Anura Kumara Dissanayake. File photo. | Photo Credit: Meera Srinivasan .
Sri Lanka’s Leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People’s Liberation Front has been a crucial dissenting voice in the wake of the political crisis persisting for a month now. Its six MPs in Parliament, including party leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, have been both emphatic and strategic in their resistance to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was questionably installed as Prime Minister on October 26 by President Maithripala Sirisena. The party moved two No Confidence Motions against him last week that were passed with a majority in the House.
All the same, the JVP’s fight is only for democracy and not intended to back ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, says Dissanayake, who also has a sharp critique of Wickremesinghe’s government that has been in power for three-and-a-half years. In an interview to The Hindu at the party’s headquarters in Battaramulla, a busy suburb of Colombo, on Wednesday, the 49-year-old leader points to the party’s future course and the possibility of working with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) representing the Tamil minority in the north and east.
After the Presidential elections of 2015, there was a power struggle between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremsinghe. Consequently, both camps – Sirisena and Wickremesinghe – were working with the Mahinda Rajapaksa group right from the beginning.
This hidden power struggle, or cold war had been there for the three-and-a-half-years since they formed government together. It became more evident in the February local authority elections [in which a new party backed by Rajapaksa won big].
What we saw recently was really the long-prevailing cold war between the two camps bursting out. By resorting to such moves, Sirisena thought the Rajapaksas will back him in the next presidential election.
As a party we do not accept Sirisena’s allegations that there was an assassination plot targeting him. He also said he had many personal disagreements with Ranil. But those are not the real reasons for his actions.
At the very beginning, there was an agreement with Sirisena that he would dissolve the Parliament after 100 days of forming government. But he did not do that. Contrarily, he took the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well as its front, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). He led the UPFA in the parliamentary election that year [August 2015].
He agreed to form this unity government with Ranil because he didn’t have his own MPs in the government. He asked UPFA and SLFP MPs to join the unity government, so that he could exert some power within the government. The power struggle was visible even within the cabinet, right from the beginning.
With the deadlock now in parliament, after the Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected the two No Confidence Motions — moved by you and backed by a majority in the House — do you see a resolution in Parliament?
We think what happened on October 26 is a conspiracy that violated the Constitution and led to the appointment of an illegal government. First, they violated the Constitution and established an illegal government. After that, in order to protect that illegal government, they violated the Constitution again, and violated due process in Parliament.
The two No Confidence Motions that we moved, and were subsequently passed, were according to Parliamentary procedure. As per the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Executive [President] is responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions. But what has happened now is that the Executive has interfered with the Legislature.
According to the Constitution, Article 48 (2), it is very clear that after a No Confidence Motion is passed, the government and cabinet automatically stand dissolved. Once it is ruled in Parliament that such a motion is passed then no one, including the President, has a say in the matter. The President has no powers to question or challenge the contents of the No Confidence Motion. He has no powers to demand the list of names or signatures, according to the Constitution. What he must do is to appoint a new Prime Minister and cabinet of ministers. He has no power other than that.
When we observe the actions of President Maithripala Sirisena for the last 25 days, it is clear that he has repeatedly violated the Constitution to protect the illegal government he appointed.
The immediate impact of the President’s actions is visible. What, in your opinion, are the long-term implications?
As a party we think we should go for general elections, go in front of the people and get a new mandate – that will be a solution to the current crisis. However, we do not accept the illegal dissolution of the Parliament by the President. As you know, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has given an interim order staying the President’s dissolution of Parliament and call for snap elections.
If we accept the dissolution, it means that we accept the position that the President can dissolve Parliament at any time. We cannot accept that. On the other hand, we are not ready to go for elections when an illegal government is holding on to power. If we go for polls under these circumstances, it would mean that we endorse this illegal government, and all the illegal moves of the President. So, we are fighting against both the illegal government appointed by President Sirisena, and his illegal dissolution of Parliament.
Once a government, which has the majority in Parliament, is established, and the situation in the country is normalised, our party is ready to bring a motion to dissolve the House with two-thirds majority and go for general elections.
Both groups trying to establish majority at the moment can do so only by buying over MPs or resorting to other unethical practices. That is why we are saying let us go for a fresh mandate after the situation is normalised.
We think Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government from 2010 to 2015 was an anti-democratic, racist and highly corrupt government. Because of that Sri Lanka was isolated internationally as well. We took the position that his government must be defeated. As a party we felt that we must defeat the Rajapaksa government, well before the 2015 elections.
In January 2015, whether we liked it or not, the reality was that the front that was able to defeat Rajapaksa was a UNP-led coalition. However, we saw in the last three and a half years that the UNP-led government’s actions and policies were completely against the mandate they were given.
We oppose the economic policies of the UNP government, we oppose the free trade agreements signed by the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. We launched agitations against such policies. As a party we don’t think we have a political course aligned to that of the UNP. Our political course will certainly be one opposed to their policies.
In this particular situation, that President Sirisena has initiated, our position is to fight against the unconstitutional, undemocratic move of the President. There aren’t many truths about that, there is only one. From the UNP’s point of view, they are fighting his actions just to get their power back. Seeing that, some may say that we are working together with the UNP, but that is not the truth.
We are in this battle purely to fight Sirisena’s anti-democratic actions. UNP is using this opportunity to try and come back to power again. Our fights may appear similar, but the underlying reasons are very different.
Even within the last three and a half years, the UNP-led government did not work according to democratic principles. For example, take the Singapore Free Trade Agreement. The cabinet had decided to discuss it first, not to sign it immediately. But Ranil went ahead and signed it. Similarly, on the privatisation of the Hambantota Port, [then] PM Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament that the matter will be debated in the House first before an agreement is inked. But he didn’t do that.
During the SAITM protests by student [for nationalising a privately-owned medical college], for almost 18 months the government attacked protesting students, without listening to the voices of students, teachers and parents. The government acted very undemocratically. The UNP’s interest therefore is not so much about democracy itself, but about reclaiming power.
You have been on the negotiating table for a new Constitution that, among other things, seeks to arrive at a political solution to the country’s national question. You have also been supportive of reconciliation efforts such as the Office on the Missing Persons – perhaps because the JVP has faced state repression in the past, particularly during the two insurgencies in 1971 and 1987-89. Could you reflect on your engagement on the reform agenda?
The Steering Committee, leading the drafting process of the new Constitution, met more than 80 times. There were three main issues taken up for discussion – abolition of executive presidency, introduction of electoral reforms and power devolution.
From our own experience, we think that if the government wanted to bring a new Constitution the chairman of the steering committee Ranil Wickremesinghe could have expedited the process and put in in place some good systems, but he failed to do that.
On the question of power devolution and the abolition of executive presidency, there were two extreme positions. We were against executive presidency and argued that it must be abolished, but other smaller parties were for it.
Similarly, on power devolution, those from the Rajapaksa camp were completely opposed to the idea. Sirisena was also opposing power devolution but instead of explicitly taking the position, he manipulated Rajapaksa MPs to push that line. Practically speaking, it was obvious that there was little room for a compromise, by reconciling these extreme positions. We have lost the opportunity to bring a new Constitution because the government and Ranil Wickremesinghe wasted a lot of time trying to arrive at such a compromise.
What I mean when I say they missed the opportunity is that, the process ought to have been very swift in the first one, or one and a half years of the government. But they purposely delayed it and now, that political opportunity has gone. Particularly after the outcome of the local authority elections [in February 2018], we don’t see any possibility of bringing a new Constitution.
The government’s political stock plummeted, and they could not have pushed a new Constitution successfully.
In a broader sense, what is your take on the politics of the two major parties – the SLFP and the UNP?
Since the beginning of these two parties, SLFP has had an image of a Centre-Left formation, while UNP has been seen as a party that is for a free-market, liberal economy. But when you take the privatisation of state corporations the largest number of such privatisation efforts were in fact led by the SLFP. At their core, the economic policy of these two parties is the same. That is why a former General Secretary of the SLFP [Sirisena] could become the Presidential candidate in a UNP-led alliance, that is why Ministers and MPs are able to switch camps so easily on a daily basis. There is no difference in the fundamental economic project of these two parties.
After the recent crisis broke out, the JVP, along with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), articulated a common position, opposing President Sirisena’s “unconstitutional” moves. Do you see a possibility of the two parties, with your respective, competing strains of nationalism, working together long-term, in the future?
The JVP and TNA represent sections in the country’s south and north, that have suffered most due to the actions of the repressive State. We have a duty to fight together and protect democratic rights. The TNA as a party does politics based on principles and policies. We also work based on principles and policies. Parties which have such an approach can easily work together.
Even though we may have some differences on certain issues, we will be able to work together closely in the future, on most questions. The JVP does not have a secret agenda. The TNA too doesn’t have a secret agenda. With such transparency we know each other’s positions and disagreements clearly. So we can work well together.
The TNA has been used by both the Rajapaksa administration and the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government just to posture to international community or for their own power.
Neither of the leaders worked with the TNA with integrity. They exploited the TNA and its engagement for their own interests. Be it the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) in 2010, or initiatives taken by this government, the TNA was always used, exploited and cheated.
The JVP has been trying to independently engage with the people of the north. You held a big May Day rally there. What has your experience been?
After the end of the war, because of the socio-economic situation in the country, people in the north and east have been suffering the most. Because of the discrimination they faced for 30-40 years in the past, at one stage they expressed their political aspirations through other means.
Now we need a united struggle by the people of the south and north. We work with the people of the north accepting the principle of equality of all rights – be it language, political, cultural or religious rights. We work with them on the basis of democracy and equality. We are working for social transformation in this country and the Northern Province must also be part of that transformation. We have a common cause and we are committed to working together will all communities.
In the 53 years since the JVP was founded, the party has seen many ideological shifts – from radical activism to parliamentary participation; two key instances of factions breaking away. As leader, how do you see today’s JVP?
Left parties must have a pragmatic approach. Capable Left parties must have the ability to change according to the needs of the people. The changes in the economy, the changes in people’s ideologies and political positions, the changes in technology – all these have to be taken into consideration.
We had two armed insurrections. But from the beginning we have had a deep-rooted faith in building a mass movement. To build such a movement, the party since its early days has been working with the peasantry, working class, trade unions and students. We continue to do that. We are also working with professionals, intellectuals and artistes and have gained a lot of support.
Participating in Parliament or in elections is not our only political pursuit. It is done parallel to our efforts towards building a mass movement.