- A Parliamentarian gets Rs. 10,000 for every sitting
- reason for the destruction of the environment is foreign funding
- Thuggery has become part of politics
- Sri Lankan women rarely vote for another woman
Dr. Ajantha Perera was the first female candidate to contest from a socialist party at the 2019 Presidential Election. But this time, she will be contesting the Parliamentary Election under the United National Party ticket from Colombo District. If she wins, she pledges to put Colombo in order, both economically and environmentally. Excerpts:
Q You contested the Presidential Elections from a socialist party and you even said that the Yahapalana government which UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was also a part of, created a mess. But now you are supporting the UNP. Why?
The Presidential Election gave me an opening as to how Sri Lankan society thinks. Our society is so fearful and unable to make a choice that they will only decide between the Blue or Green Party. This is not because they don’t like others but they are unable to believe that none of the other parties will be able to do the work they expect them to do. People who vote for you expect you to perform quickly. When Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe invited me to join the UNP just after the Presidential Election I asked for time. During that break, I was thinking about what people require. It took me a month or so to decide that I will contest at the Parliamentary election. One thing I like about the UNP is their stand on ethnicity. I always spoke about ethnic harmony during the Presidential Election and I want to take it further. I know that Mr Wickremesinghe supports those principles. The second factor is that my grandfather was from UNP and he was a person who built a school, temple, playground and cemetery from his own money and gave it to the people in Homagama. I always wanted to be like him. So when Mr Wickremesinghe called I decided to join his party. Nevertheless, I’m very red inside because I’m a person who believes in equal rights to people, I believe that the poorest people are still poor, I believe in eradication of power, empowering self-employed people, helping women in garment factories and strengthening international correlations.
Q You were the only female candidate who contested at the Presidential Election. What are the experiences you gained and what things are you doing differently this time?
The Presidential candidacy was an opportunity for me to get to know about the whole country. It gave me a bigger picture. Now it has narrowed down to Colombo. Even though we call Colombo the capital city, it has many issues. Most of these problems have been unsolved for years. People are living and breeding inside slums. Pettah is in shambles and what happened to all the money that was allocated for development? Colombo is a UNP stronghold and we have a responsibility to put Colombo in order. The nattamis, daily workers and a huge migrant population don’t have proper housing either. These are issues I want to address. In Colombo’s coastal areas people are living in temporary housing. People have grown old inside the parliament but nothing has happened in Colombo.
Q Certain ideas proposed by professionals are not doable. But all that it takes for a mainstream politician is to provide electricity to an area or construct a bridge or a road to get all the votes. How can this mindset of the voter be changed?
People vote for people who would do anything for them. They will, therefore, vote for people who will kill, give them drugs, alcohol, steal land and do anything wrong. Majority of people want to do the wrong things in life. This is why this country is going the wrong way. We need to have a stand on ethics and we need to be morally sound like a nation. We have four major religions in this country. If they vote for people who will give them anything that they ask for, eventually we will ruin the country. There needs to be a balance in voting. A majority who understands right and wrong, the educated people should vote for the right people. We need to strike a balance. The NGOs are now silent but this is the time they should take to the roads telling people whom to vote and how they should vote. They need to put the right people in Parliament.
Q You have strongly advocated on environmental issues including the garbage problem. Successive governments haven’t taken environmental issues seriously. Why has it happened that way?
The reason for the destruction of the environment is because people always believe in foreign funding. So when a project comes along they don’t want to lose it. Sri Lanka has become a country that would accept anything like a beggar on the street. Whenever a project comes they cater to the project rather than their resources. For example, the filling of the coastal stretch at Ratmalana, the Colombo Port City and the Aruwakkalu sanitary landfill projects have given us money and now we are stuck. Sri Lankan leaders have accepted that they are beggars. But I will never be a begging Parliamentarian. We are a country that is full of resources and we need to explore them. We need to understand that they are given for a purpose, utilize them appropriately and we need to have a proper management plan.
So when a project comes it should happen on our terms and conditions. We need to check if there will be any harm to humans and the environment and eradicate those issues. We need to show them the issues and how we cannot do exactly what they want. This is not to say that we should discard them. We need international relations. What we always did was accepting the project, implementing it and later thought about the environment. But what needs to happen is to take the project, evaluate it in terms of the environment and accept it only on our terms and conditions.
Q Women’s rights activists have been fighting to increase the women’s quota in Parliament. Do you think women have a voice in this male-dominated space?
Most men pretend to enjoy the fact that more women might go into Parliament. But society still believes that women belong in the household. We have a very hard time convincing men to vote for women. But women themselves very rarely vote for another woman. In our society women are very competitive.
When they see someone going to a higher position and making a difference they see it as a threat rather than a blessing. There’s a big difference between Sri Lanka and other foreign countries. Overseas, women like to have women in Parliament because they are strong within themselves. They don’t see them as competitors but as change-makers.
Q But what if people think that you’re going to Parliament to get all the perks and benefits?
Most people see the Parliament as an opportunity for comfort. In Sri Lanka parliamentarians get vehicles, houses, massive amounts of money, they are called honourable etc. This has to change. People should treat Parliamentarians the same way they treat a person on the roadside. I don’t want people to come and open the door for me or call me honourable. I believe we should respect people for the work they do and not the title. The moment an MP comes to an area people has to garland them etc. But no Parliamentarian should be that way. This is why people don’t want us to go
We are workers and no different from others because we are doing a government job. If we change the system within Parliament, by having a common bus to travel, serving our own tea, washing our own plate etc. this would make us equal with everyone else. This will change the attitude of people when they are electing someone to Parliament. On the other hand, the UNP always abide by disclosing asset declarations when nomination papers are signed. That way it is very transparent.
Q The UNP experienced a major defeat at the Presidential Election and the grand old party is now divided. Are you confident about
The UNP is a party with a history. It had people of high calibre. The UNPers who vote would want to see people with good backgrounds coming into Parliament. I believe they want to vote for people who have had a background of social service from the beginning. With this background, you don’t expect anything from Parliament. A Parliamentarian is given Rs. 10,000 for every sitting. I don’t need any extra money to sit in Parliament. I believe I have a good chance and when I get that chance I want to be very committed to people. Right now people don’t have faith in politicians. We need to recreate it. Therefore it will be a difficult time for those who go to Parliament. We need to think about the economy, ethnic harmony and international collaborations. We need to make sure every household is a happy household with the right economy, with children going to school and with good health. We need to stand up as a model because we want more people to come to Parliament. Probably some people are better than us that are not contesting because they don’t like the system. If I’m elected I pledge to put Colombo in order both economically and environmentally.
Q If you lose...
I don’t have much of a choice now since most people know me as a politician. One thing I want to do is take away the fear in the citizen. People are even scared to go to the polling booth because they think that if they don’t vote for a particular person that the supporters would attack them. Thuggery has become part of politics but we are looking for a democratic country.