One time government strongman and a man who was considered one of the most powerful Ministers during the tenure of the Former President, and now one of the current regime’s most vociferous critics, speaks to Daily Mirror on the current regime, the alternative he proposes, the fallacy of the 'computer jilmart' and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his friend.
Q: How has Mangala Samaraweera turned a good Samaritan now after being an integral part of the previous SLFP led government, and a root of the existence of the present one?
I was one of those, who as far back as in 2007, knew that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government was veering away from fundamentals that I believed in, which were democracy, equality and justice. There was obviously then a conflict of interest, and finally it came to a head and I was removed from the government but subsequently I was invited back several times, perhaps with more tempting offers by the President himself, which I did not accept for the simple reason that I felt, and which I feel much stronger now that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime is not adhering to the founding principles of the SLFP to begin with and it is taking this country to becoming an emerging dictatorship. So, given these considerations, whatever the inconveniences that I may have suffered by being in the opposition, I believe that my principles are more important than power.
Q: This government also has repeatedly been elected by the people of this country, so what do you mean to say?
They were elected, but there were many electoral malpractices in those elections but they said that they did win the elections. That was especially after the 2009 defeat of the LTTE because there was a tremendous wave of sympathy and goodwill for the President. I was an integral part of the 2005 campaign and I don’t consider it a victory at all because we all know how it was gained, and Ranil Wickremesinghe the opposition candidate lost by an absolutely tiny margin due to various factors that we are all aware of, but in 2010 certainly he (MR) didn’t get a 2/3rd majority but he won impressively for the simple reason that people, irrespective of their differences wanted to say thank you for defeating terrorism after so many years.
But this is the exact crime I’m talking about. Mahinda Rajapaksa got a window of opportunity that no other leader has got in this country since independence. I mean, in 2010 with the majority he got immediately after the elections and the defeat of the LTTE after 26 years, he could have taken this country on a totally new direction. That would have been the perfect moment first of all to win over the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. This is something I firmly believe in- without a durable solution which especially deals with the grievances of the Tamil people, and other minorities of this country- economic development of this country will continue to remain a dream, confined to a few slogans in newspapers repeated over and over again. Instead of using this victory for the benefit of this country or taking it to a new direction as I said and strengthening the democratic institutions in this country, we are now being seen as the Burma of Asia in the sense of being the Pariah nation of Asia.
But had Mahinda Rajapaksa played it right instead of being a prisoner of chauvinist forces of this country, he certainly could have become the greatest leader this country has ever seen, but he certainly will end up in the rogues gallery the way things are going.
Q: You were one of the main people who cried about a ‘jilmart’, post 2010 Presidential elections. Are you now saying that whatever you were referring to, never happened?
No! no I never… In fact I would say that I’m one of the few people, since then, going around to convince people that there was no ‘jilmart’. The term came from another source. I of course accept that the election was greatly flawed from the moment it started and they violated all the laws prevalent in starting the campaign from the Central Bank publishing a thousand rupee note with the picture of the President for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka. This became the first poster of the campaign and throughout there were many violations, but having said that I believe he did win. Because of the war factor and because of the good-will he did get from the war.
It actually works against us for our supporters to think that you can win by ‘computer jilmart’- because our voters get demoralised and more and more people would stop even bothering to vote if they feel it could be manipulated so easily.
Q:So you don’t..
No I don’t think so. Frankly, if they could have won an election of that magnitude with computer jilmart they would have loved to have won the last Municipal Council elections in Jaffna. The entire Cabinet was campaigning there, offering various things and flouting elections laws.
Q: Then why did you make that statement? Why did you create that doubt among the public?
No, I made a statement- it was a flawed election- it was not that Computer Jilmart?
Computer Jilmart- well of course this will have to be proven when we are in power one day, sooner hopefully than later- that there was a manipulation of computers after it was obvious that he was winning- that ( the elections) was not won with the kind of majority that was portrayed. This is why I think the results were delayed by nearly one and a half days- we feel that it was after they were assured of victory that they fiddled with the numbers. But granted it was a victory.
Q:You were one of the most powerful politicians in the country during the tenure of the former President. If you really sit down and compare the differences between the two tenures in terms of thuggery, the suppression of the media, corruption, there is not much of a distinction. What do you feel differs the current regime from the previous?
I can’t even believe that you are asking me this question. Yes, we were powerful and we actually exercised the power given to us, but with a certain sense of responsibility. I was one of the people who were criticised the most in the newspapers but I didn’t take up the telephone and threaten the editors with death. We certainly had a robust relationship with the press and we knew where the boundaries were.
We didn’t use our powers to manipulate the Police or to protect our kith and kin from lawful action, if they had violated the law. It was one of the most democratic governments Sri Lanka has ever seen and I’m very proud of being a part of it.
It was during my period as Media Minister that the Rupavahini and the ITN had the highest number of political talk shows, where the opposition at that time were given maximum participation and in most instances I remember, the opposition MPs fared much better than the ones representing the government. But I didn’t stop it from being aired.
Today however, the gates of the state media are closed to the opposition, but what is more shocking is that they are using that same power, in the most vitriolic manner to hurl abuse, who are criticising this regime. These are shocking violations of the most accepted norms of ethics.
Q:When you say that we are heading towards a dictatorial regime isn’t it just rhetoric. What specifically do you refer to when you make such statements?
Well not one. If I had the time I can go on for hours on this subject. First of all, with the goodwill generated with the defeat of the LTTE they created an artificial majority by buying up some members from the Opposition to make it 2/3rds in parliament.
This is exactly what Adolf Hitler did in 1933 under what was called an enabling act. This was the final act which made Hitler, who also came through the vote of the people into a dictator. So similarly the President also created a 2/3rd majority and then the first act under his new government was to grab power of all the independent institutions of this country, which were created with the consensus of all political parties through the 18th Amendment.
Parliament in 2001, barring one MP, voted unanimously for the 17th Amendment- for the establishing of Independent Elections, Police Commission, Judicial Services Commission, Government Services Commission and a Bribery Commission. But instead of strengthening these institutions; there was a presidential power grab- that is the only word I could think of. Not only was that done but the term limit of a President was taken away so that the President could contest indefinitely. That to me is a very, very serious violation of democracy and marked the first step towards dictatorship.
Then of course the greatest impediment for any dictator is the free media. From about 2007 you saw the gradual deterioration of rights of the media personnel. Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed in 2009, MTV was attacked a few days before Lasantha was killed and anyone who dared to criticise the government- dared to criticise the first family. I think there is a distinction there, the person who does so fell into a lot of harm.
As a result of the continued harassment today, almost all journalists subject themselves to some sort of self-censorship. The last report of the committee to protect journalists says that Sri Lanka is the 4th most dangerous place for a journalist to work in, which of course is true. I mean, I sincerely hope that my references to the Rajapaksa family would remain in your interview and if you can’t, I don’t blame you- because in many instances, where I have come out with facts- not speculative nonsense but facts some of which I have tabled in parliament- they have been omitted from many of the newspapers and news stations. When I ask the journalists about it -they tell me- ‘I’m sorry but unlike you we don’t have security, unlike you we don’t have a vehicle and we have to always travel by public transport, and we have our family so we have to think of ourselves and don’t want to be killed like Lasantha, or beaten up like Poddala Jayantha nor do we want to live abroad in exile. We have to somehow continue working here and in order to live, work and survive; we have to ensure that we don’t write certain things’.
So that is that climate of fear, which they have created over the years and people wouldn’t dare write about it. For example, there was this incident where a member of the first family assaulted a rugby referee, which was not reported in any media.
I really don’t blame the newspapers or you as journalists but if all of you had the courage to write the truth, to report what is happening there would have been some sort of hold.
The root of the problem doesn’t lie elsewhere but right at the top itself. This is why the son of some rural Pradeshiya Sabha member had the audacity to assault a principal because they think this is how power works and think that he can get away with it because his father is in power. This is why we have to go into the root of the problem.
Q:One of the main allegations against you is that you are known to slander, and instead of playing that role in the government you are now playing it in the UNP?
If I’m slandering then they must come up and say what the slander is. Anything that upsets them, anything which talks about the corruption is called slander. I have been in parliament for nearly 25 year. I take responsibility for almost everything I say. Making allegations against some person is a very serious matter so I go through all the facts before I make such statements.
Even in parliament they don’t get up rationally and logically answer the allegations I make against them, instead there is this gang of Nil Balakaya MP’s who basically hurl absolute abuse from the floor of the house. That is their idea of responding to allegations against them.
And I of course would vehemently deny that anything I am saying or will be saying is slander, I take responsibility for each and every allegation I make.
Q: Mahinda Rajapaksa is your friend, you were ‘brothers in arms’ , is this the friend that you knew who is now the President of the country?
I sometimes still have sleepless nights thinking about the metamorphosis of Mahinda. We were great friends as you said; we initiated the Mothers Front Movement in 1989 where Mahinda and I were joint conveners of the movement fighting abuses that were prevalent during the period. And then throughout, as you know, up until 2005 Mahinda was the darling of the free media, while I was being attacked as an obnoxious arrogant man and what not.
Mahinda was the darling of the Trade Union movement, he was the champion of Human Rights and he even got a Doctorate for the championing of Human Rights from an Indian University. So I am trying to figure out, how this man who championed such noble causes turned out to be the monster, he is today. I have my own theories but this is not a forum to describe such theories.
I still like to think that the Old Mahinda is somewhere dormant within him but unfortunately he seems to have become a prisoner of his own brood.
Q:You still don’t seem to have lost hope because you are actively involved in politics and the alternative you propose.
The alternative is the UNP.
Q:How is the UNP the alternative, isn’t Ranil Wickremesinghe the exact mirror of what you have described?
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been in power and is one of the most senior politicians in this country, and no one can point a finger at him and say his family played a major role in the political decisions he has taken
Q:No I’m talking about the dictatorialism you spoke of?
No certainly not. In fact Ranil in power was one of the most democratic leaders we have seen. In fact I remember when he lost the elections as Prime Minister, instead of hanging around for days trying to manipulate other parties in order to hang on to power, he vacated temple trees in four hours.
Q: But he has been repeatedly rejected at elections by the people of this country?
How can you say repeatedly? in 2005 he was defeated by only a whisker, and we know, he knows and the President knows that he should have been the person who should be sitting in the top chair now. So to say that he was repeatedly defeated is something I can’t accept.
After the victory of the war, even if we were to bring D.S. Senanayake or Dudley or JR back from the grave, that 2010 election was an election Mahinda was destined to win despite our conscious decision to field a common candidate.
Ranil’s moment in history is emerging now more so than ever before because today the country does not need a PR man as President. The economy is in shambles, there is absolutely no governance in this country, there is no rule of law, then internationally Sri Lanka has been a country that was embraced internationally whether it be in Washington, New Delhi, Beijing or Moscow our leaders walked in with confidence. But today we are becoming the new Burma of Asia or the Zimbabwe of Asia.
Q: Isn’t this an Utopian ideal that you are talking about. Let us be realistic, do you think that realistically Ranil Wickremesinghe can be elected by the people of this country?
Of course I do. Not only can he be elected, but he will be elected. Just one last thing, we only need 10% of the vote- a swing the next time at a presidential election and I am of course confident that Ranil Wickremesinghe can be and will be elected. But we have to work on it.
Q: Do you personally believe that the provincial council system solves the political problem of the minorities in the country and do you believe that with the powers vested on such system through the 13th Amendment is sufficient or excessive?
The provincial council system in General has failed especially to address the very points it was sought to address. It has not succeeded in addressing the problems of the Tamil people. But the answer to that is not to roll back what has already been given because it would be a more dangerous situation to roll back what was given without an alternative which devolves more powers to the North and the East.
As I said before the future of this country depends on power sharing, a political solution is a sine qua non- if we are to move ahead as a modern country into the 21st century. But by trying to roll back the 13th Amendment we are merely going to justify the violence of Prabhakaran.
Prabhakaran always justified his violence to the Tamil people, who were also against such violence, by saying that if not for the violence unleashed by him the Sinhalese governments would never have looked at the problems of the Tamil people.
So now when the LTTE is no longer present and the violence factor is no longer an issue, if the government decides to take back even the little they have given to the Tamil people it will only make a martyr and a visionary of Prabhakaran. It is a very, very dangerous move and I hope Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t give-in to the fanatics of his own party.