It’s time to change the system, says Athuraliye Rathana Thero

Warns we have collapsed politically, economically and socially and must act now

Jathika Hela Urumaya Parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana Thero who is currently active in the political scene following his meetings with Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sarath Fonseka stresses that President Rajapaksa should stop the ongoing merrymaking and extravaganza. “Where is the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’? Where are those pledges the President has made?” queries Rathana Thero, adding that if President Rajapaksa continues fails to respond positively and forgo the vast powers enjoyed by him, “we will not be hesitant to support someone better than Rajapaksa”.
Following are excerpts:

162Q: You recently met some top political leaders including Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sarath Fonseka and Tilvin Silva. Why did you meet them and what did you discuss?
A: About two years ago we formed an organisation called ‘Pivithuru Hetak’ (The National Council for a Better Tomorrow). It comprises intellectuals and academics. Although we were not very active, we prepared a policy statement that discussed a number of vital facts essential for the betterment of the country.
At the moment there is an ongoing dialogue in the country about the executive presidency as well as the need to change the Constitution. We felt this is the ideal time to educate the political leaders, intellectuals, academics and the public about our policy statement and its proposals. There could be a presidential election in the near future. We strongly believe before a presidential election certain changes need to take place in the existing system.
The present situation in the country is not a healthy one. Anyone can understand that the power and control of this country is in the hands of one individual. This is a very unfortunate situation. This Government boasts about development projects. But these projects lack a clear vision. These projects are not done for the betterment of the country but for the benefit of a very few power-hungry individuals.
This entire country runs according to the whims and fancies of a handful of people who are nothing but autocrats. It is a joke to call this Government an alliance because they lack every single aspect a coalition should possess. They don’t respect each other; they don’t listen to other people’s opinions and views.
There is a no clause in our Constitution that prevents the President from holding ministerial posts. But J.R. Jayewardene never held any ministerial posts. Today nearly 75% of the most important ministries come under the present President. All important departments and institutions and every new project comes under the purview of the President and his brother Minister Basil Rajapaksa. This is a conflict situation. This is not ethical. The President is setting a bad example to the entire country. The most pathetic situation is that in order to prove the President is corrupt, we cannot take him to court. The Constitution does not allow that. We demand that other than the Ministry of Defence the President should not hold any ministerial posts. Being a good leader does not mean being so power hungry.
We have the biggest cabinet of ministers. But all the decision are made by a very few ministers. Honestly there is no need for the cabinet to meet every week. Members of the President’s family and Secretary of the Finance Ministry P.B. Jayasundera can meet and take the decisions, because that is exactly what happens now. Where is the so-called ‘collective responsibility’?
We feel there is a constitutional conflict. Even if we bring a new president to power, there is no assurance that he will not act in the same manner. Therefore, what is important is to change the existing system. This is why we express the importance of changing the present Constitution.
Q: Does the Hela Urumaya agree with these proposals?
A: Yes. Not only the Jathika Hela Urumaya but many other political parties have also agreed with our proposals. Lanka Sama Samaja Party Leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the Communist Party and a large number of Government Ministers have shown keen interest in our policy statement. They have all expressed that these proposals need to be implemented immediately.
Q: We saw a recent trend of Government Ministers publicly criticising President Rajapaksa and his administration. Some have even threatened to leave the Government. Are you part of this trend?
A: Why would someone describe these developments as a trend? Some people are engaged in a genuine effort to make a change. They are trying to build up a social force to end the corruption and unlawful activities of the present regime. This is not some joke. If the Government does not response positively to the proposals in our policy statement, I will take a decision on whether or not to work together with this Government in future.
Q: You are an active member of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. Why did you form another organisation? Does this mean there is a conflict of ideas between you and the JHU?
A: No, that is a false accusation. Our organisation is not a political party. Our mission is a much broader one than that of the JHU. There is no conflict of ideas. The JHU agrees and supports our work. It was the JHU that we first educated and discussed the policy statement.
Q: Now that you have met a number of political leaders and educated them about your policy statement, what will the next step be?
A: Our attempt is not to topple the Government and destabilise the country. We actually want the Government to initiate these changes. But if they fail to do that, we don’t have any other option than going for a regime change.
Q: Have you educated the Government about your proposals?
A: Yes, we have had several meetings with Government members. We met President Rajapaksa and urged him to implement these proposals but to date nothing has been done. Unfortunately, although they are good at discussions, they never act.
Q: There is speculation about an upcoming presidential election. Do you feel the country is ready for that?
A: Before the presidential election, these changes need to take place. That is our stand.
Q: Will you quit the Government?
A: It is definite that if the Government fails to implement these changes, we will not continue to work with them. I can’t tell you what decision I will take. It is too early to say anything. However, when we take a decision we will consider the political situation in the country at that time. There are many options such as retiring from politics or even supporting another candidate.
Q: How successful were the meetings you held with Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sarath Fonseka?
A: Both were very successful. Sarath Fonseka has similar views and ideas. We find it is easy to work with him. We are not clear about the stand of the United National Party. They are uncertain about a few things and therefore their decision wavers from time to time. But Ranil Wickremesinghe has personally pledged his fullest support. He admitted our proposals were reasonable and practical. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have his weaknesses but he is good politician. He is thorough and very knowledgeable. The majority of our politicians lack that quality.
Q: Though the Government is accused of malpractice and corruption, the possibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa being re-elected at an upcoming presidential election is evident. Do you agree?
A: Yes, I agree. The President has a clear chance of winning the next presidential election. That is only due to the lack of an alternative. But creating that alternative is not impossible and it will not take much time. If we organise we can make that happen in a week’s time.
Please don’t forget this. Our struggle is not to bring in a new President. We want the present President to fulfil the promises he has already made. Where is the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’? Where are those pledges he has made? The President should stop this extravaganza and merrymaking. People are in hunger, half the people in the country live in poverty. There is no law in this country. Crime has increased to an escalating rate, drug addiction and alcoholic dependency in on the rise. Who is responsible for this situation? The Government may play with their statistics and try to prove to the world that Sri Lanka is doing great. But we don’t trust those statistics. We brought this Government to power. We work with this Government. We have a right to tell them what is right and wrong.
Q: You said the majority of the Government wants a change. So what makes it difficult to go for it? Who is standing against this?
A: We don’t have issues with any other individual; it is the President we want to persuade. It is in the hands of the President. The power is centred on him. He takes the final decision.
Q: Some say Government officials such as Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Finance Ministry Secretary P.B. Jayasundera are influential than the President. Do you agree?
A: These officers cannot be powerful if the President doesn’t allow them to act so. Meanwhile, our struggle is not about Gotabaya Rajapaksa or P.B. Jayasundera. We brought this President to power and it is he who needs to answer our questions.
Q: What do you think about the present situation in the country?
A: It is a sad situation. We have collapsed politically, economically and socially. It is the politicians that should be held responsible for this situation. We are not criticising everything that is done by this Government. Although heavily criticised I personally appreciate the city beautification programs. The city is clean and we can be proud of that.
But in the meantime the Government has got its priorities mixed up. They spend billions of rupees on highways but have failed to find a solution to transportation issues of the public. Highway is not a solution to ordinary commuters who travel by bus or train.
The entire country protested against the Mattala Airport. But they went ahead with it. If they were so adamant about building an airport they should have done in the east or centre of the country. That would have at least promoted internal flights.
When we are blessed with beaches, waterfalls and internal waterways, how are we trying to promote tourism? By setting up casinos. This Government should be ashamed of making such proposals.
We have urged the Government to stop sending our women to Middle East countries as housemaids. Look at the plight of these innocent women. The country spends millions of rupees on education and producing graduates. But all this merrymaking and extravaganza is done from the money earned by these innocent migrant workers. Have they considered the social cost? The shattered families, drunken husbands and drug-addicted children. Who should be held responsible for this situation? Our diplomats in Middle Eastern countries are the most corrupt. They don’t care about these workers.
Take the education sector. There is a huge disparity between the Colombo schools and schools in remote areas; 15% to 20% leave school after Grade 8 due to poverty. Have we worked out a program for these children? Look at the mushrooming international schools. There is no standard or proper framework for these schools. I am warning that the country is yet to see the social damage caused by these so-called international schools.
We have proposed to set up a National Planning Commission. In our neighbouring country India, the President of the National Planning Commission hold powers equal to those of a cabinet minister. Such a body will take decisions that are beneficial to the country.
Q: Asgiri Maha Nayaka Thera has criticised this Government and its work several times. Your comments?
A: Mahanaya Theros hold various stands. They tend to switch their stands from time to time. I don’t know whether they make these statements with any responsibility. No matter how bad the situation in the country is, the public is hesitant to react. The media is biased. The majority of the media is pro-Government. But we need to stand against the wrong. I know that my life is under threat. But I will speak out. I am not afraid of losing my life. I don’t want to cling on to my Parliamentary position. The country is run by casino owners and drug dealers. They are capable of doing anything. They don’t believe in the value of a person’s life. But if do not we act now, it will be too late.