We cannot act according to the views of extremists in the North or in the South
It was a Sunday afternoon, and the 64-year-old Maithripala Sirisena was in no mood to relax. He had a series of meetings earlier. After his appointment with Frontline in a hall of his official residence sporting the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Mahatma Gandhi, the President had some more meetings scheduled for the day. He appeared relaxed during his interaction with this correspondent, which was originally meant to be brief but lasted nearly one hour. He listened to the questions closely and patiently and replied mostly in Sinhala. Excerpts from the interview.
How would you rate your performance in the last one year—good, very good, excellent?
[Smiles] Very good.
Have you finished what you had planned to do in the first year of your term?
No. But I have begun to carry out. It [last year] was the entry point.
Has your relationship with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was in the rival camp until November 2014, grown closer? How do you feel about working with him?
Very close. [I am] extremely satisfied.
What is your response to the criticism that a number of amendments made to the 2016 Budget have revealed that the United National Party (UNP)-Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) coalition government is not functioning cohesively?
It was a very good Budget. The proposals were excellent. The criticism arose when concessions to public servants and people of the country were reduced. If these [the concessions] are withdrawn, we need to inform the people in advance and explain why we are taking them back. In this instance, the people were not properly informed. That was our fault. This was why we had to make certain changes.
Do you still fear that you might be toppled? Over a period of eight months you made repeated references to “counter-revolutions” and conspiracies.
Conspiracy is not the term that I would use. Some people had expectations that they could topple my government. The way the Budget was passed by the parliament during the second reading and the third reading clearly showed the strength of the government. Now, they have lost their hopes [of ousting the government].
Your government is taking steps to draft a new Constitution. How much time do you think will be required for the new Constitution to be adopted?
There will be a comprehensive national debate over a year on whether the existing Constitution should be amended or a new Constitution is required. We have to seek the views of the people, intellectuals, professionals, constitutional experts and civil society organisations. We will seek the mandate of the people at every stage. There is no need for any fears [regarding the process] and we cannot act according to the views of extremists in the North or in the South.
Are you firm on abolishing the executive presidency?
What is your idea on the issue of devolution? What are the constitutional safeguards that you are planning to provide the minorities not just in the Northern and Eastern provinces but also in other parts of Sri Lanka?
We have a long history of devolution in this country. After [SLFP founder] S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike came to power in 1956, he entered into a pact with [Federal Party leader] S.J. Chelvanayakam on the issue of devolution, but it was not allowed to be implemented. In 1965, the then Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, entered into a similar pact with Chelvanayakam, but people of petty political minds objected to the implementation of this agreement, too. The year 1983 [“Black July”] was a very unfortunate and negative experience.
Later, Rajiv Gandhi and J.R. Jayawardene signed an agreement in 1987; the 13th [Constitutional] Amendment was enacted and the law on provincial councils was adopted. The India-Lanka Pact was one of the main turning points in the course of attempts made to solve the problem. The extremists on either side should not forget the bitter experiences of the past.
If you look at the history of mankind, there is always opposition when one tries to do good for the nation. But, one has to go ahead, undeterred by the threats of assassination. What requires to be done for the country has to be done.
Will you retain the 13th Amendment?
This will be decided after the national debate.
What is your view of the Northern Province, which you have visited frequently in recent months?
[Referring to his impromptu visit to a camp of internally displaced people in Jaffna district] I was, until then, under the impression that only those who were displaced in the last stages of the [Eelam] war were left in such camps. I was surprised to find that some of the people who were there had been living in the camp for 25 years. I blame myself that I was not aware of this tragic situation. Their main desire is to get back to their original places at the earliest. I made a statement that I would solve their problems in six months. I am determined to do that.
What is your take on the formation of the Tamil People’s Council with the Northern Province’s Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran, as co-chair?
It’s an internal matter [of the Tamils]. I do not want to interfere.
What is your response to the growing perception that the government has not done anything substantial to implement the United Nations Human Rights Council’s [UNHRC] resolution on accountability and reconciliation though it is three months since the resolution was passed?
I have held meetings with representatives and leaders of all parties, apart from ascertaining the views of experts. When we are looking for solutions to these problems, we always look at them through the provisions available in the existing Constitution.
There is no reason for allowing the participation of foreign experts as we have sufficient judges and our judiciary is strong and independent enough to handle issues like these [concerning accountability]. Foreign experts can share their experience with us, but we will be handling [the mechanisms] on our own.
We have not been ordered [by the UNHRC] to do anything. We are proceeding step by step towards implementation. We have set up a task force on national reconciliation with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as the chairperson. We have also established a mechanism to handle complaints regarding people who have allegedly disappeared. So, we have to study all issues properly and find long-term solutions.
How soon will a special court be set up [to go into the allegations of war crimes]?
At the moment, there is no requirement to discuss such an issue. Now, we have to do certain things and we are processing them.
Is not the special court a priority issue?
There are certain things that we have to do immediately. Only then can we look at the issue of the special court and come to a conclusion on whether it is required or not.
One has to evaluate, investigate, go through the process of study and see whether certain things have happened. If so, subsequent steps become necessary. (Outlook)