We now have an opportunity to dream dreams
Victor Ivan

In this wide ranging interview, Victor Ivan, editor of Ravaya, speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about last month’s presidential election and the post election tensions that have gripped society. Among the matters discussed are what we would and would not like to see happening in the future and how the next six to seven years of stable government can be made use of to ensure that the mistakes and undesirable aspects of the recent past are not repeated.

Q. What we have observed in this country over the past several decades, is that when one crisis is over, it’s followed by an even bigger crisis. Once the LTTE problem was finally dealt with, we had to face what was in my view the biggest threat to democracy in the post independence history of this country in the form of last month’s presidential election. This country seems to be just going from one crisis to another, with no real peace and quiet anywhere in sight.

A. Some may have criticisms about the things that have taken place after the presidential election. My concern however, is what would have happened if things had gone the other way? There would have been a blood bath. One of the limitations of the joint opposition at the presidential election was that they did not have a vision that went beyond hate and revenge. This is one of the greatest tragedies in our post independence history. Why did things end up in this manner? In my view, fielding a military officer at this election was wrong. Why did a mature political party like the UNP agree to such a thing? Some may ask at this stage, whether a retired military officer has no right to contest elections. But when someone comes fresh from a war, fresh out of the military into politics, especially to contest the position of head of state, a crisis is unavoidable. Divisions will appear in the military. In this case, the candidate himself appeared to be deliberately fomenting such differences, through his speeches and through his election advertisements. There were appeals addressed to the armed forces and he publicly stated that the families of armed forces personnel would vote for him. I believe that there should be some arrangement to ensure that such things do not happen in the future. What is happening now is that no government will allow those who supported an opposing candidate at a presidential election to stay on in the army because there would be fears of a coup. If someone has created splits within an army that has gained a great deal of prestige by winning a major civil war, that will not conduce to the wellbeing of the nation. The way I see it, this was by far the most emotionally charged, and acrimonious presidential election campaign in this country ever. Incumbent presidents were criticized at previous elections, but none so venemously as the present president.

Q. The growls and threats from the opposition was because they were so cocksure. They failed to judge the mood of the people accurately.

A. In the urban areas, a groundswell against the president was visible. In the urban areas, there was a debate on who should get more credit for winning the war. But in the rural areas, there was no such debate. As far as the rural people were concerned, it’s the president who won the war. In my view, the decision to go to war, and implementing that decision successfully is of such magnitude that it can be described as biggest achievement by any political leader since independence. Giving emphasis to rural upliftment was another aspect of the government’s success. Though I work in Colombo, I go back to my village on the weekends. In the old days, a major issue was housing in the rural sector. Today, there are almost no cadjan thatched houses even in the rural areas, but the rural road network was a very important matter to the rural masses. In my experience, no government has put so much emphasis on improving the rural road network. During the past few years, there was also an emphasis on the highways network, on constructing power plants, and various other infrastructure projects. There are whisperings about corruption, but then there were corruption charges about the Mahaweli project as well. During the short space of four years, even while fighting the war, the government has also done a significant amount of development work.

Q. This is my point, given the facts you just mentioned, this country should be now headed for a period of peace and stability. But soon after the earth shaking events that led to the climax of the 30 year war, came this earth shaking presidential election. After the dust settles on that, the Mahanayakes began playing up. What is wrong with this country? Is it the system of governance in this country or the political culture?

A. I wouldn’t be too pessimistic. But there is a problem in the system. Except for a brief period between 2001 and 2004, the UNP has been in opposition since 1994 almost continuously. So the aim is to come into power by good means or bad. In this country, a member of a political party has a special status. He is in a better position to have a child admitted to a school, to deal with the police, or to find employment. When one section of the population enjoys these benefits for a long time and another section is left out, the struggle between these two segments of the population, tends to assume a very acrimonious form.

Q. The opposition clearly overdid the aggression and acrimony part…

A. At last month’s presidential election, the opposition failed to give the signal that if they won, there would be a peaceful transfer of power. The signal was given to the opposite effect. The idea conveyed was that they will seek revenge. It is said that they had even given phone calls to certain key individuals and told them to prepare for long jail sentences. The opposition candidate’s statements added to the violent and acrimonious character of the whole campaign. Had the opposition candidate been Ranil Wickremesinghe or Karu Jayasuriya or a conventional politician, the presidential campaign would never have assumed such an acrimonious form. Bringing an army commander fresh out of the armed services into a contest for the position of head of state, meant that he would bring everything he had, his warlike temperament, his tendency to bulldoze through things, into the fray. And the government itself, will respond in a manner appropriate to who they are confronted with. The nature of the candidate was in large part responsible for the form the presidential election took.

Q. From the beginning, people did expect a heated campaign. But it went beyond that and careerd out of control...

A. The General was not an experienced political leader. He knew how to wage war. When he saw large crowds at election rallies, he may have been led to believe that the people had already elected him their leader. He was thinking only of victory and not of defeat. Their campaign not only misled the people, they also deceived themselves. When we were in the JVP, we would go on push cycles and put up posters everywhere. There would be only one or two activists in each village, but posters were to be seen everywhere. The next morning, we would go around and see our own posters everywhere, and we ourselves would get carried away by this sign of ubiquity. The impression created that our people were present at every junction. But that was not the truth. Our attempt was to deceive the people, but we ourselves were misled by it in the morning. We saw similar tendencies within this presidential election campaign as well. In the JVP, the same people go for meetings in Warakapola in Ginigathhean and even Colombo. They wave flags and shout encouragement - that is the nature of the JVP. An inexperienced person seeing this may arrive at wrong assessments about what the result of the election is going to be. The people of this country are very intelligent. The people thought that if they go for a change at this moment, the country will face an unprecedented crisis. There would have been reprisals and bloodshed. That such a situation was averted is good for the country. I don’t believe that in today’s situation, anyone can change anything by coming out on to the streets and shouting slogans. There may of course be some people who think they can achieve something through this, so this shouting will last for some time. Then events will be overtaken by the parliamentary election and it will gradually fizzle out. This is now Mahinda Rajapakse’s turn. He has now won a bigger victory than even he anticipated. Now he can take a look at things calmly and examine the people’s concerns. He must look at a way of doing things without being swayed by petty political considerations. I believe he should seek the cooperation of the opposition.

Q. The opposition has been out of power for a long time and are chafing and resentful...

A. The presidential system was designed in such a way that the holder of that position stands even above the constitution. While J.R.Jayewardene thus concentrated power in his hands, he allowed those below him be they ministers or officials to make money. What has prevailed to date is this system. This has to change. Today politics is bound up with making and spending money. You need a lot of money to get into power. This money has to be made by some means. I don’t say that corruption can be ended completely. But the president can without continuing as we have done in the past, initiate a change. What is most important is asking for the cooperation of the opposition. Today, we see a situation where the antagonism between the government and the opposition is as intense as the hatred that existed between the LTTE and all those opposed to them. This is not good for the country.

Q. If you compare Mahinda Rajapakse with some previous holders of that position, he is by no means an oppressive or dictatorial president, yet, as you say the tensions between the UNP and UPFA very intense. It’s not only he who has to come halfway…

A. This system that we are talking of was created by the UNP. This system was designed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to dislodge an incumbent government. Once power went to a different party, the problem confronting the UNP was how to get it back. Both these parties have suffered under this system. The SLFP suffered from 1977 to 1994 and the UNP has been suffering in the same way since 1994. So while there should be a signal for change from the president, an even bigger signal to this effect has to come from the opposition. Now for quite a while, no change of government will be possible. We now have an opportunity to dream dreams of a less antagonistic political culture where people will be able to work together. Even if these dreams are never realized, merely dreaming such dreams will serve to reduce the antagonism between us. When a president wins an election, he is the president of those who voted against him as well. There are many challenges confronting this government. One is the challenge coming from the western countries over human rights and so on. The way to face this challenge is for all of us to get together to rebuild this country. The way we can face criticisms from the international community is not by appealing to them or making excuses, but by showing that everybody has got together to rebuild the nation.

Q. That antagonism you mentioned between the haves and have not’s in terms of political power, is very much a part of the political landscape. In this situation of conflicting aspirations, how do you achieve such an outcome?

A. This is why we need political debate in this country. In India, before the last election, the main topics of discussion were, where India was going as a nation and what the future India should be like. I believe such a debate in necessary in Sri Lanka as well. Ranil Wickremesinghe can’t be simply discounted as irrelevant. He is also an experienced leader. He has a responsibility to do away with the politics of hate, and to create a situation where he can work together with the president. By working together, I don’t mean a national government. Most ordinary people would not think twice of discarding litter in an untidy environment. But in a clean and well ordered place, he will not do so, because he will see that there is no litter around. This is what we mean by a system. Ordinary people can’t create systems – that the domain of the politicians. If politicians think less narrowly and take the big picture into account, our future will be quite bright.

Q. Conflict in this country can be seen at various levels. At one level is power politics. The other is the rankling mistrust between the various ethnic groups.

A. We have now ended one era. At one stage Tamil youth wanted a separate state and that they thought they could achieve that through armed struggle. After the war ended, the Sinhala people demonstrated that they did not view the Tamil people with hate. Tamil people were not set upon by the Sinhalese or harmed in any way. This is a beginning. The Sinhala Tamil, and Muslim people can live together in this country. The problems have been created by politicians. Some people say that Mahinda Rajapakse represents rabidly chauvinistic political forces. I don’t accept that. Mahinda Rajapakse is a nationalist, but he is not a chauvinist. Even the forces aligned with him are not necessarily chauvinistic. Even the JVP which supported Mahinda in 2005, have since demonstrated that they can work together with the TNA for a political purpose. What the nationalistic forces aligned with Mahinda opposed was separatism. I don’t think any of these forces will oppose equal rights for all ethnic communities. Mahinda Rajapakse represents the Sinhalese. But he takes a very enlightened view of the other ethnic communities. One day before the presidential election I asked him whether the Tamil people would vote for him. His answer was that the war caused a lot of problems and that he does not expect the Tamil people to vote for him all at once, and that they may perhaps vote for him at a later election. It was during Mahinda’s period that the most emphasis was given to implementing the language act. A record number of candidates sat for the Tamil proficiency exams. Even at the height of the war, there were attempts made to man the checkpoints with officers who knew Tamil. The president never had plans to win the war and colonise the north and east. Such plans were not made by even the ordinary Sinhala people. One day, I was having a discussion with R.Sambandan, Mavai Senathraja and others when a well known Tamil personality joined the discussion. What he told us was that when the LTTE had stepped up attacks on the military in 2006, he was phoned by the president and told to go to the north with Lalith Weeratunga and to talk to the LTTE. On the way, Lalith Weeratunga had taken precautions not to be seen even by the soldiers at the checkpoints lest the news of discussions got out. In Killinochchi, they had met the Sea Tiger leader who had been brusque and dismissive towards them and they had come back empty handed. When the crisis escalated to the Sampur showdown with the LTTE building bunkers outside their area of control established by the CFA, he once again was asked by the president to go to meet the LTTE leadership, this time with Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. Once again they had been met by the Sea Tiger leader and he had been just as dismissive and as brusque as before. But Jeyaraj had argued with him. On the way back, Jeyaraj had told this gentleman that war was inevitable. The president had listened to what they had to say with his head on his hands and he had said at the end – "If war cannot be avoided, let’s go to war". So he tried his best to prevent war. This Tamil gentleman then told Sambandan myself and the others present that the president tried to take a step backwards, but he was thwarted by the arrogance and the stubbornness of the LTTE. It is now time to leave all that behind and look to the future. If a significant number of Tamil representatives become members of the next government, and they come to a settlement through discussions, that will be a start. We can’t of course, go for simplistic solutions. The Vaddukkodai and resolution and the Thimpu principles are no longer valid this should be accepted by the Tamil leadership.

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