Tamil Diplomat

Resolving the economic problems may reduce nationalist issues: Says Rathana Thera

In an interview to the Ceylon Today, Chairman of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Athuraliye Rathana Thera, said resolving of economic problems may reduce the emergence of nationalist issues.

“Certain groups read the economic problems in nationalist angles. For example, the JVP rose in late 1980s against Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. But the report of the Youth Unrest Commission points to rural poverty as the root cause for the revolt. Whatever the expression of the struggle, the economic difficulties of the people are at the core of the fight. There is the possibility for subduing the nationalist trends when the economic problems are resolved” he said.

He also said that their party only agreed to abolish some characteristics of the executive presidency, and therefore the executive presidency would exit.

Full excerpts of the interview as follows:


You were a pioneer in the struggle to defeat the Rajapaksa regime. You vowed to topple the previous regime and did it. What do you think now?
A: I think people feel free now. We did a very difficult task. It was unthinkable to defeat that regime. It was a powerful family rule. They had no ethics in the use of public funds and property for the election campaign. At least Rs 400 billion was spent for the election campaign. We would not have achieved this target if all forces did not join hands. United National Party (UNP)alone would never have done it.
Are you satisfied about the recent appointments to the various positions. For example, President’s brother Kumarasinghe Sirisena was appointed as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. People have suspicions about the reemergence of a family rule.
A: In fact, I am not aware of it. President has many brothers and sisters. There is no law against appointing a blood relation to a position in a State venture. There is no problem if he has qualifications. If the entire public sector is subjected to family rule, it will be a problem.
Is it right to do it within the 100 days because these 100 days are crucial. Don’t you think that appointments must not be done even though the person has qualifications?
A: I can’t comment on this at the moment. The most difficult and highly crucial task of the 100 day programme is constitutional amendment. Parties must come to a consensus regarding the abolition of the executive President’s powers and amending the election system. Therefore, our priority is constitutional amendment and the establishment of independent commissions. I don’t say other matters must be ignored. But the people have the chance to take action regarding such things at the general election. Everything will depend on the election of the MPs.
What are the principles followed when appointing the senior public officials?
A: Normal method is appointing officials from the pool of public administrators. But it must be stopped if unsuitable persons are appointed. In the same way, the parachutists and the retired persons also must be avoided.
There are serious allegations against some appointments. For example, the appointment of
P.B. Abeykoon as President’s Secretary and Dr. Somaratna Disanayaka as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, have been challenged. You could have appointed a better person with a broader vision as the Chairman of SLRC?
A: I don’t know why Dr. Somaratna Disanayaka is not suitable. It is true that a better person must be appointed, if there is any. There is no argument against it. I don’t have an idea that he is corrupt. There may be better qualified persons. One of them can be appointed next. I think these are temporary three-month appointments. For me, the constitutional amendment is more important than the position of chairman of an institution.
Do you mean all these appointments are temporary?
A: Definitely, all these will change after three months. These Ministerial portfolios are also temporary.
The constitutional amendment proposed to be tabled in the Parliament by January 21 was delayed. What is the reason?
A:  I think the constitutional amendment must be debated at length. The dates in the 100 day programme were not on consensus of all sections. We must do it with deep contemplation and debate. The constitutional amendment must be tabled in the Parliament within a month.
Were the dates false?
A: I don’t say so. But there are practical problems. I don’t think the people will demand the timetable. They want all these to happen within 100 days. Therefore, we must not panic. We must be thoughtful for errors not to occur.
Why did you make a timetable? People are hopeful of it?
A: The tasks are streamlined due to a timetable. People are prompted to work on schedule. You also question me because we set a timetable. It is a good way. The most important thing is passing the constitutional amendment within three months.
Is there a discussion about the constitutional amendment now? What are the problems that have arisen?
A: There are many problems. There is a problem about the unitary nature of the State with the abolition of executive presidency. It is clearly mentioned in a judgment delivered by Justice Parinda Ranasinghe. The unitary nature of State is linked to the executive presidency. There are three facts. The electoral system and the executive are also connected. It is a single unit. One party gets a clear majority when the elections are held under the old first-past-the-post system but achieving majority power is difficult under the proportionate representation system. Parliament is always unstable. Parliament can collapse often like in Nepal. We must not let the country suffer such instability. Therefore, the abolition of the executive presidency and the reforming of the electoral system must go hand in hand.
The unitary state was safeguarded with the Provincial Councils due to the executive President. Abolition of the executive presidency shakes these three aspects. We must amend the Constitution balancing all these. It is a challenge to form a stable government while abolishing a stable government. Proportional representation has positive characteristics. The most important aspect is that the minority parties can have parliamentary representation if they have 5% of the votes. The minor parties like JHU and JVP are advantaged due to this factor. If we abolish the executive presidency, the parties like JVP may lose that opportunity.
Therefore, we cannot build a consensus among parties to go back to the old first-past-the-post system. But we must make the amendment in a way stability is guaranteed in the Parliament.
The bad side of the proportional representation system is that one has to collect votes from the entire district. A large sum of money is needed for that. Some electorates do not get representation. Caste and creed divisions are roused. Therefore, we must abolish the preferential voting system under proportional representation.
The executive presidency led the country to authoritarianism?
A: The problem is in the way the executive presidency was defined in Sri Lanka. We have to discuss such problems of the executive presidency. We must find solutions to those problems. The President can dissolve the Parliament as he wishes. The President can hold Cabinet portfolios as he wishes. The President can reshuffle the Cabinet. The President can appoint judges to the Supreme Court. We must abolish these characteristics. We agreed to abolish these characteristics and not to abolish the executive presidency entirely.
But the parties like JVP demanded the abolition of executive presidency entirely.
A: Parties can say so. There is a demand among voters to abolish the preferential voting system. Some ask to abolish it completely. But we have to seek the middle path. Maithripala Sirisena promised in his manifesto not to go for amendments which need a referendum. Amendment of the executive presidency needs to be subjected to a referendum. Therefore, the executive presidency will not be abolished completely.
Will the executive presidency exist?
A: It will exist without the bad characteristics.
Can you say how long it will take to amend the Constitution? President Maithripala Sirisena has said that the parliamentary election will be held under the proportional representation system.
A: We must apply pressure on this. This is the move which has the highest effect on the people. The electoral amendment act must be first brought. People want it more than the abolition of executive presidency. We could have taken the legislative council separately and priority could be given to it. We must bring these amendments as early as possible.
The main slogan of the new government was bringing the wrongdoers to book. But people think it has not happened?
A: We cannot implement the law within a couple of weeks. Information is gathered now. An independent institution is being formed under the government. I hope several cases will be filed within the coming couple of weeks.
There is a complaint against the President of the Bribery or Corruption Commission also which has been filed by the JVP on 01 January 2014. Do you expect justice with regard to the complaints lodged in the Bribery or Corruption Commission in this context?
A: I think the President of the Bribery or Corruption cannot be removed.
Isn’t there any methodology to remove him?
A: Actually I don’t know about that methodology.
President Maithripala Sirisena promised to limit the Cabinet to 30 numbers. But 11 State Ministers have been appointed. What are these new positions?
A: State Ministers have responsibilities regarding the State departments. In fact, I have no objections against this. We can have a limit of 30. But the most important factor is getting the support of the entire Parliament for the constitutional amendment coming ahead. We need two-third majority support for that. We must build consensus when we form the Cabinet. We have to appease all sections. We must pass the constitutional amendment within three months. The number of Ministers of the Cabinet must be written in the Constitution. We believe the number must be less than 30. I personally think 25, is sufficient. We have to proceed with the present Parliament until these things are done. Therefore, we must not take the number of Ministers too seriously at this moment.
This is a national government of which the Cabinet is formed with the unity of the two major parties in mind. There can be some increase of number in the distribution of portfolios. But this is only for three months. We must say it to the people.
Can you guarantee that these appointments are only for three months?
A: Definitely, the number of the Cabinet portfolios will be 30 after the constitutional amendment. I take the responsibility for this statement. No one can surpass the limits stipulated by the Constitution. The future governments will not be national governments like this. This is a transition government. We cannot move forward with a conflict between the two major parties. No one can do the constitutional amendment alone. We need the majority support.
People suspect that the support gained from corrupt politicians may boomerang?
A: If so, we have to remove 25 to 30 corrupt MPs. Who will pass the constitutional amendment then? People must understand it. There are corrupt people everywhere and we must complain against them. We must not expect everything from public officials. We must protest against the inefficient officials. We always try to build up that tradition. We must apply pressure to remove the President of the Bribery or Corruption Commission. Media, social activists and people have responsibility in regard of this within these three months.
I will appear for the removal of the excess Ministers after the Constitution is passed. Then the entire country will know the number of Cabinet Ministers. If there is a conflict we can dissolve the Parliament. But we must amend the Constitution before that.
Whom should the people complain to regarding the corruption and frauds?
A: There are two institutions. One is Anti Corruption Commission and the other is the official institution comprised of the party leaders. Both have lawyers. The complaints must be submitted with the documentary proof. We must make 10-12 real complaints instead of filing a large number of complaints without proof.
People think it is wrong from the side of the government allowing some corrupt politicians to flee the country?
A: They can be brought back through Interpol when they are legally accused of corruption.
Will JHU contest future general election alone as a party?
A: We can contest from either the SLFP or the UNP. We also can form a third force merging with the JVP. But we have not discussed any of these moves yet.
Can the collapse of JHU have an impact on a future election?
A: What collapse? We are the winners. We are a group of highly respected leaders now. The entire country knows how we contributed to topple the Rajapaksa regime. A party may not collapse due to the change of a few individuals. We were further strengthened. If we collapsed we had to be defeated. A large number of people have joined the party. We are now engaged with the problems of the peasants, environmental issues and good governance etc. We are respected since we have represented these problems better than the traditional left parties.
JHU General Secretary Champika Ranawaka said in an interview with Ceylon Today, that all the parties must change their conventional hard stances. Is JHU ready to change its hard stance on Sinhala Buddhist nationalism?
A: We have never spoken of a Sinhala Buddhist base.
But it was the identity of the JHU.
A: That is true.
Isn’t it the creation of your party?
A: No. The majority of the people of the country were in unrest since they thought the two major parties had surrendered to terrorism. That is why the war was dragging for 30 years. The polity wanted to raise the issue from the viewpoint of the Sinhala Buddhists. We represented it but the people thought we were a Sinhala Buddhist party. In this Presidential, election we proved that we are a broad minded party.
What is your policy?
A: Building this country is our policy. We must take the country to a broad national policy which all communities can support.
A section of the society takes you as racists. Will you be able to correct this idea for the sake of your aim?
A: That idea has almost been wiped out now. Nobody calls us racists now. Personally, I was never a racist. Opposing terrorism is not racism. I don’t expect Champika Ranawaka or any other will act in a narrow racist perspective. Although we struggle to safeguard the major culture of the country, we do not act against other cultures. Our party will never do so. We have never thought of destroying another culture. But we have acted against the extremisms that are against the commonness of the polity.
What is the stand of the JHU regarding the ethnic problem of the people of the North and the East?
A: We have never seen an ethnic problem. We have not seen a separate ethnic problem of the people of the North and the East. But those people were affected economically due to the war. For instance, Kilinochchi is one of the districts which has highest ratio of malnutrition. We must provide solutions to these problems as a nation. We must also resolve issues like employment, language, administration and education.
Do you minimize the ethnic problem to mere economic issue?
A: Resolving of economic problems may reduce the emergence of nationalist issues. Certain groups read the economic problems in nationalist angles. For example, the JVP rose in late 1980s against Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. But the report of the Youth Unrest Commission points to rural poverty as the root cause for the revolt. Whatever the expression of the struggle, the economic difficulties of the people are at the core of the fight. There is the possibility for subduing the nationalist trends when the economic problems are resolved.
Do you recognize Tamil ethnic identity?
A: We recognize and respect the ethnic identity of any group. Can I exist without accepting your identity? No.
Are you satisfied about the path of the government?
A: The government is not ideal but we believe that we can achieve our targets.
Can people be hopeful about this government?
A: Constitutional amendment, relief and actions against corruption will take place during this probationary period. I think the most important thing people can expect from this government is the constitutional amendment. People can elect a new government after that. People can drop out the corrupt politicians. We must be hopeful of such government. We cannot build up national policies during this probationary period. The new government must build up permanent national policies for all sections.
Are you behind the screen of this government?
A: I don’t know if I am behind the screen or before the screen but I am active.