Hailing from a family which produced two Prime Ministers to the country and also who were the founders of the United National Party, young Parliamentarian Vasantha Senanayake who represented Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) crossed over a few weeks ago to support the common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena. He was the first to crossover from the Government to the Opposition after the announcement of the candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena. In an interview with the Dailymirror Senanayake said he was not against the unlimited term limits but against the dictatorial powers. Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q You started your political journey with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) despite the fact that your great grandfather was the creator of the United National Party (UNP). Why did you decide to initiate your political journey from the SLFP?
As a youth activist I was with the UNP but I contested from SLFP. This was because at that point I had a minor difference of opinion with the UNP which I believe is resolved by now.
QWhat do you mean by a “difference”?
It was more with regard to the attitude toward the war. I believe the SLFP then had a better policy. And also some of the people I had to work with immediately in the UNP particularly in the Polonnaruwa district, where I found it impossible to work. I am extremely happy to note that they are now in President Rajapaksa’s government in the SLFP.
Q. What made you support President Mahinda Rajapaksa at that point?
It was not President Rajapaksa I supported, I supported President Chandrika Kumaratunge at the beginning and continued to stay when President Rajapaksa got elected.
QBut at one point you said that you did not like the Party leaders’ policies?
I did not say I disliked his policies but I preferred the stance taken by the SLFP with regard to the war. Also I disliked working with certain members of the UNP then, who mercifully crossed over from the UNP to join president Rajapaksa.
QYou said you liked the stance SLFP held with regard to the war. Irrespective of certain allegations by the opposition don’t you think this government has actually contributed to the development of this country?
Yes, certainly. The war was resolved because of the people that President Rajapaksa put in place. Those people were mainly Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, his brother and Sarath Fonseka. However after the war ended the credit was not given to those two people enough. I think Gotabhaya Rajapaksa got some credit and the President did not despise that. But he really despised the credit which was given to Sarath Fonseka.
QYou said you liked the stance held by the SLFP with regard to the war. But what about the other development projects they carried out?
The main problem the country was faced with at the time was war. And the better solution to the war I thought, was espoused by the SLFP that I joined.
However after the war has concluded we cannot keep discussing about war we must move on. Winston Churchill won the Second World War but he lost the subsequent election. It was at that time I thought I took the right decision supporting President Kumaratunge and continuing my support to President Rajapaksa.
However, at this time seeing the immediate needs of the country, during the post war period such as reconciliation, good governance and abolishing the Constitution that has been promised to be abolished in Mahinda Chinthana 1 and 2 and also the corruption is vital. We cannot close our eyes towards these saying that the war was over. People of this country blindly voted him because of the war. But you cannot ride on that forever. D.S Senanayake brought independence from the British Empire in 1948. People did not vote for the UNP continually for the next thirty or forty years. Times change. There are more pressing issues of the time and those issues have to be addressed.
QWhat made you crossover at this crucial time?
The term for MR is six years. He has two more years to go. And one should give him that period of time to fulfil his promises. When he called for an early election some of us actually told him not to go for an election and instead fulfil the promises that have been given. When he does not do that and goes for an election it is very clear that he has no real intention of keeping any of his promises but rather that he is more concerned about electoral victories for just staying in power and perpetuating whatever he wants to perpetuate.
QBut you did support the 18th Amendment?
Yes I did. It is a decision that I regret tremendously.
Q What made you support that?
It is the context. Again the war was just won at that time and we were young and very fresh to Parliament. I believed it did not matter if we abolish term limits because the Constitution might be changed. If the Constitution is changed I am not against unlimited term limits but I am absolutely against dictatorial powers being held under the name of Presidency. I am not against the executive Presidency. However I am against arbitrary powers which allow a President to dissolve a Parliament at any time. Also his powers to appoint people to the Judiciary. Independence of institutions must be truly independent. When you compromise such institutions, then what hope is there for democracy?
QYou also presented an amendment to the Constitution. What happened to that?
There is history to it. I first proposed a constitution to the Parliamentary select committee. When I realised after submitting this, that the government had no intention of going through any recommendations made to the select committee, I decided I was going to take one provision of that Constitution which was a provision which said that the Cabinet should be constitutionally defined and constitutionally limited. I took that provision out. I presented that as a private members’ bill. Now when I did that I realised there was no chance for it to be passed in Parliament. Then I did not withdraw it and I asked for a postponement where I could submit it on a later date. But what I really wanted to do was to highlight the issues where constitutional reforms were needed. I am glad to say after I did that there was a huge nation-wide debate on constitutional reforms. I must say that my call for constitutional reforms was not one that started so many years ago. Today the common candidate’s and the common opposition’s call is for constitutional reforms.
If President Rajapaksa only listened we could have all supported him.
QWas it made by you or were there any others involved in presenting these reforms?
There was a group of professionals which I lead and I was the only politically affiliated person.
QWhy do you support the common candidate?
Firstly I must say that I have nothing personal against President Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena was one of my initial contacts at the SLFP. Beyond that we have known each other quite well. I think he is honest and he has integrity. And he does not have a brother called “Basil”.
QDo you believe he will abolish the Executive Presidency?
Yes I do.
QAs a young politician do you think the on-going political trend of the country must be changed?
Of course this trend has to be changed. Sri Lanka has by tradition been fairly democratic but since the creation of Executive Presidency it is centred more on individuals and in this case a group of individuals. They absorb law into their own hands from it being spread throughout the institutions. The Police, the Election Commissioner and the Judiciary must be independent. We believe that we should strengthen the institutions that protect democracy. And of course the civil society. The Newspapers should have a voice, free of intimidation and government interference.
QYou said that you were against the on-going corruption. But we cannot deny the fact that corruption has been there always. Do you agree?
To this extent?
QDefine corruption as you see in the current government?
When was corruption there to this extent? Corruption may have always been there. But you can tolerate minor corruption. In fact you cannot tolerate corruption at all, yet minor corruption can be tolerated. When it is to an extent where even the decisions of the Ministries are not taken by the Minister but by a few family members and nobody has a clue about how money is spent and how money poured in. People ought to know what is happening to their money.
QDon’t you agree that the country actually has developed?
Certainly after the war concluded there is visible development in the form of highways coming up. However can you really say that an average persons quality of life is good? Can you say that an ordinary person finds it hard to find the cost of living? Unemployment has significantly increased. Development is not just about the roads. We have won the war but have we won the peace? Have we won the hearts and minds of the people in the North and the East? Perception, mindsets, the ideas, the aspirations are also important when you talk about development.
QHave you taken the membership of the UNP?
QWhat is your next step? Are you going to remain in the SLFP?
My first course of action will be to ensure the victory of Maithripala Sirisena. At this point of time I get on very well with Ranil Wickremasinghe, Chandrika Kumarathunge and Maithripala Sirisena. Currently my focus is not on how I am going to contest at the next election. Rather my focus is on the solution for this country. I think Maithripala will be a good solution.
QYou hail from a deeply rooted political family. Your family produced two Prime Ministers. Are you going to continue with the legacy of the family?
I always have continued with the family legacy. My grandfather’s legacy was to act honourably and decently. I have always acted decently and sometimes I have taken strong decisions. Crossing over to the SLFP was a strong decision and being the first person to walk out of the SLFP and join the common opposition was also a strong decision. I think my acts reflect integrity.
QDo you have any plans to climb the leadership ladder in the party?
If the Party decides that I am suitable, it will come naturally and eventually. I do not aspire to cut anyone and get anywhere. If I am suitable and if the people of the country think I am suitable, that will happen anyway.
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