A day before today’s presidential election and surrounded by swarms of noisy supporters in his office, candidate of the opposition, Maithripala Sirisena, who is challenging incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, spoke exclusively to Padma Rao Sundarji for the Hindustan Times through his media advisor.
Q: For decades and till just two months ago when you crossed over to the opposition the day after preponed presidential elections were announced, you were one of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most trusted advisors and a member of his cabinet. You are being called a ‘traitor’ by the ruling regime. Why did you take so long to lay down your portfolio as health minister and leave?
A: The fact that I did so in November is of no significance. For long, I have been telling Mr Rajapaksa that we urgently need reforms, that we must abolish the executive presidency, that it has become a Rajapaksa ‘family firm’, an autocratic regime. I emphasized over and over again that this country needs democratic rule. But my requests were ignored, neglected and discarded. This is the only reason I had to take this decision. Few people know this: even before the crossover, I had written a secret letter to Rajapaksa without releasing it to the media. I urged him not to bring the elections forward as he has done. I warned him that it may create a dangerous situation. I pointed out that he still had two years to go as president and that he could use those to introduce reforms. But even that letter was ignored. By that time, various other parties had come together and were looking for a ‘common candidate’ to run against Rajapaksa. I decided to offer my services for that role.
Q: But it is a ‘rainbow’coalition that you have cobbled together: one that is bound to lie in shreds within months.
A: There is absolutely no danger of that. That is a non-issue. We have been witnessing such ‘rainbow’ coalitions for years. Take 2005. Rajapaksa’s own coalition had the Sinhalese nationalist parties JVP and JHU…
Q: Sure, but not Tamil nationalist parties like yours. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is supporting you. By doing that, they are supporting Sinhalese nationalists within the coalition. Surely an absurdity?
A: I am glad you bring up that point. Please note: this is the first time that the larger Tamil parties are coming into any coalition containing Sinhalese parties. That is the beauty of the whole thing ! Look at the significance of it. We needed a nation-building project which can’t happen unless all factions come together and now –this is precisely that dream coming true. It is this diversity that will ensure success. We consider ourselves blessed to have this disparity. If Sri Lankan voters were uncomfortable about it, they would have expressed resentment weeks ago. But no such thing has happened. On the contrary, there is a big surge to vote for me.
Q: From the Indian point of view, there are two, important issues – the speedy implementation of the India-authored 13th Amendment (which envisages greater rights and self-rule for the Tamil provinces) and your growing relations with, and concessions to China in the geo-politically sensitive Indian Ocean region. Respond to the amendment first. Will it be in place soon ?
A: My manifesto has intentionally refrained from talking about the 13th Amendment. This election is not focussing on the ethnic question. This is only about restoring democracy. Once that is done, there will a healthier room and space to discuss the Tamil issue. All Sinhalese and national parties are in unanimous agreement over this initial goal. Rajapaksa was never able to achieve this kind of consensus.
Q: But the Tamils want the army out of the North. And you just made it clear that if you win, you, like Rajapaksa, will never withdraw it.
A: Sure. But I will ensure that the army will exit civil administration altogether and give local police and civil servants that task. I only said that existing army cantonments like at Palali in Jaffna will not be shut down. And of course I will act totally in consonance with the security apparatus and our generals. The point is, all democratic Tamil parties of the TNA are backing me right now.
Q Not quite. Two TNA members – Ananti Sashitharan (wife of a former LTTE cadre) and the TNA’s youth wing leader are not.
A : Who are they? They sound like they are still with the LTTE!
Q: Ananthi is an elected Northern Province councillor of the TNA – which is supporting you. She assists the CM, CV Wigneswaran.
A: Well, I can tell you that KP (the LTTE’s former arms procurer, who now lives in Killinochchi)and others may still sympathetic to the LTTE and yet, Rajapaksa has been hobnobbing with them. Whoever does not approve of those double-standards is with me. With us and for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka, truly democratic Tamils will have their own government. So this is the great advantage in voting us.
Q: You have also suggested that your policy towards China will be less indulgent than that of Rajapaksa. India is watching closely, wary of China’s sprawl in the Indian Ocean. What specific assurance can you give India in this regard?
A: We will revert to the old, non-aligned policy as adopted by the Bandaranaikes decades ago. Rajapaksa ignored that policy. India is our first, main concern. But we are not against Chinese investment either. We will maintain good relations with China too. The problem is that in the name of development, some people made colossal money themselves by robbing and crushing this country. That will be stopped immediately. We want equally good relations with both China and India.