JHU parliamentarian Athureliye Rathana Thera announced last week that his party would do everything in its power to defeat President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming presidential election unless the Constitution was amended, curbing the powers of the presidency and reintroducing the 17th Amendment. Yet back in 2001, the JHU was the only party in Parliament that voted against the 17th Amendment. In this interview, C.A. Chandraprema speaks to Rathana Thera about his party’s change of heart with regard to the 17th Amendment and the political options available to it once it parts company with the UPFA.
Q: In a ruling coalition differences can emerge among coalition partners. There is nothing unusual in that. But what is curious is the 180 degree turn that you seem to have taken on the 17th Amendment. In 2001 when the 17 th Amendment was passed, the sole representative of the JHU in parliament Champika Ranawaka voted against it. Why do you now say that the 17th Amendment should be reintroduced?
A: The 17th Amendment was brought forward for a good cause––to limit the powers of the executive. But, one of its shortcomings was the manner in which the Constitutional Council (CC) was appointed with ethnic representation being given pride of place in appointing the non ex-officio members of the CC. The method we have in mind is different. We suggest that the non ex-officio members be elected by Parliament by secret ballot from nominees put forward by professional bodies like the Association of Vice-Chancellors of universities, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the GMOA, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and so on. This is not a reintroduction of the 17th Amendment as it stood earlier but an attempt to implement the spirit of the 17th Amendment.
Q: One of the problems as regards the 17th Amendment is the tendency to take power away from elected representatives of the people and to give it to unelected appointees. We elect representatives to govern the country and to exercise the sovereign power of the people but under the 17th Amendment, they have no power to wield. How do you reconcile such a contradiction?
A: Appointments to important offices of the state will be made by the President and the Cabinet, but it will be subject to review by the Constitutional Council. Today, if we take the diplomatic service as an example, look at the kind of people who have been appointed. Some are so old that they can barely walk, others can’t see. When we are faced with foreign intervention, we have to appoint the best possible individuals. So, according to our suggestion, once the President makes an appointment, it will be reviewed in the Constitutional Council and, therefore, he will take care to appoint the correct person. This does not mean that the President and the ministers will be superseded. All that will happen is that appointments will be subject to review.
Q: Even today, when the government makes an appointment of a high official, it goes before the High Posts Committee of Parliament which is made up of representatives of all parties. So, there are mechanisms within Parliament for the review of appointments made by the executive. For example, when Major General Janaka Perera was appointed High Commissioner to Australia it went before the High Posts Committee in Parliament. On the day his appointment was taken up for discussion, the JVP representatives on the High Posts Committee kept away because Maj. Gen. Perera was responsible for the arrest of Rohana Wijeweera in 1989 and they probably wanted to avoid an embarrassing situation because Janaka Perera was then at the zenith of his popularity as the military officer who had stopped the LTTE advance on Jaffna in 2000. So Parliament does carry out supervision over the appointments the executive makes.
A: But with the overwhelming power of the executive, all these institutions have become dysfunctional. Even the Cabinet is dysfunctional. All power is now in the hands of one man. The president holds several Cabinet portfolios and financial control is completely in his hands.
Q: One of the serious problems that existed in the 17th Amendment was that these independent police, judicial, public and elections commissions appointed under it were not answerable even to Parliament. If a petition was received by the Public Petitions Committee about the conduct of one of these independent Commissions, the Public Petitions Committee (PPC) could do nothing about it even though the PPC is made up of all parties in parliament.
A: If a matter pertaining to the independent commissions cannot be taken before the Public Petitions Committee, a method will have to be devised to allow that. If the independent commissions are not doing their job properly there has to be a mechanism to supervise them.
Q: But the reality is that if the Public Petitions Committee is given the power to look into the work of the independent commissions, they will no longer be independent! That has been an argument put forward by those who want the independent commissions to be completely independent of any outside interference and they do have a point in what they say. So, the 17th Amendment seeks to create institutions made up of unelected persons who are in effect responsible to no one––not even to the people of the country!
A: I must say very clearly that we are not suggesting that the 17th Amendment in its original form should be reinstated. What we have suggested is that in appointing the Constitutional Council various professional bodies will make the nominations but the members of the CC will be elected by Parliament. The earlier system had its shortcomings, one of which was electing representatives to the CC on the basis of ethnicity with one to represent Ceylon Tamils and another to represent Muslims, and so on.
Q: If your suggestions are not accepted by the government, you have only a limited number of options. You can either be with the government or join the Opposition. Within the Opposition, you can either remain independent or join a UNP-led coalition.
A: It is said that a presidential election will be held soon. But, we will not allow it to be held. Senior members of the SLFP have spoken to us and they are very critical of the President. Maithripala Sirisena has sent a letter to the President saying it’s wrong to hold this presidential election early and so have ministers D. E. W. Gunasekara and Vasudeva Nanayakkara.
Q: Do you think there is time to effect constitutional changes so close to the presidential election?
A: Who says there is no time? There are two more years.
Q: The Opposition also wants to prevent a presidential election from being held at this stage. Some may say that you are working according to the agenda of the Opposition.
A: There is nothing called an Opposition agenda. All agendas emerge with the movement of social forces. We are causing a shift in social forces and new agendas will emerge. The SLFP did not have an agenda to defeat the LTTE. That agenda was formulated by the JHU.
Q: You were able to do that within the UPFA coalition. But, if you look at the allies of the UNP, they are the TNA, the SLMC and Mano Ganesan’s Democratic People’s Front. The UNP is basing its hopes on being able to win a large majority of the minority vote. If you dump Mahinda Rajapaksa and join the UNP bandwagon, the TNA and the SLMC will be your fellow travellers. Don’t you think you will face the same fate as Gen. Sarath Fonseka in such an eventuality?
A: We are going to build a broad people’s movement. What we have today is in ideological terms a UNP government and it differs from Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP only on the ethnic issue. This government is even more UNP than the real UNP itself! The SLFP didn’t have a position on the ethnic issue. The President himself never expressed any views on this matter. We made the agenda and he adopted it.
Q: You may have been able to influence matters in the UPFA but what guarantee do you have that you will be able to do the same within a UNP-led coalition? To the UNP, the votes brought in by the TNA, The SLMC will be much more important than any votes that the JHU may bring in. You were able to influence Mahinda Rajapaksa because he was not dependent on a minority vote base. You will not be able to wield any influence with the UNP as far as the direction of their policy is concerned. You will be useful to them during election time. But, what happens if they make use of you now and discard you later?
A: We are thinking outside the traditional political framework. What we are aiming at is to build a broad mass front made up of thinking patriotic people. In the process we may be able to counteract the influence of the Tamil and Muslim parties.
Since the conclusion of the war we have not been able to put in place a system to win over the Tamil people. We were not able to give people like V. Anandasangaree their due place. I once personally told Gotabhaya Rajapaksa not to allow India to build houses in the North because it was doing that for a political reason. I suggested that the 10,000 Buddhist temples in the country undertake to build one house each in the north as that would send a different message to the Tamil people. We were not able to implement a programmes like that.
Q: Let us assume for a moment that your project succeeds and the government is defeated. Foreign powers are said to be trying to topple the Rajapaksa government and to bring into power a government more amenable to their wishes. This is obviously due to the strategic importance of Sri Lanka in the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. What is the guarantee that you will give to the people of this country that once you topple the Rajapaksa regime, the Western powers will not be able to do as they wish in this country, and that under a different government there will be no local or international war crimes inquiries against the Sri Lankan military and political leaders?
A: It was we who stood steadfastly against foreign intervention, not the leading figures of the SLFP. International encirclement will succeed only in a country with a corrupt leader and in situations where there is no transparency in financial matters or unity within the ruling coalition. Our first option will be to bring as much pressure on this government as possible and to get it onto the correct path. Leading members of the SLFP have told us that they will support us. We derive our strength from the SLFP not the UNP.