Mr. Harshana Nanayakkara is an outspoken lawyer who believes an honest, just and well-planned form of governance is key to developing Sri Lanka. To achieve this, he and his colleagues at the National Intellectuals’ Organization (NIO) have launched an ambitious programme to formulate a National Plan to seek long-term solutions to the social, political and economic issues facing the people of Sri Lanka. Mr. Nanayakkara comes from a well-known family, and is the son of film-maker Yasapalitha Nanayakkara and the nephew of Vasudeva and Hemakumara Nanayakkara, who have been prominent and somewhat controversial figures in national politics. Mr. Nanayakkara, who is also with ‘Lawyers for Democracy’, spoke to Daily Mirror on Sri Lanka’s current political crisis, and NIOs plans to implement their programme, and the groups and leaders they hope to work with to achieve their goals.
- Our leaders never had long-term plans
- Our food security is at stake
- Trade agreements must benefit the country
- The major parties have businessmen and oligarchs backing them
- We want fair and just wealth distribution
- For some, the JVP is not “posh” enough
- We stand for racial unity and harmony
- 42 percent of the population earns under two dollars a day
- A super hero cannot magically uplift the economy
Q: You recently said that politicians use the Constitution like toilet paper. Why did you make such a hard-hitting statement?
The Constitution is our supreme law. All Public Servants and tri-forces members pledge to uphold it. Even the president is under obligation to uphold it. It’s our shared morality. It reflects who we are. President J.R Jayawardane didn’t become Executive President through an election. He used his Parliamentary majority to acquire these amazing powers. But the 19th Amendment curtailed these undemocratic powers and decentralized them to Parliament.
Whenever our politicians do anything immoral or wrong, they seek loopholes in the Constitution to justify their acts. They interpret the country’s supreme law to justify their wrongdoings. This is why I said they use the pages of the Constitution to wipe the mess they’ve made through their wrong deeds.
Q: But haven’t successive governments violated the Constitution since Independence? Section 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution which sought to protect minorities was disregarded. So were the 13th and 17th Amendments of the current Constitution. What is so significant about this moment?
Yes, every ruler tried to bend, twist, or dig a hole in the Constitution to suit their needs. And that’s wrong. But this is the first time the entire Constitution has been thrown into the dustbin. President Sirisena doesn’t even need the Constitution. He can run with a Gazette. The removal of the Prime Minister (PM) was unlawful and wrong. There’s no provision to dissolve Parliament unless four-and-a-half years has lapsed or two-thirds of Parliament agrees to it. That’s the spirit of the 19th Amendment. We stand for the rule-of-law and democracy. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government introduced the 19th Amendment against the draconian powers of the Executive. That doesn’t mean I endorse them. They flouted their mandate, and I would like to see their end.
But thus far, governments had changed through elections or a shifting of heads in Parliament. This is the first time a government was overthrown through a conspiracy. In any other country there would have been a bloodbath. It almost happened here. Two people died in the Petroleum Corporation clash.
Q: You mention upholding democracy and ensuring the rule-of-law. Weren’t those, along with ending corruption, the main slogans in the 2015 January 8th campaign? In your estimate, where did things go wrong, and what were the warning signs?
In January 2015, the people were tired of the abuse of power and the undemocratic actions of the previous regime. They wanted corruption to end, for thieves to be caught, and for new leaders not to repeat the same crimes. People never asked for jobs or cheaper bread. They wanted democracy, rule-of-law and action against criminals. But the government failed miserably on these fronts.
For three-and-a-half years no cases were filed, or anyone locked up. Ranil Wickremesinghe deliberately scuttled arresting people from the previous regime. In the Siriliya case, Shiranthi Rajapaksa went to the Speaker’s house to make a statement. And Cabinet decided to drop inquiries because it involved the former First Lady.
After the bond case, Ranil is no longer “Mr. Clean”. He brought in Arjuna Mahendran, and defended him. Even after the recent unlawful regime change, no one from the opposing camp is accusing him of the bond scam. Even the President, who insulted the LGBT community with the ‘samanalaya’ (butterfly) comment, didn’t mention this.
The early warnings were when members of the previous regime were invited into the government. The organisation ‘Aluth Parapura’ was assaulted on the campaign trail, but Sirisena gave positions to the perpetrators. They were never committed to their mandate.
Q: You say people didn’t want jobs, or bread. But weren’t economic issues, like the fuel pricing mechanism and the rising cost of living, a cause for the growing unpopularity of the Yahapalana government?
The main promises from the platform were about ending corruption and arresting criminals. Of course there are economic concerns. But they were not central to the government change. Under this government too prices will rise. Their economic vision is like that of a gambler, waking up each day and deciding what to sell. Did the Yahapalana government open a single factory? Where are the jobs they promised?
According to the Central Bank (CBSL), in 2017 we exported around 10 billion dollars in goods and services, including remittances from migrant workers, and tea and rubber exports. In return, we imported goods worth 20 billion dollars. That’s a trade deficit of 100 percent. We are not manufacturing what we can locally. The ocean surrounds us, but our tinned-fish is from Argentina and Chile. We even import dried fish. Our food security is at stake.
Up to 1977, our economy could be sustained on tea, rubber and coconut. Since then, with the open economy and globalization, the economy expanded. But we never expanded. For example, when IT first came in the 1960s and 1970s, India trained its IT professionals. But we introduced IT as an A’ Level subject only in 2014. We lack economic vision.
Q: The global economy is experiencing the effects of the 2008 financial crash, and the rise of China. This has led to a power struggle between the US and China. In national politics, Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen as being pro-China, and Ranil Wickremesinghe as being pro-US.
I believe both of them are pro-China now (laughs).
Q: My question is, how can a small country like Sri Lanka handle this US-China power struggle within a complex and tumultuous global economy?
We have willingly offered ourselves to be a victim of this power struggle, by not having a national plan or vision. In this global age, countries depend on each other. Having a closed economy is not the answer. An open economy is required. It’s fine to enter into international trade agreements, but they must benefit the country.
I recently read that the country has lost 19,000 million dollars due to corruption and theft. With no money to produce food, we are forever dependent on the world market. Certain essential items, like fuel, medicine and vehicles, must be imported. But there are many items that can be produced locally. The major parties have businessmen and oligarchs backing them. So the economy functions to benefit them, and not the public. It’s not the fault of China or America. The economy must be able to withstand the shocks of world prices. That can be achieved only through strengthening the local economy.
We are 70 percent dependent on agriculture. So we need proper technology to increase the yield. We get only 40 - 45 bushels of paddy per acre, but Japan gets 100 bushels. We must research into seeds that can withstand droughts and floods.
There are global contenders for our resources, and if careless, we can become a dumping ground for inferior goods. Trade agreements must be re-drafted to develop our local economy. Our biggest resource is our people. They must be educated. Instead of exporting domestic workers, we should export doctors and engineers. That will bring us more value.
Unless people change how they think, we cannot change the governments we get
Q: Certain groups have advocated building a new political movement. Even you, as a member of the National Intellectuals’ Organization (NIO), have gone on record saying this.
Q: What do you intend when you say “we must build a new political movement”?
The people are tired of politics. Though governments change, they feel all politicians are the same. Since 1948, only a few families have ruled this country. The Bandaranaikes’ Horagolla Walauwa ruled for 15-20 years, the Senanayakes’ Botale Walauwa ruled for 10-15 years. Then the Kollupitya Walauwa of Jayawardane and Wickremesinghe ruled us, and finally the Rajapaksas’ Medamulana Walauwa. So we have been ruled according to the whims of a few aristocratic families.
Our leaders never had long-term plans. They did the minimum to satisfy people, and secure their votes. All economic development was done for this limited purpose.
Look at our political culture. You saw how MPs’ behaved in Parliament recently. Some say we must elect only educated people. But among the unruly MPs were doctors and lawyers. It’s decency that matters, not education.
So, our political culture is on default mode – that is, politicians will stay and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is the mindset the NIO wants to change. Unless people change how they think, we cannot change the governments we get.
The NIO has set up several committees comprising academics, professionals and Public Servants into areas like agriculture, art, sport, religion, environment, and so on. Through island-wide workshops, we have gathered information from farmers and such, who’s knowledge isn’t in books or labs. Through this process we have identified societal issues that require long-term solutions. This National Policy document will be out in January, and it will act as a blueprint for development. NIO’s role is to facilitate a new political force devoid of corrupt and dishonest individuals, who will give us the necessary political leadership.
We want fair and just wealth distribution. We have enough national wealth, but it’s not distributed fairly. We are taxed 30-40 percent through indirect taxation. Leaders steal from the Treasury to indulge in luxuries, and the public pays through taxes. People will pay taxes if they get proper services. Countries like Denmark have the highest tax rates, but they get free education, good public transport, and free medicine.
Q: But is it fair to compare a former colonized country like Sri Lanka with a struggling economy, to a wealthy European country like Denmark?
If considering the detail of comparison, then it’s unfair. But I say they (Denmark) developed because there’s no corruption. Even if you compare resources, perhaps we are far better. It’s just that we aren’t utilizing them. Instead we sell them.
The Hambantota port was originally planned as a service port. But thanks to China it became a loading-unloading terminal. Our leaders accepted the loan, and China gave it knowing we cannot repay it. That’s the Chinese system.
Q: You recently spoke on stage at the JVP rally in Nugegoda.
Yes I did.
Q: The JVP has a track record of supporting the major parties at different times. They also have a history of violence. What is your rationale for supporting the JVP? Aren’t they also very much to blame for the current situation?
You can blame them for violence in 1971 and 1988-89. Even my father’s life was under threat in 1988-89. But since then, the only party that has not even thrown a stone, or broken a traffic law, is the JVP. There are no allegations of corruption against them. Their six MPs are extremely disciplined and efficient. At the last Local Government (LG) elections they got over 400 members. We see news of Pohottuwa and UNP LG members stealing, or harassing women, or involved in other crimes. But none of the 400-plus JVP members are accused of such wrongdoings. That’s due to the discipline set by the party leadership.
The British ruled us for 200 years, and they did more damage than the JVP. But we still speak in English, and wear coat and tie. The past is the past. If they have changed for the better, especially when faced with such a political culture, then they are the option. That’s why I got on the JVP stage. They’re not corrupt. They are honest and have a vision. They have a plan.
Q: But they don’t have much electoral support.
As I told you, people must change how they think. We tend to support leaders from aristocratic backgrounds. For some, the JVP is not “posh” enough. And for others, they simply don’t get the JVP’s message.
Remember, 42 percent of the population earns under two dollars a day. These people don’t have time to follow the news or discuss things over a cup of tea. They are content if someone gives them a cement bag, or some galvanized roofing sheets. This poverty and ignorance is being shamelessly exploited by the main parties. Even ‘Gamperaliya’ was about appeasing the public through handouts.
The JVP doesn’t have money to buy people. So it is difficult for them to get electoral backing. But things are changing fast. We see it at the ground level. And at the next election we will answer your question very affirmatively.
Q: You highlight how economic conditions, and other social and cultural factors, influence people’s voting habits. But another aspect of our culture is that of nationalism, be it Sinhala or Tamil nationalism. How much has nationalism impacted our political culture?
You say nationalism. I would say racism. Being nationalist is a good thing. It means you love your country, and you want to serve it. Being racist is the problem. And it’s relevant to both sides - the south and north.
And politicians use people’s racial and nationalistic feelings for political gain. The master of this art is Mahinda Rajapaksa. I don’t think Ranil can come even close to him in that regard (laughs). Each time something goes wrong for Mahinda, we hear the “koti nagitinawo” (the Tigers are rising) outcry. They thrive on that.
This is why the Pohottuwa camp will not be able to achieve anything in this country. They operate by raising racial and nationalistic feelings within a Buddhist framework. But a proper Buddhist would never judge anyone by their race, caste or creed. The Buddha preached about this in the Wasala Suthraya. You have similar types like Mr. Vigneswaran in the north who is demanding federalism. But the TNA is ready to compromise for a unitary state.
This country cannot be taken an inch forward if we think on racial and religious lines. The political movement the NIO seeks to create will not exploit racial or religious tensions to gain power. Even the JVP will be a component of it, and not the sole authority. We stand for racial unity and harmony. We will fight against racist, nationalist and extremist religious views from either side.
Q: There was a time when class politics featured prominently in our political discourse. This was later replaced by nationalistic politics. Today we hardly hear the term ‘working-class’. Why is the working-class not being addressed in contemporary politics?
It is happening. But it depends on our perception of the working-class. People give various meanings to ideas of socialism, capitalism and the working-class. The socialism of 1917 Russia does not exist today.
Before 1977, MPs’ financial stability was not dependent on politics. Leaders like D.S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike and even J.R. Jayawardane sold their private property to serve the public. The land-owning aristocrats could do this. At that time, the division between the working-class and the aristocracy was clear.
But after 1977 there was a massive influx of the common man into Parliament. They were not land-owning aristocracy. This was a good thing, but it also changed our political culture. The new leaders wanted to imitate their aristocratic predecessors. They wanted to own elephants and horses. The aristocracy faded away, and was replaced by new-rich oligarchs. That’s when corruption began.
Even now there’s a working-class. But they’re not only the factory worker, as commonly perceived. Even the white-collar worker is a worker. People have to either sell their labour, or their mind, to live. So in that sense there’s a massive working-class. So yes, there is a division, and the NIO has taken this into consideration. And the JVP has always sided with the working-class.
Q: You have given us an analysis from your perspective. But what solutions do you propose?
As I said earlier, the NIO is compiling a document to be released in January, which addresses different subject areas and provides solutions for them. But that plan must be put into action. Whatever system we put on paper, be it socialism, capitalism, or mixed-economy, the most important thing is the individuals who run it.
Our country is failing mainly due to ongoing massive-scale corruption. The Auditor General has said it would take eight years to figure out how much we are in debt, and how to come out of this abyss.
We can’t expect a super hero to magically uplift the economy in two years. We need honest policies, and workable actions. And above all honest people. Our action plan is open to everybody, not just the JVP. We urge all citizens to join us. With honest people, within the first five years we can set the country on the right track and ease many burdens.
But, contrary to expectations, all problems cannot be fixed in five years. Some expect that. So they want a dictator. You need, not just one person, but a team of efficient, honest people with a plan. You need a good team. And that’s why we’re fond of the JVP. It’s not a party of heroes. It’s a party made up of a team.