights. Now what is the main human right? It is your meals. If you don’t have your food, you don’t live; you die of starvation without food. It is once people have their meals that they will think about other things like political freedom, freedom to write, freedom to criticise – all those things. First you have to feed the people.
Due to what the Rajapaksas and Gotabaya have done to the country, most are starving. Children are crying for milk. Patients don’t have meds and there are no devices to perform surgeries. There are no chemicals to perform lab tests and other investigations.
First we have to cater to those things. It is only then, in a society where all these things are fulfilled, that the people will think of the next stage – about democracy, human rights, fundamental rights, all those things.
Therefore, if we are to have an anti-Government programme, we have to analyse this properly and go ahead. Otherwise, we can just go ahead with some party activities and party people, but the general masses are out. All the surveys done in the country have shown that the majority is noncommittal. They are not bothered. About 50-60% are silent.
So what was the purpose of this protest?
It was proposed not by us but by the Peratugami [FSP]. Those are extreme political parties. Even the Marxist parties are the extreme Marxist parties. Whatever they say about democracy, their main belief is some armed struggles, to win power through struggles, not through the present-day democratic means.
Therefore, they suggest these things because their analysis is that they are just above the people. In politics, you can’t be above or below the people, you have to march with the people. It is only then that you can achieve a government of the people.
Several SJB alliance partners left the protest after a short while, while the SJB leadership was also hooted at by several sections of the protest. What does this mean for the SJB going forward in terms of the Aragalaya and whatever the SJB hopes to do?
Those people who hooted at our leader, the Opposition Leader, do you think that the people who are really genuine about a struggle against the Government will hoot at a leader who is also fighting against the Government?
Their way of struggle and our way of struggle are different. When they join with us, they must understand that our two systems are different. If they are really people-friendly, they can never hoot at another leader. Sectarian politics shows extreme politics.
SJB seniors say the party has rushed into aligning with the FSP, the same reasons you have spoken of and even if you wish to enter into some working relationship first, it has to be done properly. How do you view this?
I totally agree. We have made a mistake, we have just gone with all of them. You can never have a struggle with those people.
We are the main Opposition in the country. We have got millions of votes at the last elections. We cannot be dictated to by people who have not even got one lakh votes at the last elections. How can they dictate to us? First they have to prove themselves, that they are democratically accepted by the people.
The main thing is that we should not go with anybody for the struggle. If we had a demonstration on our own, we could have brought more people yesterday (2). Our party’s machinery and our people could have brought more than this.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) also did not participate as an official partner of the programme; only a few SLFPers were there. Why was this?
SLFP Leader Maithripala Sirisena last week announced that Ranil has brought the country out of the mess. The General Secretary is demonstrating against the same President. I don’t know which SLFP that is, whether it is Maithri or Dayasiri who command the SLFP.
What do you view as the way forward now?
There are two alternatives in terms of the political future. One is to fight Ranil and we take over. I asked those who are handling our economics – Harsha and Eran – if they can bring the economy to normalcy. They said no. Then I asked the party leader whether he could. No. So even we have to face this mess. It has gone right down to the bottom. That means if we chase out Ranil and take over power, it will be the same. The people will have to face all these difficulties for some time to recover the economy.
The other alternative: Ranil moves forward with all the protests and divisions and everything and somehow recovers the economy to a certain level. Then what happens? The people will rally around Ranil because he has brought the country out of the mess and helped the people to have at least two meals, if not three meals. At least he will give a little milk to the children, pharma to the poor patients, fuel, and everything. Then we have no role, it is Ranil.
So then, what should be the proper alternative? It should be an all-party government. That is what I professed from the very beginning. There is no purpose in doing politics at a stage like this. The people in the villages are not bothered about politics. Their only politics is to find the next meal, about feeding the child.
Therefore, the only solution is to have an all-party government, an all-party arrangement for the economy as well as development for some time. Once we achieve this, the people will not be suffering, they will come to some normalcy. Then we can play our politics.