The Sri Lankan political situation has taken an interesting turn with the fairly narrow victory of the United National Party in the general election, its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe being sworn in as Prime Minister for the fourth time, and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two main parties, the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, paving the way for a ‘unity’ or national government. A day after he assumed office, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe spoke to The Hindu in the Prime Minister’s office at Temple Trees on a wide range of issues, including the project of working out a new Constitution for Sri Lanka, finding an enduring political solution to the Tamil question, and livelihood, development, and human rights issues. Excerpts from the interview by N. Ram:
Prime Minister, you announced a very ambitious task: working out a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. The last Constitution of course was in 1978 – you also were part of that process – and before that in 1972. There is a lot of experience going into this. But will this not take a long time?
Well, the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] thinks it will take one year and we [the United National Party] think it should take six months. The main issue will be the new system of elections. We are all agreed that it should be a mixed proportional system. But we still haven’t agreed on the break-up between the constituencies and those who come on the general list. There is also the issue of the presidency, with the citizens’ group wanting the executive presidency to be abolished completely while the SLFP is opposed to it. So we said we would have to review the whole thing and then see how we strengthen Parliament. The more we strengthen Parliament… the executive presidency will be whittled away. But we also have to look at the Provincial Councils and how we make them really work. There is a general feeling that it is a white elephant but we have to make them work. Those are the main issues we will have to go into.
So you are confident it can be done within this time-frame?
I think the areas are narrow. If we want to, we can do it. If we get over the issue of electoral representation, then I think we can put the other things into place.
Do you have any strong, clear views on electoral representation?
It has to be a mixed-member proportional system. We will have to bridge the gap between the two main parties which are looking at stability and the smaller parties which want to increase their share, so they will have a bigger say. But the general trend at this election seems to be working towards a three-party system, two major parties and maybe one smaller party.
You have seen what has happened in Nepal, where there was a lot of promise and then they have got stuck on this Constituent Assembly. But you can do it differently?
I think we can. We have a Constitution. It’s a question of replacing it. Nepal had no Constitution. And there’s agreement [here] that we have to change the system. But when you go to change the electoral system, the different interests come into play – regional parties, small parties, big parties.
On Cabinet formation: you have a limit of 30.
It is now 30, unless there is a national government. When we brought this 19th Amendment in and we limited the size to 30, some of us – I was one of them – said, ‘Look, we may try to form a unity government, in which case the reality is that 30 won’t suffice.’ So Parliament went into this and added the provision that if you have a national government, then you can exceed 30 but Parliament will fix the number. So we will exceed 30 and now we are negotiating on the number.
The key posts will be Finance, Foreign Affairs, Justice…
There are many Ministries that are important. But the development Ministries are the ones that people will look at.
The international community will be looking to you to provide strong leadership, particularly on the economy.
I think we will go ahead and do well. But I would like to get a consensus – because then it will stay on long after we finish politics.
There is a feeling that the present political situation provides an opportunity to move fairly quickly towards a political solution to what is regarded as your principal national question – the Tamil question in the North and East. You have been emphasizing the need for this over a long period. You have supported devolution. What are the prospects of making progress towards a permanent political solution? A lot of time was lost after the war ended in 2009.
There have been a lot of administrative barriers, which have to be removed. Secondly, there has been a request by some of the Provincial Councils that as far as the powers exercised jointly, by both the Centre and the Provinces, concurrent powers, are concerned, some of it could be transferred to the Provinces. Those are the main issues and we have to work this out. We have to discuss this, the two main parties and the TNA [Tamil National Alliance], the third one. They will be the three key players in formulating [the proposals].
And the SLMC [Sri Lanka Muslim Congress]?
The SLMC will come along. They will look at how they are going to protect the interests of the SLMC and the ACMC [All Ceylon Muslim Congress], Muslims in the East and the North.
Over a long period, the Tamils have been emphasizing the need to empower the Provincial Council or Councils with respect to land and police powers. There were efforts to resolve these issues but nothing came of them.
I think a lot of people are satisfied with land. The real issue in the North and the East now is re-settlement of people who got evicted from their land – in Jaffna and in the East. We say that subject to the main issues of national security, we will release the land. The services, the armed forces, are working out the modalities. As far as police powers are concerned, I think there is a lot of re-thinking going on – on the politicisation of the police and that we should not allow that. So let the Independent Police Commission be strengthened further and look at this, then see what role the Provincial Councils play. To take one example, it is quite possible that had the 13th Amendment operated in full in respect of police powers, the TNA might have got locked up in the Eastern Province and there was little we could have done! We all have had our experiences – the politicisation of the police under President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa. We will all work at it. We accept the fact that the Provincial Council must have a say in the law and order situation, no going back on that. But at the same time, how do you work this out in a practical way so that the police are freed from political influence and the Inspector-General of Police can lay down national policy and insist and ensure that law and order is enforced? And he has to report to Parliament.
As for the issue of merger of the North and the East, that was struck down [in 2006] by the judiciary, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Has it come on to the agenda?
That was a temporary merger; there was no permanent merger. The Constitution provides that two Provinces or more can be merged if it is passed by the Provincial Councils and accepted at a referendum held in the respective Provinces separately. So that formula stays as it is.
The terminological gap remains. One side speaks of a ‘federal’ solution. Earlier the demand was for a separatist solution, a separate state, but the real, longstanding demand on the Tamil side has been federalism. The Constitution on the other hand provides for a ‘unitary’ state. Is it not possible to avoid getting caught in a terminological dispute but instead concentrate on the substance of what you call ‘devolution’ or what perhaps can be called ‘a substantial measure of self-administering opportunities within a united and undivided Sri Lanka’? As you know, the Indian Constitution doesn’t mention federalism at all. It is a Union of States. Is it not possible to get round that issue and focus just on the substance?
Substance is what we have to look at. Actually even today, the devolved powers in Sri Lanka are sometimes more than the powers given in federal Constitutions. So let us look at how we could work this whole system out and go ahead. The formula which was accepted by India also, let’s see how we work it out within the 13th Amendment, maximise it. Let’s build on this. That’s what we are talking about now.
Some far-going constitutional proposals were made during the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency. Do they hold something worthwhile, you think?
There has been a lot of discussion behind the scenes in the last few years. It is a question now of putting that together and how we work it out.
So you are confident about making progress?
I think we should be able to do that.
And on the human rights issues, there is a demand for an international investigation. But clearly there is a consensus in Sri Lanka that the investigation should be domestic.
We have agreed it is domestic for the simple reason that we did not sign the Statute of Rome. The commitment that was given by the Rajapaksa administration to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2009 could be interpreted in many ways. At one stage they were moving towards international investigation. But we always said, the UNP, that there was no legal basis for international investigation within Sri Lanka; it had to be domestic. The reason some of the people have been calling for international investigation is the loss of confidence in the judiciary. We’ve had this problem before, in the North and in the South. People did not question the independence of the judiciary and of the law enforcement machinery. But that machinery ceased to function properly. The call has come for international investigation. We would like to put forward a domestic mechanism which would be within the four corners of our Constitution but would also be acceptable to all the communities in Sri Lanka plus the international community.
So that would be the key difference between your approach and the approach of the previous administration?
We would look at a strong, independent internal judicial mechanism. Independent and one that is acceptable to all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka and to the international community. This is also a way for us to build up independence of the judiciary within Sri Lanka.
What kind of role do you see former President Kumaratunga playing at this juncture?
She heads the Office for National Unity. She is also now playing a leading role in the SLFP. And she chaired the Committee which drafted the MoU from their side. President Maithripala Sirisena and the former President Kumaratunga have a moderating influence in the SLFP and I think they are spearheading a movement to revive the SLFP brand, as we call it. We the UNP never gave up identity; we may have alliances but we never gave up identity. The SLFP is suffering the consequence of submerging their identity in the UPFA and having their personality cults.
She can also play in helping forge a political solution [to the Tamil question in the North and the East]. When she was President, there were some good ideas in the constitutional proposals made at that time.
She has. She and Rev. Maduluwave Sobitha [Thero] have been working in one group. We have one group. Others have different views. So let’s look at common meeting points. I have tried to keep the UNP position flexible so that we can bridge the differences.
The plantation Tamils have made a real difference to the election outcome, contributed substantial votes to the UNP victory. Some of them told me they were a little disappointed that they didn’t get even one preference seat, a seat on your national list.
They are well represented. The Tamils living in the hill country will have their own communities to live with, and they get integrated with the communities. I think they have made a lot of advancement in the last few months compared to earlier. But we have to go ahead. I prefer to call them Sri Lankan Tamils living in the hill country rather than plantation Tamils, because I don’t know how long this plantation system can carry on. From a few schools which did A-level science in the Tamil medium, we have added 25 more. In the next ten years, with more and more people going towards the science and the maths stream, there will be a reluctance to be involved in the plantation system. We have to accept the fact that the plantation system as we know it now may not be there. To call them the plantation community will be like trying to identify a ghetto. Many of them will move out into other areas, to Colombo and some other developed areas. And that’s the way it should be. Finally, all the people in the hill country, whether those who worked earlier in the plantations or those who worked in the villages, are all citizens of Sri Lanka.
There was an attempt in the recent general election campaign to send out the message to voters that this political change was the work of the minorities, ganging up, and that if you allowed it to go further, there would be a threat of the revival or return of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]. Did that make an impact on the elections?
I don’t think so. It may have catered to the hard core of the Rajapaksa supporters. But anyway they would have voted for Rajapaksa. I think communal issues ceased to be an item in this election. They did their best; some of them tried it and finally found it very, very embarrassing. When they accused us of dividing the country, we told them, ‘Look, in the event of the LTTE returning, we have the best Defence Minister available, and that is the President who is your leader!” They had no answer to that. They would have got suspended from their party for accusing their leader! There is enough evidence on how the former regime, President Rajapaksa and others, had contact with the LTTE. I always said, ‘I prefer to go into defeat and spend ten years in the wilderness rather than come to any electoral arrangement with [Velupillai] Prabakaran.’ I had a ceasefire, which was signed formally by me, not with Prabakaran but with the Norway government. I was not willing to enter into any electoral agreement.
Did it cost you victory in the 2005 presidential election?
It cost me ten years.
Is it clear there was a deal?
There was a deal. That is accepted; they have not rejected it. Money was passed, two hundred million rupees initially, well over two billion rupees finally, which went out of government funds, for restoring houses damaged by the tsunami. But no houses had been restored. Payments had gone on till about until the end of 2006 – early 2007.
You are putting all this behind you, are you?
We have put it behind us. Unless someone brings it up, we are not going to raise this subject.
The former President may have surprised some people by coming to your swearing-in. We saw you shake hands and chat with him warmly. What will be his role in the new dispensation?
Mine has been a political rivalry with him. And I said I was going to oppose him for the simple reason I didn’t agree with the way the country was run, especially with regard to national unity and democracy. Other than that, he has got to determine what his role is. I think it will take him some time. As he gets moving, he may want take a back seat and only speak out on the main issues. It is up to him to decide and I think different people are giving him different types of advice.
But there will be a line of communication between him and you as Prime Minister?
Oh yes, I speak to him, he speaks to me, we speak over the telephone. I say it is a political rivalry, nothing personal between the two sides.
What would you say is the main difference, in terms of characterisation of the parties, between the UNP and the SLFP as they stand today?
It has all changed now. General elections are campaigns between the UNP and anti-UNP groups. But in the presidential election in January, because of what President Rajapaksa did, it became a campaign between pro–Mahinda Rajapaksa and anti–Mahinda Rajapaksa groups. In this [parliamentary] election, there was confusion within the SLFP fold. Some of them, having opposed Mahinda Rajapaksa, came over to the UNP, those who would otherwise not have joined with the UNP. There ceased to be an anti-UNP bloc. And within the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance), one group was a strong Mahinda Rajapaksa group, the other was not with Mahinda Rajapaksa. It’s a question of how the numbers play out. But the President’s leadership has not been challenged.
The arrangement that you have initiated, that you and the President perhaps have initiated, rules out what would have been unseemly defection, some MPs breaking away from the SLFP to join you. Was that ever on? There was speculation in the media about this.
We decided that wouldn’t be the way. We could have got ten or fifteen people over from the other side but then again, it would have put the President in a very, very embarrassing position. But if we could cooperate with the SLFP, that was far more advantageous to us than getting fifteen of them over. Because we are trying to set a national framework for at least the next ten years. We will try and work this out.
Will this arrangement, which needs to be firmed up, send a positive message to the Tamils? Will they be reassured by this?
I think they will be re-assured.
Not worried by this?
We didn’t have an overall majority in Parliament. But then we had to have a working system. Now, if you look at India, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] has an overall majority, a clear majority, in the Lok Sabha but they are in a minority in the Rajya Sabha. So everything is divided, nothing is moving. I didn’t want to come to that state or to be fighting for every piece of main legislation. It’s better we agree and get this through and see how it works out. If it succeeds, every one will be on board. If it doesn’t succeed, people will go their own way. But I am a hundred per cent confident that we can succeed. We have tremendous issues to resolve, more than our personal or political rivalries. The employment issue; how you are going to fit into the international economy; restoring national democracy; working on national unity; upgrading our system of education; free education, free health; and the national debt. Instead of shouting at who was responsible, let’s see how we get out of where we are.
Finally, on international relations. There were problems earlier. Relations with western powers deteriorated. There were some issues in relations with India. Is there going to be a real change in approach now?
A lot of people are unhappy about the approach taken by President Rajapaksa. I think that was a mistake; we shouldn’t have antagonised the west. Our approach is: we get back to having the close relations we had with the west and with India while maintaining our relationship with China, which has also been a longstanding one. And looking at our own role in the region and what stand we will take on some of the main international issues.
Since there is so much on your plate by way of domestic issues, will you be able to devote time to some of your favourite projects, like the land bridge between Sri Lanka and India? Or will that take some time?
We will first have to get the country moving – that’s the priority – and then to look at all other issues. (The Hindu)