Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.
Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?
I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.
But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.
I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.
Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?
Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.
I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.
Q: How do you see the 19th Amendment?
I am glad it was passed, but with amendments that removed the provisions giving the Prime Minister excessive powers. It should have been done after more consultation, and I am sad the consensus reached at the meeting chaired by the President on March 15th was destroyed by the machinations of the Prime Minister and Jayampathy Wickremaratne, who misled us by claiming it was human error not to have removed the provision that the Prime Minister should head the Cabinet.
He pledged that would be changed, but instead they reintroduced the provision that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister by claiming that it was approved by the Cabinet. Fortunately the Supreme Court stood firm. But because of the failure to consult properly after that, and provide a clean draft, some other changes that should have been introduced were missed out on.
Still, we ensured greater parliamentary control of the checks and balances that are necessary, and also the effort to limit judiciary oversight of political parties was thwarted. This is essential given the absence of democracy and consultation procedures in some of them. But we must also work now on changing Standing Orders to give more power to Parliament and improve the consultation and oversight processes.
Finally I must note my regret that no one else has highlighted the grave deficiency in the 19th Amendment, in failing to give the Public Service Commission the responsibility to appoint Secretaries to Ministries. What is the point of having independent commissions and talking about an independent public service if the heads of the Public Service are in effect defined as political appointees? Unlike most other places in the world, where Ministry Secretaries are permanent, ours lose office when there is a new government, and their appointment is left in the hands of the executive head. I can understand politicians apart from myself wanting this practice to continue, but it is appalling that Civil Society made no public protest about this.
Q: Many criticize you for being silent during Rajapaksa regime yet being very vocal against the current regime. How do you respond to such criticism?
It is untrue that I was silent during the Rajapaksa regime. Basil understood my criticisms, and claimed regularly at SLFP meetings that I was opposed to the government. Indeed even Mahinda Rajapaksa said that I was stirring up opposition to him.
This was not correct, in that I believed until late in 2014 that he was too good a politician not to correct course when he realized the mess he was creating. I still believe he had the right intentions, and this was confirmed as late as last August, when I called him to complain about the BBS and he assured me that they were created by the United States and the Norwegians to make him unpopular. But by then it was clear that he no longer had his usual energy to deal with those who were undermining him.
For the record, I raised several issues in Parliament, so much so that one government member said there was no need for an opposition when I was there. I was the person who got on record the way in which money was being distributed through the Ministry of Economic Development in an unfair manner, when the UNP said it had wondered what was happening – but it had not bothered to get things on record. I was the person who raised problems about Resettlement – where the decent Minister and Secretary noted the problems they were having – and in fact I scolded Mr Swaminathan for not attending meetings and finding out what was happening (which is why the poor man is so clueless now and cannot work as swiftly and effectively as his portfolio demands).
But I was also deeply appreciative of what the government had achieved. If you read my account of Political Principles (the CUP Publication now being serialized in Ceylon Today on Saturdays) I have stressed the primary responsibilities of government. The Rajapaksa government brought us security, which is vital, and it is monstrous that its achievements in that respect should be belittled or betrayed. It also did much about development all over the country.
I did consistently note however the lack of human resources development, but I put that down to incompetence rather than villainy. The problem was that Basil Rajapaksa, to whom much was entrusted, is by temperament a loner, who does not consult those more capable than himself. He also failed miserably in the North because he worked through two people he saw as his votaries, neither of whom commanded respect or affection. In fact I told the British High Commissioner that it was people like him who spoiled Basil, because there was a stage when many, in their unreasonable opposition to the Secretary of Defence, put all their eggs in the Basil basket, and he was simply not up to the responsibilities.
Until last year however, when the BBS phenomenon emerged and it seemed Gotabhaya was involved (which was bad though I still think he did a lot and has immense capacities, and also understands his own limitations), and it was also clear that the President was no longer in control of the activities of the rest of his family, I thought there would be reforms when they became essential. I made a last effort to persuade the President to change, in the letter sent last October.
Even though we made it clear we would not support him if there were no reforms, I also told the Prime Minister that we would not support him. But we were happy to support President Sirisena, since he seemed to represent continuity of the good things (security and development) and rejection of the bad (authoritarianism and corruption).
However we now find security and development have been abandoned, and instead authoritarianism and corruption are flourishing, albeit in a more sophisticated and less oppressive fashion. But if this happens now, under the leadership of a Prime Minister with no mandate, imagine what will happen if he thinks he has a mandate.
That is why it was necessary, given also my own responsibility for the change, to come out against what is happening forcefully, when I realized the mandate President Sirisena had got was being perverted. I still have faith in President Sirisena, but he needs to be rescued from Ranil (and his principal sidekicks) even more urgently than President Rajapaksa needed to be rescued from Basil (and those who were in it for themselves).
Q: Do you believe in a return of President Rajapaksa?
It would be best for him as well as the country if Mahinda Rajapaksa did not return to a position of authority, but I also think it necessary to make it clear that he will be treated with all respect and the legacy of his tremendous achievements will be guarded. I was particularly horrified when he was questioned about alleged bribery as to making Tissa Attanayake a Minister, when we all know perfectly well that Ranil has been making promises to similar and worse effects to engineer defections, both in 2001 and then last year (and his father actively boasted about bribing people to bring down Mrs Bandaranaike’s government in 1964).
I appreciate President Sirisena’s worries about Mahinda Rajapaksa coming back as Prime Minister but, given the way Ranil is acting, he has a responsibility to put a stop to persecution of the former President. He must also make it clear that he will defend the achievements of the government of which he was an important part, and not allow international interventions designed to denigrate our forces. But to do this he must move quickly on fulfilling the pledges President Rajapaksa made, and have a credible domestic inquiry, he must work swiftly on fulfilling the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and he must fast forward the Human Rights Action Plan, which was approved by Cabinet.
It is tragic that he entrusted Reconciliation to former President Kumaratunga, because she finds it difficult to concentrate. I told her in November that she was good in adversity – as she showed in 2002/2003 – but relaxes when the crisis is over. This has become obvious this year too, with nothing much happening in the field of Reconciliation.
If she wants to stop Mahinda Rajapaksa getting back, it should be through showing that neither the country nor he will suffer if others are in charge, but that is impossible since she has abdicated completely, and given the reins wholly to Ranil. That is not acceptable and President Sirisena must realize that.
He stood by his commitment to make Ranil Prime Minister, which was correct. But since Ranil has not stood by his commitments, and ignored much of the President’s manifesto, there should now be a change. It would be inappropriate for him to appoint a Prime Minister who did not support his campaign, but I believe the opposition would support a less confrontational UNP Prime Minister who in six months fulfilled the rest of the President’s manifesto. That is what he owes the country, not agreeing with the UNP position that the manifesto was only about the 19th amendment and a swift election.
If President Sirisena and a small streamlined Cabinet led by a neutral Prime Minister worked effectively over a few months, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be content to withdraw, provided his achievements were recognized and his advice invited on major issues.
But if we faced a stark choice between Ranil Wickremesinghe, with his legacy of violence and corruption (from Gonawala Sunil to Arjuna Mahendran), and Mahinda Rajapaksa with significant achievements and a commitment to the deprived throughout the country to set against his own shortcomings, the country as a whole will go for Mahinda. I hope President Sirisena will not allow such a polarized position to arise, but will aim for consultation, compromise and consensus.