Rajapaksas performed some miracles — now the people are doing so | Daily News


Rajapaksas performed some miracles — now the people are doing so

Voters gave a two thirds majority to the present Government on August 5, 2020. Picture by Sulochana Gamage
Voters gave a two thirds majority to the present Government on August 5, 2020. Picture by Sulochana Gamage

C. A. Chandraprema in this brief interview, spoke to the Daily News about the new government, proposed Constitutional changes and the state of the nation in the wake of the massive two thirds majority obtained by the SLPP led government. Chandraprema, the author of Gota’s War, a book chronicling the defeat of the armed and dangerous LTTE, is Sri Lanka’s newly named Permanent Representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He is awaiting confirmation by the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, and will take up duties in Geneva shortly after those formalities end.

Q: The 20thAmendment and the new constitution on the cards are the issues that dominate the public discourse. Would you say a new Constitution was part of the two-thirds mandate?

A: Very much so.

Q: So-called civil society seems to pretend the 20thAmendment is a move in the authoritarian direction. What say you?

A: After the 20th Amendment the president will have the same powers that Maithripala Sirisena had, to begin with. This is not a final outcome in any event. There is a Constitution coming behind this. Nobody should assume that people like Romesh de Silva, Manohara de Silva and all those people on the nine member committee have been appointed for some sort of deception. They have been appointed for a very serious purpose. To say that a president is more authoritarian than a prime minister is really a myth. You take Mrs. India Gandhi in India. Or Mrs. Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. Is anybody going to claim that Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was less authoritarian than J R Jayewardene? There are other factors as well. This so called authoritarian President can only contest twice even after the 20th Amendment. A Prime Minister can contest for that post as many times as he wants.

Q: And nobody even talks about that I suppose ..?

A: No no, it’s in fact taken as a matter of pride. People say that Dudley was four times prime minister and Ranil was five times premier and so on. What counts in a premier or a President is not the label or the post. What counts is that he or she is the head of the government.

Q: The argument is that the prime minister is part of the legislature and the president is stand-alone. But in effect its more of a psychological barrier I guess, these two different ways of looking at these posts …?

A: It is more psychological than real I would think. Our own experience shows that Mrs. Bandaranaike did many things that J R Jayewardene wouldn’t even think of, like acquiring people’s property. At that time they had no fear of touching those very personal things like people’s personal property.

Q: The UN Human Rights Council was expressing opinions about our Constitution. What’s your view since you are going to be posted there — is the matter of a Constitution something this body will think to dwell on once more …?

A: There may be all types of foreign parties expressing views on what system of government is best suited for Sri Lanka. But whether Sri Lanka should take any of that into consideration is a moot point. I would think that the nine member Committee appointed to draft this new Constitution should discuss things with locals only. They are the people who will be living under that Constitution.

Q: A strong presidency equates greater national security? You think that’s correct?

A: A strong government equals greater national security. It can be the president, it can be the prime minister, but a strong head of government equates greater national security. What happened was that though the president has been designated as the head of the government, certain powers have been given to the prime minister as well. With the 19th Amendment the prime minister’s power only rests on one factor, which is that he has to be consulted before the appointment of Ministers. That was brought in through the back door, just to please Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Q: They wanted to give him all the powers but the Courts stood in the way, right?

A: The Courts were right. You can’t have a president and take the powers away from him.

Q: Wasn’t it a power grab, Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted all the powers?

A: It was something just to please Ranil. It wasn’t practical. Other than the Rajapaksa brothers nobody can rule this country now under this arrangement (under the 19th Amendment.)

Q: So in that context what does the 20th Amendment do?

A: It will be a restoration of the status quo ante.

Q: Liberal lobbyists so called have lost their heads saying the Elections Commission is going to be appointed by the President, and so on. Your view?

A: Elections Commissioner was always appointed by the president. But the EC has always been vested with enough independence to do his job. That was what justice Mark Fernando opined in that famous case. Dayananda Dissanayake the then EC was found fault with by Mark Fernando J for not examining the veracity of the declaration of Emergency imposed by Chandrika Kumaratunga in postponing the PC elections. He blamed the government for having gone with the government point of view and not taken any resolute action. That’s the independence he expected of the EC. So if you take that as a benchmark, the EC is always independent. Mahinda Deshapriya EC was also appointed by the president. That is the time he ordered the officials to shoot people in the head if they try to disrupt the election. After he became the chairman of the Independent Elections Commission he has not asked the police to shoot anybody. Even any outside observer will say Deshapriya was in his element when he was the Elections Commissioner, and not the head of the Elections Commission. When he was the Chairman of the Elections Commission he failed to do what was necessary to hold the Local Government elections, which was postponed for three years. A member of that Elections Commission went to Courts against holding that election. What is his moral right (he has)? The way that the Elections Commission was appointed by the Constitutional Council was also questionable. If we did not have a 100 per cent Yahapalanaya Constitutional Council which did not appoint 100 per cent Yahapalana people may be we would have had a different scenario. But the people who engineered the 19th Amendment did not allow that (sort of independence) to take place. Once I interviewed the Solicitor General Srinath Fernando and he said these independent Commissions have become something to give jobs to the boys. Look at some of these Chairmen who were appointed to head these independent Commissions. They were Yahapalana fellow travellers, and if they were right thinking persons they should not have accepted those positions. They are trying to portray themselves as democrats and Rajapaksas as dictators, but if they were democrats and superior as they portrayed themselves to be, they should not have accepted those positions. Ultimately it turns out that they have also been after power and position and nothing else. 99 per cent of the people in the country I’m sure would not care two hoots about the 19th Amendment because they have heard so many bad things about it. And none of them would have any problem with the president acquiring those powers.

Q: What about the Provincial Councils and the considerable opinion that they should be got rid of with the new Constitution?

A: The Provincial Councils have been criticized from the day they came into existence. Many people think they are white elephants. Despite those criticisms they were kept going for the last 30 years as a sort of concession to people who have been asking for more devolution of power and that sort of thing. They were kept going at enormous expense to satisfy certain psychological needs. Even if it is kept going on that basis .. well some countries do spend enormous amounts of money to give people psychological satisfaction. My question is, did it even satisfy that (psychological) need? Today the PCs are tied up in so many knots that there is absolutely no way that they can be revived without a two thirds majority. Without the TNA votes the last government would not have been able to pass that law about the PCs. When the AG said that a two-thirds majority is needed for the law to be passed according to Article 77 of the Constitution, they mustered the two thirds somehow to pass the law. The law reduced the first past the post quota from 60 per cent to 50 per cent. So they managed to get that Act passed with a special majority and it cannot be repealed therefore without a special majority. The way they have formulated that law, even the delimitation report has to be passed with a two-thirds majority. The only way that the Act can be repealed today is with a two-thirds or a Court ruling to state that if an Act is not operational the previous repealed law prevails.

Q: On the flip side will the system be too centralized do you think without the PCs …?

A: But they will not be abolished the government says the PCs will be there.

Q: But will they be functional?

A: That depends on two things whether there is a two-thirds majority or a Court ruling.

Q: The Minister in charge himself says the system should go?

A: No it’s funny that people who did everything to see that the Provincial Council Elections should not be held are now saying that the PCs should not be abolished. The Minister can state what he wants.

Q: Is the two-thirds majority a real harbinger of optimism, or how do you read it …?

A: Yes, we are already experiencing that. It’s not that there is no pandemic in the world. But it just does not affect Sri Lanka. When it comes to facing the economic downturn that is expected due to this pandemic, the only people who have any chance of handling that are in this government. People like Dr. Jayasundera, Ajith Nivard Cabraal — they are the only people who can handle this situation. The Finance Ministry is back again under Mahinda Rajapaksa, and he knows how to get these things going.

Q: There are noises being made by the detractors about what they call creeping militarization. What’s your take?

A: I just don’t buy that. The SLPP got the entirety of the Rana Viru military vote. The armed forces and their families constitute a vote bank of over a million in this country. If you ask the SLPP to ignore that constituency that is not going to happen. So if you have some Secretaries etc. from the military that is to be expected, because they are part of the SLPP constituency.

Q: I think the finger pointing is in the fact that they perceive the President to be an ex military man having an overtly military orientation .. as they characterize it …

A: But is that true? Take the demonstrations near the Presidential Secretariat. Nobody protesting has been tear gassed and chased away up to now. The military was directing traffic. The question is what works — if it works, do it. Without the tri-forces and the police all working together with the health authorities, this (pandemic situation) couldn’t have been brought under control like this. If the other countries had also take this so called military approach they would also have had their situations under control. The Health Authorities are doing a fantastic job, but the infected people have to be brought to the hospitals to be treated. So who is going to do that?

Q: On the foreign policy front, how would you classify the Gotabaya government?

A: I think the Rajapaksas had a very clear policy of steering clear of the major power blocs. The compliment that was paid to the Rajapaksa Government was what the former Indian diplomat and National Security Advisor Shiva Shanker Menon stated in his book. He said that India was given several guarantees about their security by that (Mahinda Rajapaksa) government and those were adhered to until that government was voted out of power.

Q: That did not however prevent various elements from trying to tie us up with China or saying that we were veering too close to China?

A: As a political gimmick it may have had some value to them, but was it true? If they were even perceiving it to be like that, they have not been listening to what these people were saying; if Shiva Shanakar Menon said that, then the Indian government doesn’t want anything beyond that. That was what they wanted and they got it.

When they themselves, that is the new government in 2015, had to go back to the Chinese, somebody came up with the theory that we couldn’t pay back the loans on the Hambantota Port and that it had to be given over to the Chinese. That’s absolute claptrap. Fourteen million dollars which was the amount to be paid back on that Port loan was something that the Yahapalanaya government took as loans in the course of an afternoon. They took commercial loans far in excess of that.

Q: What of the opposition .. your views?

A: The main thing in politics is to have a set of principles. You can’t have a situation where one party takes the General Secretary of another party and makes him their presidential candidate. When the Yahapalana government came to power, two people wrote books about it and there were serializations in the papers about this great power shift that happened, but they were evicted. I could see that it was not going to last.

They thought it was permanent or that they were going to be in power for the next twenty five years. We have seen achievements bordering on miracles under the Rajapaksas — one was the ending of that so called unwinnable war. Then there were the construction projects that had been on the cards for 50 to 60 years almost, and then the controlling of Covid 19. Now the people themselves have started performing miracles. Despite all the chauvinism and the parochialism that they used, the 2109 election was won with a massive majority.

The people are now performing miracles. After a lockdown and people sometimes not having food to eat literally due to that situation, they gave a two-thirds majority under the PR system which everybody thought was impossible. So the people are performing miracles now.


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