Groundviews

Citizens should decide carefully after weighing the pros and cons

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - JANUARY 09: Sri Lanka's newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena (C) prepares to take oath as he is sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo on January 9, 2015 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sirisena will be the 7th President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

English translation of article published in the Sunday Silumina on 19th of July. Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images via Time.

The Parliamentary election is getting closer.  The submission of nominations has been completed.  Voters look on with surprise at the antics of some candidates. Some people are confused due to views expressed through the media by the President.  How does this situation affect the elections and the future of our country?  Let us ask Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, Executive Director of the US-SL Fulbright Educational Exchange Commission about his views.

It is said that a potential revolution took place on the 8th of January.  How do you see what is termed as a Revolution?

I must initially mention that all views expressed here are personal.  To the best of my knowledge, the change that occurred in January 2015 marked a watershed in our country. That is, after the 8th of January, we took a great leap forward. Our people, irrespective of whether one is a Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim, decided that our country needed a change. As in 1956, the change in 2015 January was momentous. Friendships and enmities are temporary phenomena in politics. Politics would be monotonous without them. What is needed to take the country forward is to take correct decisions at the correct time. What happened in January 2015 may be termed a socio-political upheaval or revolution. It is this revolution that we should carry forward.

How can it be carried forward?

We are experiencing some uncertainties at present. Whoever groups together, the final decision will be taken by the people. If the masses act and vote in a sensible manner on the 17th of August, we would be able to save our country from the impending doom through a return to the bad old days.  Therefore, the January 2015 revolution may be carried forward if the people want it to be carried forward. If not, a counter-revolution will take place and we will be back to square one.

What is this Counter-revolution?

People with bankrupt political ideas like the opposition members Vasudeva, Wimal Weerawansa are those who have gathered around Mr. Rajapakse. I would like to see a new Sri Lanka Freedom Party formed under the clean politics of Mr. Sirisena. But the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which was thrown out on the 8th have now re-gathered around Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa with the help of a few vociferous politicians who belong to fringe political parties. They are trying to bring back the same old politics of division and discord which the people rejected in January when they voted for Mr. Sirisena and the common opposition. That is why I refer to the “Bring Back Mahinda” movement as a counter-revolution.

Is the difference between revolution & counter-revolution, a difference of about 4 lakhs of votes?

Normally the candidate for a presidential election consists of 2 major candidates and we vote for one of them. But, in a general election, the way the votes are cast is different. It may be that considerations such as differences of creed, caste or religion are ignored and only the personal worth of an individual is considered when selecting a president.  But in a general election, a large number of nominees with all these factors affecting their candidature enter the fray. It is difficult to expect the same numbers. And attendance of large numbers, often bought over, at political rallies is not a criterion of a candidate’s popularity or otherwise. In 1970, there were large crowds gathered wherever Mr. Dudley Senanayake went.  But he lost the election badly.  One cannot judge the popularity of candidates or political parties by the crowds that attend rallies.  The success or failure of democracy depends on the people’s vote. We got universal adult franchise or the right to vote in 1931. Our people thus have much experience and are literate. Hence we can expect our citizens to vote wisely once more.

Why have those who came together for Good Governance (Yahapalanaya), now scattered all over?

Looking at what has happened, there is some credence to your observation. Those who supported the 8 January movement appear to be in disarray. Even the SLFP has now divided in to Sirisena, Mahinda and Chandrika factions.  They have not embraced a single ideology nor have they come together around a single person.  As I see it, the needed political leadership is not currently available. It is a time of complex change and political turmoil.  We have to remain calm and count our blessings.   Despite certain shortcomings, President Sirisena has changed our political culture.  Today we have the opportunity to criticize and disagree with him publicly.  It is difficult to say that this freedom was available in our country in recent years.

What is the shortcoming you refer to?

Actually I personally believe that the President was late by about a week or so in making his statement.  This statement should have been made either on the day of the nominations or on the day after.  The silence or the reticence of President Sirisena, in one sense,  is good.  As it may mean that he is one who without getting unduly alarmed, will calmly  and carefully check all the factors before taking action.  But I have a problem with the timing of his statement. He delayed to speak and when he did speak, I felt he spoke for too long.  A political speech should be carefully timed as the attention span of an audience is limited. Mr. Sirisena ought to have limited his speech to a maximum of 30 minutes.

Is this environment a disadvantage to the SLFP?

It is. The split in the SLFP is mainly advantageous to the UNP led Good Governance front.  Secondly, given the good sense of the JVP’s leadership and its policies, JVP may benefit from this SLFP split also.  In our country, political power shifts from the UNP to the SLFP.  In spite of being very sensible and irrespective of those who trust them, the JVP is unable to get to a politically dominant position in our essentially two party system. Even though Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s political arguments and insights as a politician are good, the truth is as stated above.  One remembers in this context what happened to the new party formed by Gamini Dissanayake & Lalith Athulathmudali after they left the UNP.  But however, if the JVP attaches themselves to either one of these 2 main parties, we can expect a change in the fortunes of the JVP as in 2004 when they entered into a coalition with CBK and won 42 seats. The JVP will not be able to be a force to be reckoned on its own yet. This is because we have still not handed over the country to a third force.

Is that why the members of Hela Urumaya gravitated to the UNP?

I see this in a different way.  Earlier it was said that President Sirisena was working according to Champika Ranawake’s advice. I recall that G.L. Peiris was considered to be playing a similar role when CBK was president in the early days of the 1994 PA government. I think the JHU had no choice but to move out after President Sirisena agreed to give Mahinda Rajapaksa UPFA nomination.   I do not think that Champika goes along 100% with the UNP policies. What we find here is an instance of realpolitik. Champika Ranawake perhaps is less uncomfortable with the UNP than with the Rajapaksa-led UPFA at the present time. He will likely move out at an opportune future date.

Do these personality conflicts affect the country’s well-being?  ?

No county’s well-being is directly affected by politics alone. Politics can be said to be an exercise for short term profits and objectives of politicians. It is an exercise to determine who gets what, when and how!  However, when you consider the measures available to gauge a country’s image factors such as its arts, culture, spirituality and education occupy a higher place than, comparatively speaking, the very lowly placed factor of its politics.

Isn’t there much talk at present on civilized politics?

Civilized or decent politics cannot come into being in 24 hours or one hundred days or six months. Today we can only lay the foundation for ‘civilized’ politics in the future. When we examine the history of our country, although we claim to have moved on since the feudal era, it is apparent that we still carry with us some major traces of that era.  The reason for the prevalence of outdated and outmoded concepts pertaining to such factors as race or ethnicity, caste, and religion is because the main political parties have not done any soul searching to modernize and move with the times. . And when political representatives are chosen according to ‘values’ based on these out- of- date   concepts, we succeed only in placing square pegs in round holes!

Other than for Mr.Premadasa, our country was ruled from 1951 to 2005 either by a member of the Bandaranaike family or else by a member of the Senanayaka or  Jayewardene families.  How could one talk about other matters without first attempting to establish inner party democracy?  In other countries one can debate, agitate and initiate action within a political party to effect change.  Here in Sri Lanka, for example, even though Sajith mounted a formidable challenge for the leadership of the UNP, Ranil could not be ousted because the Ex Co of the UNP is filled with persons who are connected to the leader. This is true of all our political parties.

Also it is a fact that there is no political space in our country for the recognition of individual worth regardless of a person’s ethnicity, caste or religion. As I argued earlier, we are yet very backward looking as a society. We may live in the 21st century but we are yet medieval in our thoughts and beliefs.  Can you imagine the prospect of a worthy Tamil or Muslim citizen becoming president of Sri Lanka in the foreseeable future akin to Barack Obama becoming the president of the United States?  It would be difficult to save our country from itself until meaningful socio-political changes occur.  The two main parties – – the SLFP and the UNP – – in particular should change and become 21st century entities instead of continuing to be anachronistic outfits.

How could that be done?

There should be a greater emphasis on youth who are able to change with the times.  The JVP is doing very well on this front.  The UNP has also put in place not too bad  a  second eleven. Of course, they could yet afford to shed some fat.  But, it seems to me,  that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is yet to establish a good second eleven made up  of young men and women. President Sirisena is well placed to rebuild and re-energize the SLFP and mould it into a 21st century political party with a modern outlook. He is free of family encumbrances and other attendant limitations. One of President Sirisena’s priorities should be to transform the SLFP into a youthful and resilient modern entity with fresh young men and women replacing the old timers.

Are you as a person interested in international relations satisfied with the foreign policy of our country?

I believe that a small country like ours, beset with economic problems, ought not be a pawn in the hands of any power bloc of the world.  What is important is to be  avoid alignments as in the former days and maintain good relations with all countries. Or else we run the risk of being pushed around. During the JR era we identified too closely with the United States and invoked the wrath of India. That JRJ government paid a heavy price for its unbalanced foreign policy. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should play second fiddle to India or that we should take our foreign policy cues from that country. My suggestion is to recognize the fact that our giant neighbour is a pre-eminent regional power with the potential to be a world power soon. And our past,  present  and future are in certain ways bound with India for better or for worse. Hence we need to tread delicately. We also need to keep good relations with China, the other emerging political and economic giant. We are a small country and we need to so fashion our foreign policy bearing in mind our political and economic limitations. Please don’t get me wrong here. I am not for a moment suggesting that Sri Lanka should be subservient to any power. I am merely making a plea for pragmatism. We must establish good relations with all countries so as to get the best possible deal for ourselves. Hence the crucial need for a balanced foreign policy.  I   have noticed this balance during the last 6 months.   We should continue to remain unattached to any power bloc and be on good terms with all countries of the world in order to safeguard our country and our national interest. At the end of the day, our foreign policy is but an extension of our domestic policy. If good governance or yahapalanaya continues to flourish, our foreign policy objectives will be achieved.  On 17th of August, people should vote wisely.  If they do so, a meaningful future for all of us would be assured.