Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about political reforms of the UNP. He shared the following:-
- A new face will benefit any political party
- It can be Navin Dissanayake, Sajith Premadasa or Sajith-Navin combination
- Outlook has to be changed to understand the needs of the party
- I have favourable opinion of Sajith Premadasa
- Leadership structure has to be changed
Q There are talks about reforms to the UNP. What do you specifically expect in the name of reforms?
There are certain ideas about reforms. The word that comes to my mind is change. There are certain changes that the party and its grassroots want. That is apparently felt by a lot of people. They are voicing their opinion. The party leadership structure must listen to these views and adapt. I still believe the UNP is a democratic party. It is the only party that has held four secret ballots. The latest one was held three weeks ago. I topped the list. I think it is imperative that there should be changes. It is not just artificial change. There should be real changes through a democratic process. Suitable people must be elected, not selected. The outlook of the party has to be changed to understand the needs of the party.
The way the outsiders see the party should change. The party must genuinely work for the betterment of the country and people. This is the formula you need to win. If you don’t feel for the people and look after their interests, any party will decline. We hope that we can resurrect this great party.
Devolution of power does not mean separatism. India has Federal system in a united country
Q As far as the UNP policies are concerned, how do you expect the changes to occur?
Both the main parties are now on the same track as far as economic policies are concerned. That is open market economic policies.
Q Does it mean that the UNP does not need a departure from its policy on economic matters?
We have democratic socialism. Right now, some people believe our party is moving too much towards the right-liberal economic policies. After late President JR Jayewardene opened up the economy, the economy is still run on those principles. Basic income and expenditure must match. If you print money too much, inflation will rise. Right now, the country is in a huge debt burden. It is in a debt trap. When you earn a single rupee, 90 cents are used for debt repayment. You only have ten cents left for capital expenditure. How do we come out of this? You must go for higher growth. If the growth rate is sustained for a few years, it would have a rebound effect on the economy. You must identify the main sectors of development, the thrust areas like IT and infrastructure development, services, agriculture and tourism. Within them, you must open up the economy. Without opening up the economy, we cannot go on like this.
Q How do you find this different from the kind of policies the UNP implemented during the last three years?
It is actually the same. From 1994 onwards, the UNP was in power only for two and-a-half years. It means the SLFP-led governments too have been there. They have been following the UNP policies. Within the open market policies, you have certain agendas. The SLFP- led governments put more money on social welfare. They give more relief to people. The UNP thinking is different. The UNP does not believe in all the time catering to the needs of people. We believe in the famous saying of Mao Zedong. That is to give a fishing rod instead of fish so that people can sustain themselves. People have a long-term view of income. You cannot have a social welfare state all the time without income. We have no income sources at the moment. But, people expect the government to give hand-outs. That cannot be the model. The model should be for high growth, opening up the economy, getting investment and prudent fiscal management. That is the UNP model.
Q As for the ethnic conflict, the UNP has advocated power sharing or devolution. Do you seek a change of that policy?
Power sharing has always been a model for both the parties. In the past, there were Dudley – Chelva Pact, Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact etc. All were about power sharing. We took it to the next level with the 13th Amendment. After that, nothing has happened. If you go further than that, it has to be discussed. That is controversial. I know the Tamil parties want more than the 13th Amendment. If you go further, the government and people must have guarantees that there won’t be terrorism and ethnic violence again. What is the fine line when you go for devolution? Is it Federalism or beyond that? That is a mentally, intellectually stimulating debate.
Devolution of power does not mean separatism. India has Federal system in a united country. The US is the same. Switzerland has its cantons. Here the situation is different. You have a movement for separatism. Then, you devolve power. Then, you keep on raising the bar. You are never happy with what you get. You keep raising the bar and asking more and more. I think Sinhala and Tamil people are tired of this.
What went wrong is our support to the Norwegian initiative to broker peace. I think that was a big mistake. I was dead against the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement with the LTTE
I would like to look at this in a new way. That is particularly for the north. There, you have a new model. You devolve more power only for the north, not the east. You cannot be asking power for the east. You cannot ask the north and the east to be merged.
In 1987, my father, late Gamini Dissanayake was instrumental in drafting the Indo-Lanka Accord. Now, a lot of things have changed. One major change is that the Sinhalese and Muslims form the majority in the East do not want to be merged with the North. You cannot bring this matter to the negotiation table. If you need greater powers to Pradeshiya Sabhas, that is acceptable.
Q Do you seek modifications to the Indo-Lanka accord?
Yes, of course. It is now 25 years for the accord. We have to look at it again. We have to improve it as well.
Q There is a perception in the country that the UNP gives too much to the minorities and subject the majority community to step-motherly treatment. What is your view?
It is only a perception. It is a wrong perception. The victory of the UNP has come from the minority votes- Muslim and Tamil votes. The Sinhala –Buddhist votes are also coming to the UNP. The SLFP-led front always gets the majority of Sinhala-Buddhist votes. That has always been the case. There is a slight drop in our Sinhala votes. That is the difference between the victory and defeat. We must espouse the Sinhala cause so that they do not feel that they are let down.
Q What is the reason for such perception to be built in the country?
What went wrong is our support to the Norwegian initiative to broker peace. I think that was a big mistake. I was dead against the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. I expressed myself very strongly to the leader at that time. The raid on the Athurugiriya millennium house and letting down the military were badly managed political decisions. It really hurt the UNP.
Q There is an allegation against the UNP even now regarding the victimization of war heroes?
I do not think that is justified. In the guise of war heroes, you cannot hide. If you have committed a crime, you cannot hide behind the war hero label. You have to be prosecuted if you have committed a crime. I am referring to the cases where army people were used for killing persons like journalists Eknelligoda, Lasantha Wickramatunga and others.
One major change is that the Sinhalese and Muslims form the majority in the East do not want to be merged with the North
What happened in the war was a different issue completely. That is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. We know that. The Diaspora together with some foreign countries are directing a campaign against Sri Lanka. We know it for a fact. Lord Naseby (Baron Naseby who spoke for Sri Lanka at the House of Commons) has said it clearly. He said the total death toll at the war was 7000. Where did this figure of 40,000 come from? Who gave it? It is never a figure we can really on.
Q It means you salute Lord Naseby...?
Yes, very much. I, in fact, congratulated Brigadier Priyankara Fernando. I wrote a letter to the two pro-LTTE MPs there. I condemned their behaviour. You must protect the security forces. You must stand by them. They did a tremendous job. No other Army, after the Burmese civil wars, has been able to suppress a terrorist organization. All these countries like Norway, some other Scandinavian countries, and the UK harp on Sri Lanka’s human rights records. It is very sad to note that those countries too have committed human rights violations.
Q How is it possible for you to push for your party to adopt your line of thinking in this regard?
The UNP has always been such a big party. It accommodates all the opinions. One strength of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader, is his ability to absorb all the opinions that are expressed. That is very healthy for a democratic party. We have so many debates and opinions. The important thing is to come to a centre point.
Q You mentioned about the introduction of suitable members as office bearers to the party. Who are they actually?
Election of office bearers has to be there in any democratic party. The beauty of the American presidential system is that both the parties elect their candidates to run the presidential elections. It is very beautiful. When the Democratic Party had lost, there was pressure from the unions for the leader to step down.
Q Do you see there is a need to change the party leadership?
The leadership structure has to be changed.
One strength of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader, is his ability to absorb all the opinions that are expressed. That is very healthy for a democratic party
Q What about the individual holding the leadership?
I think the powers of the party leader can be given to the junior, emerging leaders. The party leader can take a back seat about certain issues. Under our party constitution, you cannot just throw out the leader. He has also to be respected. His dignity has to be maintained. There is a time in any organization for the head to step down.
Q You said you won the secret ballot. Do you aspire to be the party leader?
I had fulfilled whatever the responsibilities which were vested upon me. I really do not go after positions. I do not think the leadership is about positions. In Sri Lanka, there is a culture of equating leadership with positions. When you are elected as a leader to a position, it is more important than being selected.
Q If the party hand-picks you as the leader, are you ready to take it up?
Honestly, I have some time left. I have to mature a bit more. Whatever secondary role given to me, I will do it. It is not a pre-requisite for me to get a tag. It is more important for me to get the structure. If you get it, you are on a winning formula. I do not want to be in a losing party. If I am there in a losing party for the rest of my life, I will be out of power. If I am in a winning party, then, I can come up the ladder within the party. What is the point in seeking positions in a political party that is coming down in the national vote?
The Sinhala-Buddhist vote base was rock-solid behind late President R. Premadasa and my father. That has been diluted a bit now
Q If you are chosen as the leader, could you revive the party?
In principle, a new face would benefit any political party. People want a new face. It does not mean it should be Navin Dissanayake alone. It could be Sajith Premadasa, Navin Dissanayake or a Sajith-Navin combination with some other young leaders. The UNP has enough of young talent. You have to give credit to Premier Wickremesinghe. He has managed to get the second tier of leaders.
Q What is your opinion on Sajith Premadasa?
I have a very favourable opinion on him. I have worked closely with him. I do not see anything negative in him. Both of us should work for the benefit of the party.
Q Which means as the leader and the deputy leader...?
That is up to the fate to decide? I cannot decide on that.
People want a new face. It does not mean it should be Navin Dissanayake alone. It could be Sajith Premadasa, Navin Dissanayake or a Sajith-Navin combination with some other young leaders. The UNP has enough of young talent
Q What are the differences do you find between the present UNP and the UNP during the Gamini Dissanayake era?
At that time, the UNP did not go after regional leaders. The UNP had strong Muslim units. We did not go after other Muslim leaders. We were strong among the Tamils too. We had a very strong national identity. The Sinhala-Buddhist vote base was rock-solid behind late President R. Premadasa and my father. That has been diluted a bit now.