As the nation prepared – with much fuming over road closures in central Colombo – to celebrate Independence Day on February 4, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who has re-emerged into national prominence with her pivotal role in last year’s dramatic regime change, was deeply reflective on key national problems.
Interviewed by the Sunday Observer at her official residence adjoining Independence Hall in Colombo, the former President presented the country and the current national leadership with some challenges to be met in drafting a new constitution and governing as a coalition of traditional political rivals. She also had her own views on the internal divisions within the SLFP.
Q: You were the enabler of the draft constitution of 2000.Do you see the future constitution as something with similar characteristics – given that it will address much of the same major issues, such as authoritarianism and social and ethnic injustice? Any differences?
A: While the two major drivers are the same – that is, democratisation and redressing the ethnic question – the general conditions in the country are different today compared with the situation in 2000.
In 2000, the country was still at war whereas today, there are more stable conditions. The draft constitution of 2000 goes further than what we can do now. Today, too, we have the same approach to national needs but the substance must evolve out of the discussions and negotiations with all concerned groups. The government and the national leadership is discussing with all main community leaders and political parties. There is a view that extremists within the SLFP are trying to organise themselves by making this platform a lever to their advantage. They adopt postures to block devolution from being taken beyond the 13th Amendment.
I think that we have been dragging this issue for over 70 years. Both main parties have used this devolution question in a game of political one-upmanship. This kind of tactic is actually anti-national. It is a dangerous and destructive ploy used for personal political gain by a handful of people without their party interest kept foremost.
Why can’t the Sinhala majority share the power that they enjoy with all other citizens? That is why we are trying to devolve power to a satisfactory extent to all communities. We have launched many parallel initiatives from the Parliamentary Constitutional Assembly to other government and civil society platforms like ONUR (Office of National Unity and Reconciliation) to enable the widest possible public consultation and consensus.
Q: How can a country’s constitution affirm a pluralist, multi-cultural and multi-religious State, which might, at the same time, be committed to upholding and nurturing a single religion?
A: The principle of sharing power does, in no way, reduce the powers and privileges enjoyed by the majority Sinhalese. Accepting and embracing difference and diversity only strengthens both the majority and minority rather than weaken them. We need to work together rather than against each other.
Think of the huge losses caused by decades of war. The whole nation has lost opportunities and resources. Development can only be achieved by private investment and this could not happen as long as there was doubt about stability. Now that we are building stable political conditions, with the prospect of social stability, investments have begun to come in.
The religion of the majority should be given its due place and our national leadership will ensure that. And this can be done without undermining the equal status of other religions. The new constitution will guarantee equality to practise all religions. At the same time, all our languages and cultures should have equal dignity as in a proper civilised society. This is what Buddhism teaches us.
Q: Nations often want to focus their polity around an ethnic and religious identity. But national societies are also equally differentiated by socio-economic classes which have very powerful, often oppositional, group interests. Should not the constitution also address diverse class interests so that class antagonisms are contained by a social compact – an ordering of the State’s responsibilities towards both culture and class?
A: Ours is a broadly welfarist State as are most countries in South Asia. Social facilities are granted equally to all social groups. Workers’ rights are protected just as much as capital investments are protected. I believed earlier in a socialist economic system. Global trends have evolved. Now I say that I believe in capitalism with a human face.
Q: At least, should we not continue with our own tradition of social welfarism to which we, already, owe so much for our impressive social indicators?
A: This tradition is a proud one and we should continue it. We must have a competitive economy and an inclusive, caring, society.
Q: How should the forthcoming constitution facilitate a political settlement of the ethnic group aspirations and inequities? In addition to the need for devolution of power to the regions, should there not be a strong commitment of the State enforced multi-lingual administration at the centre?
A: These are all important subjects. The discussions and conversations have begun throughout the country. Let us wait and see what the people tell us through their representatives.
Q: Will the provincial demarcations be re-arranged to transcend outdated colonial purposes and address current and emerging demographies such as weak development in the South and urban concentrations in the West?
A: This is a most complex and sensitive issue and is best left to the political discussions that are on-going. Our national political leaders will approach these issues thoroughly and with the best expert advice from all sides.
Q: In addition to a Tamil majority unit in the North, will Muslim aspirations be met with a possible non-contiguous unit in the East?
A: The social interests of the Muslims must be addressed equally along with the interests of all other major communities. We have to wait and see how things emerge through the discussions. Let us not come to conclusions hastily.
Q: Will the new constitution impose more firm standards of internal democracy within political parties that wish to register to contest elections? At present, no political party has internal management processes comparable with the internal structural arrangements of parties in established liberal democracies.
A: Definitely! This is the most critical issue and is of concern among all citizens. In addition to a genuine internal democracy within parties, I think that every single person contesting an election, should compulsorily declare his or her assets in a detailed manner so that nothing is hidden. An independent body should examine all such declarations. And such a body should regularly review and verify the politicians’ declared assets.
I predict that if such an oversight mechanism is implemented, the unseemly rush to contest for power will decline drastically! We can then stop politics from becoming the business that it is today.
Q: The news media these days talk about a possible split in the SLFP. They also talk about a new party to be formed by the SLFP’s smaller partners in the UPFA, i.e. the MEP, LSSP, CP and the NFF. Will some SLFP dissidents join the new party?
A: We are aware that a certain group of people who lost power are desperate to get back into power to save their skins. This includes a certain group in the SLFP as well – a group that indulged in all that the people rejected on January 8 last year.
If the SLFP leadership carefully explains to the party cadres what actually happened and how much was plundered and destroyed during the past regime, the people will not follow this so-called group and any party that they might form.
This group undermined the very foundations on which the SLFP was built. During the last regime, the SLFP was fast losing its relevance as a people’s party. It bred corrupt and murderous politicians and the party did not enforce discipline among its MPs. We now face a huge challenge to re-build the party while strengthening and modernising its vision and principles as the prime people’s party in this country.
In this, President Sirisena has an essential role to play. He has the experience and the skills to do it. He has the fullest support of the true-blue SLFPers from the village upwards.
Q: Will Mahinda Rajapaksa betray his party and join this new formation?
A: Well, he is leading that faction. This is not the first time that he has undermined the party. In 1980, Mahinda was an active member of the group against Sirimavo Bandaranaike to remove her from the leaderhship. The genuine SLFPers of the likes of Ratnasiri (Wickramanayake), Ratna Deshapriya (Senanayake), Maithripala Sirisena, T. B. (Illangakoon), Hector (Kobbekaduwa) and myself, protected the party and its leadership. We ensured the party’s strength and stability at the time. But that struggle weakened the party and was the major reason that the SLFP were out of power for 17 years.
The SLFP is a resilient party and will survive this new challenge.We need strong leadership and a clear vision.
Q: Are SLFPers happy that currently the party is so involved with its traditional rival in a coalition?
A: A number of party members are confused that since January 8 last year, we are together with our traditional rival in government. Party members had to accept this idea at short notice in our campaign to throw out the corrupt previous regime. So it is natural that some are confused still. I am one of the main actors who mooted this strategy of a joint government for the sake of the country.
And I did it primarily because I also wanted to rescue the party from those who were keeping the party in their grip and ruining the party and betraying its links with the people.
The people know how this political change has eased their lives and restored some decency and normal governance in the country. Our country’s name was being dragged in mud in the eyes of the world. To fight that leadership with a divided opposition was impossible and that is why we unified out forces.
At one time, the UNP too was troubled by internal tensions. Similarly, the right-thinking SLFPers were also marginalised during the previous regime. We could not make a change with each party acting on its own. That is why civil society leaders and the Sangha led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera supported us.
I see no problem in working with the UNP on this joint mission to restore the nation in accordance with our agreed program of a unity government.
While working with the UNP in government, both parties have the advantage of a stable political platform which enables both parties to re-build and re-build with a new vision. This is not to help the UNP but to help our own party. The government must continue to its full five-year term to fulfil our commitments and vision.
|Courtesy Sunday Observer|