“About three years ago, at a private meeting at the Central Bank Maithreepala Sirisena was the first person to say that there are questions about the way the roads are being built. He said there was a lot of waste going on. I think that was very brave of him.”
University don turned parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinghe was in the news recently for having crossed over from the government to the opposition and for having appeared on Al Jazeera with the head of the Global Tamil Forum Suren Surenthiran where he made some utterances that have been given various interpretations. In this interview, he speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about his Al Jazeera interview, and his support for Maithreepala Sirisena.
Q. You seem to have ruffled feathers in Colombo with your interview on Al Jazeera. I have heard you (and many other people) saying much worse things about the Rajapaksas. It would appear that the reason for people to be upset about what you said would be that you seemed to be telling Surenthiran that what he was saying (about Rajapaksa being taken to the International Criminal Court like Charles Taylor or Milosevic after he loses the election) was ‘precisely the kind of nonsense that will lead to an undesirable result at this election’. You also said that the GTF should have the sense not to try to interfere in this election ‘because they will pervert it’. That may have been interpreted as your telling Surenthiran not to say such things because his statements will skew the election result in favour of the government and defeat the ‘common goal’.
A. I said that in direct contradiction to what Suren Srenthiran was saying. When I said that I believe the army fought a very good war both Surenthiran and the lady doing the interview started shouting at me to which I responded by saying that ‘I am not concerned about the prejudices of the international community’. I also said that at the rate the government is going our forces will suffer if Mahinda Rajapaksa is re-elected because Mahinda Rajapksa’s foreign minister has utterly betrayed the record of our forces. No answers have been made to the allegations made against us, there have been blanket denials, and there has been no analysis to show that the allegations made are false. Only I have done that. Mahinda Rajapaksa says that I nodded my head to what Suren Surentiran said about taking him to the Hague after the election. But I have said very clearly that there is absolutely no case (against Sri Lanka).
Q. Could this irritation be because you were considered a friend of the family and even appointed as a national list MP? In such a context some of the things you said may be quite hurtful. Such as for example saying that “there is a dangerous collection of people around him (the president) who are treating him as a cash cow” and they have “blockaded him from the reality of what is going on in the country and they let him out of this fortress only in order to use him.”
A. I have been saying this sort of thing to him before. And about being grateful to be a national list MP, I think the boot is on the other foot if I may say so. I was offered a couple of ambassadorships but I turned them down because I could not leave my father who was growing older. Then I was offered the position of head of the Peace Secretariat which I never asked for. I accepted it because it was a challenge and I think I did a very good job and I think gratitude is owed to me and it may be because of that that I was appointed to parliament. When G. L.Peiris didn’t want to use me, he (the president) used my services to go abroad to deal with the channel 4 challenge. I feel very strongly that we fought a good war and I was very happy to defend our people in that situation. He asked me to go to Geneva three times, but I said I couldn’t because I found the whole thing was a mess.
Q. Would you say that you were more in your element as the head of the Peace Secretariat and the Secretary of the Disaster Management and Human Rights Ministry than as a parliamentarian?
A. No. I think I did an excellent job then and I would have liked the Peace Secretariat to continue but it was closed down by Basil. I spoke to the president about turning it into a Reconciliation Commission and he told me subsequently that it was a big mistake to close it down. But Basil Rajapaksa told me not to try to persuade the president to keep it going. I think they felt it was a threat. I think they were also a little worried about Mahinda Samarasinghe. If you remember, aid was coordinated under Mahinda Samarasinghe during the war through the Coordinating Committee for Humanitarian Aid (CCHA). One day, I got this letter instructing me to inform my minister that aid should be channelled only through the presidential task force. That didn’t matter if Basil had the experience. He had no experience of aid. Basil has tunnel vision. I have kept telling the president that.
Q. You said that the government has been rattled by Maithreepala Sirisena coming forward as the common candidate. Why do you think that a colourless individual like Sirisena would be able to do what a war hero like Fonseka failed to do?
A. Your question is not very objectively phrased. Firstly Maithreepala Sirisena is not colourless. He has had a strong reputation in the party for honesty. I had written to the president asking him to appoint a senior SLFP member as prime minister.
Q. Well, there is a senior SLFP member as prime minister.
A. Everyone knows that D. M. Jayaratne is no longer able to function as a prime minister. He was given the position as a reward for longer service. The other three, Maithreepala Sirisena, Susil Premajayantha and Nimal Siripala de Silva are all able but Dayan told me that six months ago, he had told the president that the pick of the three was Maithreepala Sirisena.
Q. I would see D.M Jayaratne and Maithreepala Sirisena as cast in the same mould. They are both harmless individuals who don’t have any significant achievements to their credit and are claiming the prime ministership only due to seniority. But, Susil Premajayantha and Nimal Siripala de Silva are different. So what’s special about Sirisena?
A. His reputation for honesty is pretty strong. About three years ago, at a private meeting at the Central Bank Maithreepala Sirisena was the first person to say that there were questions about the way the roads were being built. He said there was a lot of waste going on. I think that was very brave of him. He is not flamboyant but I think the country does not need a flamboyant leader at this stage.
Q. Do you honestly think that Maithreepala Sirisena can harness the entire UNP vote? What we see here is a little group forming outside the UNP.
A. That is the whole point. He is not a UNP candidate.
Q. How can a non-UNP candidate harness the entire UNP vote, when everyone was saying that even Ranil can’t get the entire UNP vote without Sajith’s help?
A. You are asking me how he can harness the UNP vote? The answer to that is that the UNP has to do that. The UNP obviously decided that he was the best possible hope for winning the election. The whole point in Maithreepala Sirisena’s candidacy is that he is not a UNP candidate. He is a common candidate. It is particularly important that the people who came from the SLFP don’t join the UNP. Because of the people who have hijacked him Mahinda Rajapaksa is no longer a centrist leader. If Mahinda Rajapaksa is defeated which I hope will happen, I think the party will rally around Maithreepala Sirisena so I think it will be wrong for people to join the UNP.
Q. What you are saying is that if Maithreepala Sirsena wins, the SLFP will rally around him?
A. Not all of it, but enough. But I think the UNP will still be the largest party and I think Ranil Wickremesinghe should be the prime minister.
Q. But basically in the event of Sirisena’s victory, the UNP will be out on its rear end again?
A. No it won’t because Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the prime minister and in every sense Ranil should be the PM because he has a lot of experience and we need much more economic sanity than we have had in the last few years. In that sense I don’t think there is anyone in the SLFP who will deserve the position of prime minister.
Q. What about the presence of Chandrika Kumaratunga in this set up? Obviously her presence is causing some disquiet within the UNP.
A. I have not noticed that at all in the UNP people that I have spoken to. Possibly Mr Tissa Attanayake felt that way and he has left. Chandrika has also made it very clear that she does not want any role for herself.
Q. Don’t you think she should apologise to all UNPers and to Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular for what she did when she was in power?
A. You have to remember that Chandrika Kumaratunga became president in 1994 after what was systematic abuse of the SLFP including the removal of her mother’s civic rights followed by the referendum which was won by thuggery. Putting Vijaya Kumaratunga in jail in 1982 was also totally unacceptable.
Q. Well Chandrika was not second to anyone in that respect; take the Wayamba election of 1999.
A. At the Wayamba elections there was a lot of violence, but this is not something that Ranil Wickremesinghe would get morally upset about. Systematic state violence was really begun by the UNP.