Former President Maithripala Sirisena, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about his future political plans, his performance as the former Head of State and controversy triggered by the leakage of telephone conversations MP Ranjan Ramanayake had with judges. Excerpts:
Q It was widely believed that you would retire from politics after the end of your term. You also said it. In contrast, you are now planning to make a comeback. Why did you decide to do so?
I don’t see any need for me to retire from politics. First, the country is in need of our political ideology. That is nothing but the policy of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Accordingly, I feel the need to engage in active politics to find solutions to today’s problems and in the interests of the country’s future. On the other hand, I am fit both physically and mentally. Those who are older than me have been in politics. Still, there are some people in politics, who are older than me. I believe I have the competence to serve the country further. I am a political animal. I cannot remain indoors merely because my presidential term is now over. I wish to make maximum use of my vast political knowledge and experience to serve the country and its people.
- Did a lot during my tenure, but could not do more because Ranil stood in my way
- 19th Amendment is a conspiracy hatched by foreign funded NGOs
- I will contest elections from Polonnaruwa in alliance with SLPP
Q How do you intend to contest future elections?
At the next parliamentary elections, I will contest from the Polonnaruwa electoral district.
Q There are talks about the formation of a political alliance between your SLFP and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). But, the SLPP insists that its lotus bud symbol should not be compromised no matter what. What is your view?
It is like that. Before the presidential elections, the SLPP, the SLFP and other parties formed an alliance. In terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed at that time, we all cooperated with each other for the victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In the future, President Gotabaya needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament to bring about the reforms he has in his mind. Actually, it is difficult for any government to function without such an absolute majority. I know it by experience. The SLFP will carry out its campaign as an alliance partner to ensure him a two-thirds majority at the
Q There is a dispute over the symbol. What is your view?
We discussed it before the presidential elections. It will be discussed by the party leaders in the future. I don’t see them asserious issues.
Q How do you view the performance of the President for the last one and half months in office?
It is a short period for any President to show substantial progress in terms of his performance. Any government needs at least two years to achieve results on the ground. To develop economy is the main task which I see. That is to achieve growth while servicing debt. We need growth in the export sector. We need to work according to a broad development agenda in compliance with home-grown thinking. We have to cooperate with the new President for such a programme of work to be implemented.
Q The President has initiated some action so far. What is your view?
The steps taken so far are commendable.
Q The President stressed the need for constitutional changes in his maiden speech and in his interaction with the heads of media organisations. There was reference to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution introduced during your time with your blessings. What do you think about it?
It was done not only with my blessings but with the blessings of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. That is how 215 MPs raised their hands in support of it at that time. The United National Party (UNP) had only 47 MPs then. The SLFP- led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had 142 MPs. I was the newly elected President at that moment. I see it as an extension of support to me. You asked about the 19th Amendment. I talked about it two years ago. Then, I came under harsh criticism by the media. I was slandered. I told that any President could not discharge duties under the 19th Amendment. Then, I came under serious assault by the media and people alike. Today, President Gotabaya has also affirmed the same in his interaction with the press. I am proven correct, it means.
Q Does it mean that you will support to change it?
I have repeatedly said it during the past two years. Then, I was only humiliated. Critics did not see shortcomings of the 19th President hampering the President’s work. They saw it as my weakness. I was dubbed a spineless leader. Now, you can see that anyone with a backbone cannot also function as long as the 19th Amendment remains in this form.
Q Why were you unable to foresee such a predicament when it was drafted initially?
You have to direct that question not only at me but also at 215 MPs who voted for it.
Q Were you hoodwinked by someone in enacting this piece of legislation?
Absolutely, it is a conspiracy hatched by some foreign funded NGOs and implemented through then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Q Apart from the 19th Amendment, what are the other changes to the Constitution you advocate?
The electoral system has to be changed. I also tried to do it. But, there was no support for it. We did not have the two-thirds in the House. With much effort, we brought about a change in the system for elections to the local authorities. We should go for a model based on the First Past the Post System for other elections. We should do away with preferential voting. It is our long standing policy.
Q The victory margin of President Gotabaya in the Polonnaruwa district was not that high compared with other Sinhala majority districts. Some SLPP MPs say that you discreetly supported MP Sajith Premadasa in the district. What is your response?
Some brainless idiots raise such doubts. They don’t have any understanding about the ethnic composition of the vote base of the district. There are 32,000 Tamil and Muslim votes in the district, and at least 25,000 of them are polled. In 2015, they all voted for me. This time, Tamils and Muslims did not vote for President Goatabaya all over the country. That is what happened in Polonnaruwa as well.
Q How do you view polarisation of voting pattern on ethnic lines this time?
It does not bode well for the future.
Q What is the reason for such polarisation as you see?
It has to be discussed broadly. We have to look how it originated. Some people were sarcastic about the concept of national harmony and reconciliation. National harmony and reconciliation are absolutely needed to build the future of this country. It should be achieved without compromising or weakening the rights of the Sinhala Buddhists as the majority community. While upholding their rights, all the other communities in this country should co-exist in harmony. It is a topic debated in this country for 50 - 60 years. It is all the more important to build mutual trust among different ethnic groups.
Q There is a crisis over rice prices in the market. You hail from one of the largest rice growing districts in the country. You also worked as the Agriculture Minister. Besides, your brother is one of the largest rice millers. What is the reason for this crisis?
In this respect, some people talk as if they have been reborn all of a sudden. It is not a new crisis. Every government had to grapple with it at times. It is sometimes triggered by factors such as production drop and adverse weather conditions. All the governments faced it. In 1952, Rubber- Rice Pact was signed with China. The Paddy marketing Board was created to avert such a crisis. Yet, it is utterly corrupt. If it operates without corruption, a solution can be found. Whenever such a crisis was there, every government imported rice. That is it. It is a crisis that cropped at time during the last 40 years.
Q You mean to say that rice should be imported?
Yes. Every government had done so. When Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President, his government did it.
Q If rice is imported, won’t it affect paddy growers in selling their produce in a month or two?
Those are typical arguments put forward every time. We should not indulge in such arguments. Instead, we should focus on bringing down the cost of living. If prices are high, some stocks should be imported.
Q The present government relaxed regulation on transportation of sand and earth. You introduced such regulations. What do you feel now?
I really regret it. As the then President, I was also in charge of the environment. I deployed the three forces to contain such unlawful activities.
Q There is a sand mafia in Polonnaruwa. Who is responsible?
Sand mafia is there everywhere in the country. It is controlled by underworld criminals. Despite the cancellation of permits required for transporting sand and earth, prices of such materials did not drop. Only the underworld decides on it.
Q Why can’t a government with law enforcement authorities contain such crimes?
I did everything possible during my time.
Q You are harshly criticised for giving a presidential pardon for Royal park murder convict Jude Shramantha Jayamaha. What is the reason for you to take such a decision?
It is a good question. First, critics of my decision should look at the lists of prisoners released by successive Presidents in the past. As for Jude Shramantha, his family members, along with MP Ven. Athuraliye Ratana Thera, made constant requests to me. They presented their case by saying that he had been in jail for 15 years and completed his degree while being a prisoner. After that, he had been enrolled for a post graduate course. I was requested to give him a pardon on account of such achievements by him as a prisoner. I did not pardon a death row prisoner. His death sentence had been commuted to life four years ago because of his good conduct in prison. It had been done by the prison authorities. In that context, I have not released a death row prisoner.
There is a committee at the Justice Ministry working on pardons for prisoners and their welfare activities. The Ministry Secretary, the Commissioner General of Prison, professors of criminology and retired judges are there in it. A panel of seven of them made recommendations in this regard. Besides, former MP Ven. Baddegama Samitha Thera requested it. Catholic priests and other organizations also did the same. I took into account all of them.
I looked at the international charters on prisoners’ rights. Prisoners are human too. Considering all these aspects, I granted him presidential pardon.
A lot of people have forgotten that I, as the President, released the LTTE member convicted of plotting to assassinate me. He had been sentenced to life at that time.
Royal Park murder case is a serious offence. Jude had committed a horrendous crime. It is only one aspect. Yet it is not the duty of the leaders to keep the prisons crowded with inmates.
I have released the highest number of prisoners. It is my policy. If there were others having completed their degrees in prison, I would have released them too.
I released as many as 2000 prisoners. No other President has done so. There is an allegation I received cash inducements in this instance. I am not a politician bankrupt to the extent of getting inducements to release prisoners. I considered his good conduct, educational achievements and Ven. Rathana Thera’s requests in giving him a pardon.
Q In retrospect, how do you look at your performance as the then President?
I contested the elections in 2015 since I had a vision for my country. During my tenure, I did a lot for my country. Whatever anyone might say, I strengthened our foreign relations after Prime Minister the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike. After her, I befriended the leaders of the countries both in the east and the west. They became my personal friends. They are Vladimir Putin of Russia, China’s Xi Jinping, Barack Obama of the United States, India’s Narendra Modi, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and so on. I did it in the greater interests of my country. I wanted to develop my country. I did a lot.
But, I could not do a lot more because then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe behaved as if he was the President. He forgot that he was only the Prime Minister. There was a clear policy contrast between the two. He is a right wing liberalist whereas I am a social democrat. It is a conflict of two political ideologies. I am opposed to corruption. I stood against the Central Bank bond scam. I was against the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore. But, I was a loner. I did not have Parliament or the Cabinet under my control. Presidency without parliamentary power is like a toothless mouth. I did not have either Parliament or the Cabinet. Only Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe had control over them. So, he worked as if he was the President. It led to policy clashes. Therefore, I could not perform a lot of tasks which I had in my mind. However, the Ranil faction of the government did a lot of things that should not have been done. They learnt a lesson for it at the elections.
Q You are a senior politician with a proper understanding of the UNP as a political force of this country. When you entered into an electoral understating with the UNP, didn’t you anticipate such a situation?
The UNP’s political culture under leaders such as D.S. Senanayake and DudleySenanayake is not something bad. It is a political culture that built this country.
Q What about the UNP about under
late Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa?
When I took over presidency, I thought I would be able to implement my vision for the country. But, Ranil Wickremesinghe stood in my way.
Q There is controversy over the leakage of telephone conversations by UNP MP Ranjan Ramanayake. You have also been implicated in these conversations over some litigation. Was judiciary influenced at that time as revealed by these telephone conversations?
What Ranjan Ramanayake has done is unlawful and utterly disgraceful. That is what I have to say.