By Shaahidah Riza
The militant movement Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) is fully backed by the incumbent government, said United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, who is the son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, conceded that certain government elements instigated extremist violence against minorities during his father’s governance. However, the same elements left Rajapaksa to join President Maithripala Sirisena, which is the cause for the revival of the BBS, he added.
Q. When the former President was in governance, GSP+ facility was withdrawn for various reasons, such as war crimes allegations, and suppression of minorities and so on. But this government managed to get the GSP+ restored. What is your opinion in this regard?
A: It is evident that it was all part of the propaganda of the UNP. It was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who went to the EU, asking them to withdraw the GSP+ facility when we were in power. It was the UNP trade union who wrote to the EU urging them not to give us the GSP+ facility. It was the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who staged a protest in front of the HSBC bank asking them not to fund the Sri Lankan Government. They had a campaign. We never campaigned against the GSP+. We could have highlighted all the issues which are taking place under this government and informed the EU. The government is still attacking university students, every single protest, students have been maimed. The minority issue is still there and it’s even worse. Even though the government says that there is media freedom, we all know that it is a farce. The Prime Minister mentioned names of journalists in Parliament and chastised them. Media personalities get calls from the President’s house and the Prime Minister’s house and they are threatened. Certain media people were taken off their programmes. Things haven’t changed. Now it is more visible than it was in our time. If someone says that there was media suppression during our governance, none of it was visible. It was only allegations made by some political parties. This is all part of the propaganda. The UNP had a very strong relationship with the West. Also, there is another reason. GSP+ is given to countries that are under-developed. At that time we had about USD 200-400 per capita. Then, automatically, GSP+ is withdrawn. Now the per capita has come down. The economy has collapsed, the growth has come down, and perhaps the EU looked into all of this when they approved GSP+ for Sri Lanka. Our failed economy is one of the more central reasons to grant the GSP+.
Q: The incumbent government has promised to bring a hate speech bill as well. How do you view this?
A: From my point of view, you don’t have to bring a hate speech Bill. If the government implement the laws existing in the Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code, they can easily control what is happening. If the government’s perception of tackling racism is dealing with the BBS, then they are totally wrong. BBS is just one element of it. There are extremists in every religion. That does not mean that these extreme people are backed by certain leaders. What we see now is that this government made certain promises during election. We said at that time there were certain ministers and MPs who were behind the BBS. All of them left the Rajapaksa government, to join the incumbent President Sirisena, so now they are part of this government. The fact that the same thing is happening now and that there is no arrest, and not even a statement regarding this, it is evident that the government is backing the BBS. If someone is accusing President Rajapaksa of being a racist or being an extremist that is totally wrong. I would say that we lost the election due to certain extremist groups. Sadly, the minority at that time misinterpreted the real situation. You can’t suppress the majority to make the minority happy. What this government is trying to show is that they will control the majority, and try to convince the minority that the government is on their side. But what have they done so far for the minority?
They promised constitutional amendments for the Tamils in the North. They are still unable to do a basic draft of the Constitution.
That is very immature for a national leadership. You can’t isolate your elder son and make your second son your favourite. They should all be treated equally, due respect should be given to the majority. That is the norm in any country, be it the Middle East or Europe.
Q. You mentioned constitutional amendments. What is the latest on that?
A: The government has not made any progress. They have made a draft, of the intended draft.
Q. You mean a sub draft?
A: It’s worse than a sub draft. There are 15 main points that they should be discussing, they are still on the first point. What we see, prima facie, there is no vision for the government, or the leaders. They don’t have a genuine willingness to go for a well structured constitutional amendment. If this government wants to tackle religious extremism, they cannot just deal with BBS and say that they have done their part. Tackling extremism should be done in all layers. There are certain extremists in the North, and East. There are certain Muslim and Tamil groups who are also extremists, who make hate speeches. Law has to apply to all. If you apply the law to one particular sector, that will aggravate the rest of the society, which will create more problems. What we see at the moment is just another drama, where they are trying to create news every day and make sure that people forget what is really happening in the country, with regard to State politics and economy.
Q. So letting the likes of BBS run loose is a diverting tactic by the government to distract the people from the economic and political crisis the government is in?
A: One can interpret it like that. There are a lot of ways to divert attention. Sometimes you use entertainment for that, or sports, and some leaders use these kinds of extremist groups. I am not saying that President Sirisena has the ulterior motive of backing an extremist group. But definitely there has to be government backing. At present, the government is delaying all the provincial council elections. For them to delay these elections is the only way to bring the emergency law. If this tension continues then the President has no option but to go for emergency law. That way he can postpone provincial council election for another two years.
Q. There was an electors meeting headed by Faiszer Musthapha last week about the elections. He insisted that it will take place soon.
A: These kinds of meetings have been taking place for the last two years. There is no genuine need for them to hold the elections. Even though they show some interest in having elections, there is a question about their motives.
Q. The South was inundated with floods last week. You were involved in the relief efforts. Over the last two years how far do you think this government has progressed with development work in your father‘s stronghold?
A: We now have a minister for development in every region. Even few weeks ago some ministers were appointed for regional development. The question is, is there any development at all? As soon as the incumbent government came into power they halted all the development projects, once you halt it, it will not be easy to restart. Within the last two years, you hardly see any development. There are certain projects which we started, which are progressing at a very slow pace. For example, the Southern Highway should be finished right now, 90% of the Port City should have been completed now. It is still at the preliminary stages. At this juncture, there is no proper development at all. There is no mechanism to go to the grassroots and bring these benefits to the grassroots. The best example is the floods. The government struggled to take relief work to the grassroots levels. This is mainly because the Local Government Councils are dissolved. There is no proper political leadership at village level. At the same time, the government officials have not been given proper leadership or mechanism. Transfers of AGs, grama niladhari and Samurdhi officers are also a reason for this. Maybe one cause for this is all these investigations.
The government keeps talking about corruption related investigations. They have created that fear among government servants. Farmers from Vavuniya had to spend Rs 2,000 to come to the FCID to give a statement about a Rs 1,500 food packet they have got. There was also an issue about circulars with regard to disaster relief. The President said to disregard the circulars, and continue with flood relief. It was the same people who said that the previous government broke the law, when these government officers disregarded the circulars then, to effectively conduct disaster relief. They accused the previous government of going beyond the law, violating Gazette notifications and so on, to help people. They claimed that these actions were illegal, and that relief work should be done within the same framework. However, two years later, the same person, who is now the President, instructs people to disregard the law when doing disaster relief. But, the officers are scared. They have been already penalized. I am very surprised, yet glad the manner in which the tri forces dealt with disaster relief operations. We all know that over the last two years former Air Force Commander was called by the FCID for using helicopters for relief work. The Army Commander was brought in for questioning regarding distribution of food packs. Despite all these obstacles, they continued to help these people. The government can’t expect from certain officers to work efficiently, while suppressing them.
Q. With regard to the Joint opposition, assuming we will be having elections, what will be your position?
A: We want to form a broader alliance with all the parties and we would be happy to invite the SLFP government faction as well to take part, if they want to defeat the UNP.
Q. Do you identify yourself as a staunch SLFPer?
A: Of course.
Q. But there is a paradox between the JO-SLFPers and the government SLFPers. When I speak to government SLFPers they are always of the view that the JO-SLFPers are traitors. It‘s actually rather confusing to the public, and they wouldn‘t know to whom they should render support.
A: It’s actually all about policies. We stand for the people, we are against privatization, and we are against devolution of powers to the extent that it will divide the country. I must stress that we are not against devolution of powers; up to what extent is the question. We have a foreign policy of non alliance and we have to be good with everyone. We don’t want to isolate single individual countries because the West doesn’t like them. We have a genuine problem with policies and of course President Sirisena’s part of the SLFP has to go against JO SLFPers because half of them were not elected. They were selected from the national list after losing the election. The real SLFPers who were elected by the people are with us. But those who were appointed by the President are with the government.
Q. You were recently indicted on money laundering charges. Can you comment on that?
A: It’s a case about my law firm. It started at USD 18 billion. When I received the indictment it was at Rs 30 million. I was expecting something more; at least it will look newsworthy for the media. Sadly for the media, the figure has dramatically depleted. An officer of the AG’s Department told me that there were 17,000 child abuse and rape cases in this country. None of these cases have been heard nor the perpetrators been indicted. What is the hurry they have to indict us, when there are 17,800 cases of abuse pending?
There are families waiting to see what is happening to their daughter, son or mother. They are all waiting for justice. This government came to power saying that they will bring justice for women and children. During the Presidential Election, if you look at Hirunika Premachandra’s campaign and other political advertisements in the media, it was all about women’s rights and justice for women. Now they are keener and work 24 hours to put us behind bars, neglecting the actual social issues of this country. It’s a revenge centric move. If you look at the allegations regarding us, and the way the indictment has taken place, it is very unclear. Some witnesses had given about 10 statements, and on the 11th statement they become a witness, this is because of many reasons, either they have been threatened or bullied in to it. The government has made things bad for themselves. This is not going to be the last government, and President Sirisena is not going to be the last President, one day all of these misdemeanours would be revealed.