In conversation with Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

Almost one year ago, Groundviews first featured an interview with Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. At the time, just after the parliamentary elections leading from the decisive presidential election, the government was riding a wave of popular support. In the year that passed, from the reprehensible 18th Amendment and grotesque examples of the government’s wastefulness, democratic governance that instead of improvement and progress, shows decline and decrepitude.

The recipient of the first Citizens Peace Award, Dr. Saravanamuttu (Sara), the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (the institutional base of this site), in this interview speaks about the enduring challenges facing democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka, nearly two years after the end of war. The conversation begins with an excerpt from Sara’s acceptance speech at the Citizens Peace Award, and a question as to why so very few listen to him in Sri Lanka today, and worse, care to know about that which he flags. Going beyond a simplistic championing of a Mahgreb model for political change in Sri Lanka, Sara explores why even with illiberal governance, so few are willing to rise up for their rights, even after the end of war. This line of questioning leads us to explore whether despite participating in regular elections, many in Sri Lanka are actually more voters than citizens.

Sara is asked as to what he sees as the positive development in the country over the past year, and what he feels are those areas of governance and development that have been the most neglected. Sara touches on what he sees is an enduring fear psychosis that prevents a more open, public debate about issues related to accountability and reconciliation.

Responding to recent frothing palaver in mainstream media and especially the State media over funding NGOs have received, Sara notes that given the repetitive public airing of these concerns over many years, particularly during election campaigns and when international scrutiny on government is most focussed and direct, people would soon begin to wonder why government was not doing anything about it.

Looking at the macro-economic as well as the key political currents in Sri Lanka, Sara flags a future scenario where questions will be increasingly asked of government as to why a richer economic dividend is not forthcoming, and that government in turn will find it increasingly harder to hark back to its war time achievements to gloss over, post-war, its inglorious hash of foreign and economic policies.

Towards the end, Sara answers a question as to whether he is too impatient with Sri Lanka’s progress post-war, and whether it is too much, too soon to ask for government and governance to be different to what is was during war.

  • Vasala Rajasuriya

    There is a reason why a lot of Sri Lankans have little time for NGOs and their representatives – they see NGOs as pointless, foreign funded groups who do nothing to provide solutions for their real problems, and who are merely interested in campaigning for certain issues because they get $$ for doing so.

  • eureka

    Vasala
    Please go down A9 up to Elephantpass and come back and post another comment. Thanks.

    • Vasala Rajasuriya

      Is there anything special to see?

      • Realist

        Vasala Rajasuriya and others of a similar mindset are quick to blame NGOs for getting foreign funding. But will any of the Sri Lankan liberals fund an NGO promoting liberal values like freedom, human rights, the Rule of Law, Due Process etc. No sir they are there merely to throw brickbats at the NGOs. Do these people value these liberal values? If they are given a choice between living in a liberal society and a repressive dicatorial regime select a liberal society? yes they do judging by the nos. migrating to the West. As for our own traditional culture it was nothing but arbitrary exercise of unmitigated power by a king. many innocent people suffered as we see when the Buddhist monk was falsely accused of an illicit liaison with the Queen and executed. Do we want similar justice? If not stand up to support the NGOs who are promoting liberal values. If not wait your turn to suffer from repressvie government when there will be no one around to defend you as Pasor Niemoller lamented because he had been silent when others suffered injustice.

      • Vasala Rajasuriya

        It’s pretty rich to claim that NGOs are promoting “liberal values” – most of them are just promoting an agenda. For some of them, it is an agenda that foreign countries are funding, including but not limited to regime change. The government has a right to investigate them, and people have a right to view them with suspicion if they so wish. NGOs can range from Christian extremist groups (like missionaries who have created religious tension in Sri Lanka with their aggressive proselytism) to those helping farmers with seeds, loans, mobile phones etc to those like the CPA and NPC who spend loads of time at the cocktail circuit. Not all of them are ‘bad’ but many of them are.

  • Nimal Sandaruwan

    Events in Sri Lanka cannot be understood or resolved in isolation from what is happening globally. It is well known that US/West do not want Sri Lanka drifing towards China’s sphere of influence. That’s not an issue for CPA strangely.

    It is also known CPA is mainly funded by western governments and charities who have invloved in regime changes elsewhere one way or other.That does not mean CPA cannot function in Sri Lanka. Their right to engage in public service,as they put it, must be vigourosly defended.

    Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen etc have led enough light on the issue of General Fonseka’s “rebellion” against the Rajapaksa regime. The role of the military (in some instances sections/generals of the security forces) in those countries, who until the last moment have been mainly responsible for the atrocities/bloody repression of protesters, have changed sides miraculously and become the saviours of people and democracy. We all know who benefited from such miracles.

    It cannot be denied that General Fonseka also could be charged for the crimes committed during the war and it should be done along with Rajapaksas and other commmanders.That task must be done by the people of Sri lanka and not the US/West who do the same under the UN cover with impunity.

    What I cannot understand is why CPA supported the preidential election campaign of the General Fonseka, the war criminal ?

    • http://www.cpalanka.org Dr.P Saravanamuttu

      Clearly you have not read my article on the choice presented at the 2010 Presidential Election entitled “Tweedledum or Tweedledee?” which appeared in the Daily Mirror and was also posted on Groundviews. In any event what evidence do you have for CPA support of the Fonseka candidacy?

      Please note that CPA does not support election campaigns of any party. CPA as part of CMEV has monitored elections since 1997.

      • Nimal Sandaruwan

        Thanks Dr Saravanamutttu.

        Better response from you could have explained to what extent you are personally responsible for CPA policies and principles and also to what extent CPA could be held responsible for your “individual”/”personal” opinions/declarations/observations.

        You say “CPA does not support election campaigns of any party. CPA as part of CMEV has monitored elections since 1997″. As I understand you were instrumental partner in founding the “Platform for Freedom” as was Sirithunga Jayasuriya (not too sure about Wickramabahu Karunaratne’s involvment)on his own admission(http://www.socialistworld.net/eng/2010/01/2202.html). Dr S is listed as a convenor of the PPF on its website. Sirithunga J was a presidential candidate in 2010 from the United Socialist Party. Are we to assume that CPA or you personally have been impartial and you did not know of SJ was a leader of a political party ? I am not arguing that you/CPA/USP/SJ cannot do what you do. I fully defend that right.

        One of the invitees at a PFF meeting, was Ranil Wickramasinghe. Any discussion on “freedom” in SL needs an understanding of the UNP’s role (in which Ranil W was a cabinet minister) as the party who commenced the brutal war against Tamils and carrying out the massacare of southern Sinhala youth in the reign terror in 87-91. The fact is UNP backed General Fonseka in the presedential election campaign. What do we make of this ?

        You wrote “Tweddledum or Twedddledee” on 25 November 2009.I read that and I commented on it at the time. You also have written “A nasty, cruel war followed by a nasty, dirty election” on 24 December 2009.

        In that you had a word of caution for Fonseka supporters and handlers -”In the context of the presidential election and prevailing political culture it is not surprising that Rajapaksa supporters have all screamed betrayal at candidate Fonseka. Supporters of candidate Fonseka, on the other hand, have resorted to a number of responses.

        They range from accusations of partisanship against the Leader to commending his courage in spilling the beans on the heart of darkness of the regime to even those who believe that whatever may have been retracted, the allegation will garner votes for him amongst the Tamil community which according to the conventional wisdom will have a decisive say in the choice of the next president. No doubt there are those who will buy the argument about betrayal and Fonseka’s handlers may hope that the damage having being done in the relatively early stages of the campaign may be undone, subsequently.

        What they do need to take note of are the costs of their candidate going solo and expressing his visceral hatred of the Rajapaksas. This if let out often will obscure whatever other qualities and attributes his supporters and handlers believe he brings to his quest for the presidency and undermine it.”

        I follow my conscience and will leave it up to the readers to make their conclusions.

  • http://www.cpalanka.org Dr.P Saravanamuttu

    Thanks Nima, if i may.

    PFF was set up as a campaign for two rights – the right to live and the right to free speech and expression in a context of heightened extra-judicial killings and disappearances. It was also set up as a campaign which brought together civil society actors and politicians willing to commit to this in contemporary Sri Lanka. Accordingly it was open to politicians from all political parties. At the same time, in the context of the presidential election, PFF did not hold meetings on behalf of any political candidate. In fact at a number of PFF meetings, civil society actors, including myself, reminded politicians of their responsibility for the state of human rights protection and democracy in the country and stressed the point that neither could be secured by trust in or the work of politicians or indeed civil society ALONE. As for the activists who came together in forming the PFF, whilst I do know for a fact I am reasonably sure that they may well have supported candidates in the presidential election including Mahinda Rajapaksha and Sarath Fonseka. What brought everyone together was the commitment to the rights identified above.

    Please note that CPA as an organization was not a member of PFF. I was a Co- Convenor from its inception. I think it is important that civil society actors and politicians work together as long as the former in particular, maintain their independence and identity. Civil society actors work on issues and are not in the business of trying to capture governmental power. In order to set an agenda in which issues are given their due place and priority, civil society must engage with politicians and even work with them when necessary.

    Please also note that CPA is not the creature of one individual. it has a mission and mandate, vocal and vibrant senior staff as well as a Board of Directors. The unfortunate tendency of identifying an organization solely with an individual may hold for some civil society organizations, but it denies the vitality and strength of CPA.

    You have quoted at length from one of my columns. The quotation does not to me suggest an endorsement of the Fonseka campaign. The column is a piece of political analysis, responding to events as they unfold. Of course it is subject to the interpretation of the reader.

    Like you, I follow my conscience.

  • Chamath Jayasinghe

    As per news reports, the National Peace Council is now under investigation by the government. Long overdue in my opinion. The government must have the power to investigate all NGOs, especially those that are foreign funded.

  • Ravi

    I am sorry to turn the big issues of the country with a minority issue. But before that I know where NS is coming from and I have sympathy for those who have those worries. I think, Dr S too has points we cannot ignore as the citizens of the wider world. We all should learn more about democracy and human rights as we are now a part of the information age world rather than waiting for CPA and act upon it.

    But, I am not against Sir Pon Ramanathan (I don’t know much about) and LTTE but their campaign may have helped other agendas jet not the victims in the north and east of the country as it meant to help, not so far anyway. My voice is for the victims in the north and east affected by the war, by the policies of the successive governments, imperial India and china and the ignorance of the international community. And I am not part of any party or any organisation but I will support anyone as the events unfold if it will help the victims. In this occasion I support the interview as it touches the minority issues and majority concerns and above all a campaign for liberalism.