In an interview, Rural Development Minister S.B. Dissanayake expressed his views on topical political issues and developments as well as the SLFP’s plans for the future. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
"The SLFP is sure to suffer defeat if Mahinda is fielded as the prime ministerial candidate. Because Mahinda’s candidacy will alienate all minority parties from the SLFP."
"The 5.8 vote Mahinda won at the election has dropped to 4.8 now. It is a section of this electorate that raises the “We want Mahinda!” cry. But they are not a force powerful enough to take Mahinda back to power"
"We are going to contest as an undivided SLFP. We hope to team up with more political parties and groups in addition to the UPFA constituents President Sirisena said that Mahinda should not be fielded as a candidate. But we need his support of Namal Rajapaksa and our Speaker Chamal Rajapakasa as well"
QHow is it that you have started writing kele pattara (scurrilous booklets)?
What you are referring to is not a kele pattaraya. It is a publication brought out through the collective effort of several ministers.
QBut UFPA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha described it as a kele pattaraya.
That is his personal opinion. Several ministers went through the script before sending it to the press. It is possible that Susil had no occasion to read it. We made available a typescript of the booklet to President Maithripala Sirisena too before sending it to the press. Technically it is a booklet brought out by his media division.
QBut the SLFP has no such media division?
I think there is a media officer functioning in our party. In fact, there is a team in the SLFP handling media affairs. Susil is the UPFA general secretary.
QSLFP General Secretary Anura Yapa also said he knew nothing about the booklet?
Thilanga Sumathipala was also present at the media briefing where Anura Yapa said that he knew nothing about it. But Thilanga admitted that it was a party publication. I remember we sent a copy of it to Anura Yapa also before sending it to the Press. If he says that he didn’t see it, we have to accept his word. I am the author of the booklet. It was written with the knowledge of our party leader President Sirisena.
QThere is yet another booklet on the way?
Yes. It is being written now.
QThis issue got aggravated to such an extent, the groundwork has already been laid for the removal of both Susil and Anura Yapa from their general secretary posts?
I don’t say that they have done any wrong. If they didn’t know, they had to say that they didn’t know. To say that they are going to be removed from their posts is a falsehood.
QSusil Premajayantha took a swipe at you at that media briefing.
Yes, he did. I don’t hold that against him. He took to task both Maithri and me. He said that SB once took twenty along with him to make Ranil the PM and later Maithri appointed Ranil as the PM after becoming the president. These are different opinions and we should not get ruffled over them.
QHow do you look at the defeat the party suffered at the January 8 presidential poll?
Yes. We lost the election. We have done our analysis. We didn’t poll the minority religious vote to the extent we did at previous elections. Mahinda did not receive even 5 per cent of the Muslim vote polled. And the polling rate of the registered Muslim voters was as high as 85 per cent. We didn’t receive Hindu votes either. Mahinda believed that he could muster about 65 per cent of the Sinhala Buddhist vote. I told him that he would win if he could garner at least 63 per cent of the Sinhala Buddhist vote. The 65 per cent of the Roman Catholic vote Mahinda polled in 2010 had come down to about 30 per cent at the last election. Now let us examine how Maithri polled 6.2 million votes. This figure is made up of about 3.4 million UNP votes, one million from religious and ethnic minorities, 600,000 from minority political parties like the JHU, DP led Sarath Fonseka and the JVP and another 1.2 million votes from a section of the electorate which cannot be identified with any of the aforesaid parties or groupings.
QWhy did they vote for Maithri?
That’s a good question. Government employees including those in the police and security forces are hardly influenced by party organisers at the periphery. They are the people highly sensitive to issues such as nepotism, corruption, abuse and misuse of state resources and the dictatorial behaviour of a head of state. And they voted against the regime in power.
QDo you think that the Opposition was justified in using these issues as the main planks of their political platforms at the last presidential election?
The opposition was justified in campaigning on these issues. Abuse and misuse of state resources carried out on a massive scale at that time is a fact that none can deny. Catering for sumptuous meals at the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat and Temple Trees were done by 5-star hotels in the city. Weren’t these repasts not a waste of public funds? Is it not a waste of public funds to provide helicopter rides to all family members at public expense? Was there any justification for making foreign visits with a 300-400 strong- entourage in tandem?
QBut you kept mum when public funds were being wasted on such a massive scale?
When you are in a government you can criticise such activity within it. You cannot take up these matters at forums outside. When you are playing an active role in a party like the SLFP or in a government for that matter, you cannot openly discuss internal issues.
QMaithripala Sirisena who functioned as the general secretary of the SLFP quit the party and is the president of the country today. You also quit the party when you were functioning as the party secretary. But you are still a minister?
I nursed no such high ambition when I quit that government. Certain issues influenced my decision to leave that government.
QWhat is your political identity today?
I am a member of the SLFP.
QNow the party is virtually split into two. Which camp do you belong to? Maithri or Mahinda?
True, there are two stances. But I don’t think it will lead to a split in the party.
QYou concede that there are two stances. Which stance do you subscribe to?
The stance of the SLFP as a political party.
QThat means you are with Maithri?
You may say so. But I must emphasise that I am with the SLFP.
QThere is a school of thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa should be nominated as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP. Do you subscribe to this thinking?
This thinking is quite wrong. The SLFP is sure to suffer defeat if Mahinda is fielded as the prime ministerial candidate. Because Mahinda’s candidacy will alienate all minority parties from the SLFP. Besides, it will distance from the SLFP the 1.2 million voters I referred to earlier.The UNP will win a landslide in such a scenario. First we have to remember we are to enter the fray this time round as a party carrying a scar of defeat. Our party leader was the leader of the country, but he lost the election. The defeat we suffered has already placed us at a disadvantage. We are functioning as ministers of the present government people look upon as a UNP government.
QIf that is the reality, why did you accept office in this government?
We joined this government with certain national objectives in view.
QHave you attained these objectives?
We are in the process of achieving our objectives. If we didn’t join the government, the 19th Amendment would not have seen the light of the day – India and the EU would not have come forward to help us to sort out the Geneva problem; even making a bid to present the 20th Amendment would not have been possible. However, still people in the country look on this as a UNP government. We have a president in office who can wipe out the disadvantage the party suffered at the presidential poll. We have to remember that Thondaman, Douglas Devananda, Karuna Amman, Pillayan, Athaulla and Hisbullah backed Mahinda at the last election. Now they are willing to join an alliance sans Mahinda. LSSP and CP too have taken up the same position. We can’t win the general election without the support of such an alliance representing a broad section of the political spectrum.
QThere is an opinion that has gained wide acceptance that the SLFP cannot win without Mahinda?
There is justification for that opinion. Of course, that opinion is confined to the SLFPers. This opinion originates from SLFPers at village level. Mahinda was the candidate they backed. And Maithri is the person who defeated Mahinda whom they supported. Therefore, as far as SLFPers are concerned Maithri represents the rival who defeated the candidate they worked for. The 5.8 vote Mahinda won at the election has dropped to 4.8 now. It is a section of this electorate that raises the “We want Mahinda!” cry. But they are not a force powerful enough to take Mahinda back to power.
QDo you indirectly say that the SLFP cannot win without Mahinda?
No. I don’t say that. Of course, there are several factors that work in favour of Mahinda. He takes the credit for liberating the country from terrorism. People are grateful to him for that. No country, no world power has so far succeeded in vanquishing militarily any extremist group that took up arms for the sake of language, religion, culture or territorial integrity. Who mostly benefited from the defeat of the LTTE? Tamils in the North. . But Mahinda failed to win the hearts and minds of these Tamil people. We went out of the way to antagonize the Muslims. Mahinda and his family members had to take the blame for that. We incurred the displeasure of India for no valid reason. Maithri has performed a remarkable feat: he has saved the country from an impending calamity of international dimensions. It’s the country’s good fortune that Maithri was elected president of the country. India stands with us today. So do the EU and the US. Even the UN is with us today. There is no need for Mahinda to enter the fray to ensure our victory at the coming election.
QYou have changed the direction of your reasoning?
Suppose Mahinda was re-elected. The report containing war crime charges would be presented at the UNHRC sessions come March this year. These charges are based on submissions made by the pro- LTTE diaspora. Mahinda Rajapaksa would immediately reject the report. What would be the possible outcome? They would not take military action against us, but would slap economic sanctions. They are powerful countries; if economic sanctions are slapped on our country, our economy would soon collapse. We are saved from such a frightening eventuality thanks to Maithripala Sirisena. He has already sorted out differences with India, the EU and the UNHRC.
QWhat about the suspicion that we may have to pay a heavy price for the diplomatic moves made in that regard?
There is no justification for that line of thinking. There would not be a compulsion to disown the North. Nor would there be an intervention for a North- East merger.
QHow do you propose to face the coming general election?
We are going to contest as an undivided SLFP. We hope to team up with more political parties and groups in addition to the UPFA constituents.
QWithout Mahinda Rajapaksa?
President Sirisena said that Mahinda should not be fielded as a candidate. But we need the support of Namal Rajapaksa and our Speaker Chamal Rajapakasa as well.
QYou served under Chandrika and later criticised her. You served under Ranil and criticised him too. You worked under Mahinda and you didn’t spare him either. Is this the typical SB style?
I didn’t criticise them when I was with them. I attacked them only after parting company with them. I left them because I had reason to find fault with them.
QRanil whom you disliked is the head of the Cabinet of which you are a member. Don’t you feel ill at ease?
Ranil is not the head of the Cabinet. I don’t feel uneasy because I am only being critical.
QIn the run up to the last presidential poll you said in public that Chandrika should be stripped naked. But isn’t it an irony now that you have to work with her?
You should not construe what I said in a literary sense. I used only a commonplace Sinhala idiom which meant exposing someone or showing up someone in her or his true colours.
QAre you on speaking terms with her now?
Well, so far I have not met her. I harbour no personal animosity towards Chandrika. I hold her in high esteem for her extraordinary talents and skills as well as her great human traits.
QCan you say when Parliament is to be dissolved?
There is an ongoing effort to get the 20th Amendment passed in Parliament. But there is leg pulling by the UNP. The attitude of the JVP is not different either. The SLMC opposes it just to please the UNP. But the president is persistent in his effort to have the 20th Amendment passed in Parliament.We have to play by ear.