An Interview with D. E. W. Gunasekera
Communist Party leader and opposition parliamentarian D. E. W. Gunasekera speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about the unexpected outcome of last month’s presidential election and the situation that has arisen in the country with the fall of the Rajapaksa regime.
Q. You had been warning the government not to hold the presidential election early. So obviously you were not surprised by the result.
A. No. We did an analysis of past election results from 1977 onwards including the results of the 2005 and 2010 elections. Our assessment was that Tamil votes for the UPFA from the North and East will increase, but not substantially. Mahinda used to get about 20% of the Muslim vote. But because of the Bodu Bala Sena that was lost almost completely. Even in our party, Muslim members refused to vote for Mahinda. I met the president about three times to discuss the presidential election. The first time, Vasu, Tissa (Vitharana) and Lalith Weeratunga were also present.
We spoke for about two hours. I told the president about the incumbency factor. He had been the president for nine years and before that he had been a minister for nearly another decade. In our country no one has held office for such a long period. Furthermore young people who had been born after 1994 were voting for the first time and that alone comes to about 600,000 votes. These are voters who have never seen a UNP regime and have no recollection of anything like Black July (1983) or the July strike (1980). They have seen only SLFP ministers and nothing else. Therefore the tendency would be for them to go for a change.
I also told Mahinda that the third and most important factor was that he had not been doing politics for the past nine years. He had been attending ceremonies, kissing babies and all that but he had not been doing politics. In the old days, we used to go to the villages to educate the people and the people would come on to the streets to safeguard their government. That element was completely absent. Then the question was about the privileges that politicians enjoyed. That was probably the most disadvantageous factor. I told him that according to our analysis, he was leading only in 11 districts and that there were two more years and there were two more budgets to resolve unsolved issues and that after two more years it would not make much of a difference even if we lost. But, he insisted that it was the best time.
Q. Despite his shortcomings and failings, would you like to see Mahinda Rajapaksa back in politics?
A. That’s why I backed him. It was not just the personality issue. Our party generally looks at the overall situation and the policies. When Maithreepala Sirisena came forward, he had to depend on the UNP vote. All the others put together would have provided 10%. So, this is basically a UNP government. We took up the position that we could not support a UNP administration. Then there were various Western forces at work which we could not countenance.
Q. Do you still see him as a viable leader for Sri Lanka?
A. Yes, because he is a popular leader. He is respected. He is a man who moves with the people. It is the executive presidency that destroyed him. When the 18th Amendment was brought in, I had a big argument with him and told him to be in office as long as he likes as the prime minister. In 2005 president Chandrika Kumaratunga called me one day and we had a discussion for about an hour. She told me that she did not have a successor. She mentioned the names of several potential individuals but said that the only man who could possibly win an election was Mahinda ‘whether I like him or not’. She also said that it was Mangala and S.B. who had distanced Mahinda from her.
Q. You said that the younger generation born after 1994 had not seen a UNP government. Well they have now seen a partially UNP one in operation for nearly four weeks. They have seen witch hunts the likes of which have never before been seen even by older generations of voters – groups of people surrounding various places and carrying out illegal searches. The chief justice’s house was invaded by a mob in the night and he was threatened. The following morning there was another mob at the Supreme Court complex and some people had arrived with letters to remove the incumbent chief justice and to re-appoint the former CJ. These are things that nobody ever saw under any government be it UNP or SLFP.
A. In my first speech in Parliament after the presidential election, I raised this question of illegal searches. I said that Ravi Karunanayake the new minister of finance had gone to a house with the police and TV cameras in tow and it was the finance minister who was doing the questioning while the police were looking on. Then there was Sujeewa Senasinghe the deputy minister of justice who had gone to some house in search of a car and he was doing the interrogation once again with the police looking on. I asked Ranil whether this was the rule of law that the people expected.
Q. It was not so much the UNP as the JVP and JHU activists who were involved in that kind of thing.
A. Members of the educated middle class and the intelligentsia who voted against MR would have been really upset to see such things happening. I took a different position when it came to the removal of Shirani Bandaranayake from the position of CJ by the Rajapaksa government. At that time agitators set up camp outside the CJ’s residence and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee appointed to inquire into the allegations against her even visited the agitators in full view of the TV cameras. That was wrong. Now, the new government has done much the same thing. The president appoints judges, but their removal can only be done by Parliament. They should have put the matter before Parliament and if Parliament had passed a resolution declaring that the appointment of Mohan Peiris was flawed, the incumbent CJ could have gone home with some self respect. There is also the image of the institution that has to be taken into account. It would be an embarrassment for the next CJ to even assume duties given the circumstances.
Q. Back in 2001, when the UNP won power, I would say, they behaved in an exemplary manner. They did not go after Chandrika Kumaratunga or harass political opponents. In 2004 when CBK got back her majority in parliament, she, too, was much more restrained than she had been earlier. When power went to Mahinda Rajapaksa he, too, continued the tradition and there was no persecution of UNP, JVP or even TNA members under the Rajapaksa government. Even in removing Shirani Bandaranayake, the correct procedure was followed. Nobody can say anything against the impeachment procedure because the UNP had signed impeachment motions twice in the case of Neville Samarakoon and later in the case of Sarath N. Silva. The JVP, too, signed the impeachment motion against Sarath N. Silva. So, this was an established and accepted procedure.
A. In my view both the removal of the incumbent CJ and the reinstatement of Shirani Bandaranayake should have come before Parliament. Knowing Ranil, most of us thought that something like that could not possibly come from him. I can’t imagine what prompted him to do what he did. This is nothing but terrorism. The institution involved is the judiciary. The respect for the law has been completely undermined. Now, people may start assaulting magistrates in other places as well when they deliver unpopular verdicts. JR used to say that the only thing the executive president could not do was to change a man into a woman and vice versa this is one instance where we have received confirmation of that fact.
Q. Coupled with these unprecedented happenings is the fact that we are hearing less and less about the abolition of the executive presidency and reforming the present proportional representation and preferential vote based electoral system.
A. People are not happy about that although they are quiet.