Former Fisheries Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has always cut a rebellious figure in the local political arena and this image was further boosted when he left the government on Friday to join the common opposition movement that has fielded SLFP stalwart Maithripala Sirisena as the much anticipated common candidate to contest against President Rajapaksa at the upcoming presidential polls. From believing President Rajapaksa was fit to win the Nobel Prize, what prompted Dr. Senaratne to abandon the government and pledge his support to a candidate competing against President Rajapaksa at the upcoming elections?
In a candid interview with , Dr. Senaratne spoke of his controversial decision and the changes he envisions for the future of Sri Lanka under a new leadership.
Q What prompted you to make this controversial move?
I have, and will always stand for my policies. Even while being a cabinet Minister, I openly voiced my opinion and ensured that I did not stray away from my policies. I have made a lot of controversial statements as a Cabinet Minister, that at one point the President asked me not to comment based on personal views as there was an election coming up. Still, I continued because I wished to remain firm on my beliefs.
Finally, it reached a point where we were compelled to make a drastic decision owing to what we stood for. So my decision to leave the government was only a policy matter and nothing personal because we have realised that our principles cannot be realised by remaining to be a part of this government.
Q What are the main points that created a clash between your policies and the direction in which the incumbent government is heading?
I have been opposed to the Executive Presidential system since 1978 and have been actively campaigning for its abolition since then. It is a semi-dictatorship and the present regime is not interested in scrapping it but have strengthened it instead.
I am also against the parliamentary system. We appointed Dinesh Gunawardena as the Chairman of a Committee during the UNP government that made recommendations to implement changes to the existing parliamentary system. There is also a vital need to establish the independent commissions.
The other most important factor is, resolving the national issue. If we fail in this endeavour, there will be no future for this country. We have defeated terrorism but peace is yet to be achieved. Wars can be won militarily but not peace. Changes in the society should be implemented in a way that everyone can live as equal citizens in this country and retain their dignity.
Q But you were among the group of MPs that voted in favour of the 18th amendment that further strengthened the powers of the Executive Presidency?
That was a wrong decision I made at that time - not just me, even our leftist parties. At the time, I felt that it was only fair that the people be given the freedom to decide for how long they wanted a particular leader at the helm; instead of a legal document. But the way the incumbent President and his government have behaved during the second term indicates that this situation, if continued for a third term, would only be disastrous for the country.
Now I realise why in every part of the world where the Executive Presidential system is in place, a restriction has been imposed on the number of terms that a single individual can contest for presidency. A single individual should never be allowed to run a country for a third term.
"The main goals we hope to achieve are the abolition of the Executive Presidency, changes in the parliamentary system, establishment of independent commissions, media freedom and a stable, effective solution to the national question. "
Q Are you now a UNP-er or a SLFP-er?
I am still an SLFP-er. No one can sack me because the Secretary General of the party is with us.
Q But Minister Anura Yapa has already been appointed to that position?
They cannot take the Secretary General’s position from Maithripala Sirisena. He was appointed to that post at the last national conference. In order to appoint someone else, a conference should be held. Until then, he can continue as the Secretary General of the SLFP if he wishes to do so.
Q So you are saying the new appointments in the SLFP are a violation of the party constitution?
Yes they are!
Q Former Minister Sirisena spoke about having to deal with interferences and being restricted in performing his duties as a Minister during the press conference held to announce his candidacy. Did you face similar issues?
In my case there was not much of an interference because no one did and I never allowed it either. Even the President knows that he cannot interfere with my activities. But over 90% of the ministers complain of interferences to their ministries by the President and his family members that have resulted in them playing a restrictive role.
"It is not just my character that would be tarnished; they would try to harm me as well. That is the nature of the Executive Presidency and I have faced this wrath."
Q Why haven’t any of the Ministers voiced their concerns over such issues?
This is the status of politics in the country today. It is not simply the politicians, the entire society has been degenerated. There are so many Ministers in the present government who bear bigger grievances than us and have contemplated on crossing over. But when the time came for them to make the tough decision of leaving the government, they backed out because there is a lot to lose. Even in my case, I have lost my cabinet portfolio, the official bungalow, the fleet of vehicles, security etc. Also, the decision is not simply about you as you have to think of your family, your staff and your supporters. But as I said earlier, it is important to stand by your principles.
Q How is this new movement planning to gain the support of other opposition parties, particularly the minority parties?
Even a little while ago, a minority party leader spoke to me and said they have placed a lot of faith in me and praised me for my courageous decision. They know that when we work, we ensure that the interests of all communities are looked after. We are working with all the parties irrespective of their religious/ethnic affiliations in order to form the broadest people’s movement against this regime. We will isolate this government and shatter the UPFA coalition.
Q All coalition movements formed in Sri Lanka’s political history so far have collapsed. How will it be ensured that the same fate does not fall upon this new movement?
Whether the coalition collapses or not, the people have always benefitted through their formation. Since 1956, when the first coalition government was elected into power; the poor, downtrodden have been elevated from their plight and it has always led to a revolution in the society. But when the specific political goals of a particular coalition are achieved, the coalition collapses because their common goals have been realised - that is the nature of politics.
"There is no purpose in replying to people like Weerawansa, because today no one believes him. He is just fighting a battle of someone else, and has been made completely irrelevant in the local political sphere"
Q Addressing the media on Friday, you said that attempts would be made to assassinate the characters of those who left and various allegations would be made. What are you expecting?
It is not just my character they would try to tarnish, they would try to harm me as well. That is the nature of the Executive Presidency and I have faced this wrath. I have fought against Premadasa when he tried to harass and imprison me and thereafter during the government of Chandrika Kumaranatunga, I was assaulted, attacked and court cases were filed against me. Yet, I have continued my journey.
So, even though Mahinda Rajapaksa is a long-term friend of mine, he will have to resort to these tactics to ensure his own existence and what they have earned so far is secured. That is the type of politics that is being practised here in Sri Lanka.
Q Ms. Kumaranatunga on Friday expressed concerns about the safety of her life and of others involved with the new common opposition movement. Have you faced any issues in this regard so far?
By now my security has been withdrawn and I have only two officers. I spoke to a friend who has offered to provide me with private security. Likewise I have been forced to seek alternatives for transportation, housing etc. But this type of situation is again inevitable in politics.
"There are so many Ministers in the present government who bear bigger grievances than us and have contemplated on crossing over. "
Q Minister Wimal Weerawansa said on Friday, what Sarath Fonseka understands now after being the common candidate at the last polls, the new common candidate would come to realise by next year. What do you make of such comments?
There is no purpose in replying to people like Weerawansa, because today no one believes him. He is just fighting someone else’s battle, and has been made completely irrelevant in the local political sphere.
Q But are you not worried of any retaliation from the government?
We are ready to face any retaliation. If we managed to maintain our courage to leave the government, there is no issue as to why we cannot face from this point onwards.
"Now I realise why in every part of the world where the Executive Presidential system is in place, a restriction has been imposed on the number of terms that a single individual can contest for presidency."
Q Hours after the announcement of Presidential poll date, a UNP supporter was shot and some of your cut-outs had also been vandalised in the Maggona area. This new movement will be battling against one of the most powerful regimes that governed this country. Under such circumstances, is it realistic to expect free and fair polls?
As you have seen, without any preparation or organisation whatsoever, people celebrated this new movement in all parts of the country. It was a voluntary reaction and it will only grow bigger and move forward. That is the only security we have.
Every leader since 1956 tried to retain their power upon being elected but did not succeed. History teaches about countless examples of leaders who thought they would remain in power forever, and yet were forced to leave when the time came. The same logic applies to the incumbent President.
Q Have any of the Ministers contacted you since you left the government?
There are some more Ministers and MPs from the government who wish to join us. If not for the power and money this regime is heavily exploiting, many more would have joined us already. But even those who remain with the government in fear of retaliations and enslaved to benefits do not work hard for the elections because they want to see this regime come to an end. That was what had happened in Uva.
We met several more Ministers even on Friday night in a very secured area. So more crossovers can be expected within this week. It will not stop.
Q The common candidate has made a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency within 100 days of being elected to power. Why should people believe this promise would be any different to the broken promises made by previous leaders; including Mahinda Rajapaksa?
During the tenure of former President Chandrika, she tried her best to abolish the Executive Presidential system. But she says that Minister Peiris who drafted the document, had included a clause that her period be extended for another two years, which in turn became an issue that the opposition used to withdraw its support for the bill to be passed.
So this time, we are planning to implement the abolition of the Executive Presidency in the way former premier Srimavo Bandaranaike implemented the 1972 constitution - by making the parliament into a constitutional assembly because then there would be no need for a 2/3 majority. All members of the parliament can make a decision together and implement the required constitutional amendments.
Q What changes can be people mainly expect through the Common candidate?
The main goals we hope to achieve are the abolition of the Executive Presidency, changes in the parliamentary system, establishment of independent commissions, media freedom and a stable, effective solution to the national question.
Q Will all the changes envisioned by the new movement be able to match up to the war victory that is being hacked by the government?
You cannot sell one particular consumer item continually without upgrading it or introducing changes for a prolonged period. That is the market policy.
"History teaches us examples of leaders who thought they would remain in power forever, and yet were forced to leave when the time came. "
Q So you are certain that the common candidate will be able to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in the race for presidency?
Definitely. People want this and we are catering to their call.
Q Do you regret the decision you made to cross over to the government from the UNP?
I crossed over hoping we would create the country we envisioned under President Rajapaksa’s leadership. Unfortunately it did not succeed. But I will never regret.