The man with a Plan


An interview with Karu Jayasuriya

By Maheen Senanayake

Third and Final installment Will the man and the hour meet?
(Continued from the previous week)

I was born in a democratic Sri Lanka and I want to die in a democratic Sri Lanka, said Karu Jayasuriya. There was conviction in his voice. "That’s powerful," I told him.

Well we are slowly but surely moving towards a despotic regime. It is also my duty to see that the UNP unifies. When the chairmanship of the leadership council was offered to me for the first time, I rejected it. First it was the priests and then it was Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and on both occasions I said ‘No’. However, I did finally accept only after the priests formally and in writing requested me and even then it was because I believed that I had a duty to perform. I felt then and I still feel very guilty about not having given enough time to my family. I feel really guilty about this. From the private sector days when I would be at work for over 16 hours a day, to the time in politics, I really miss the time with my family. And with this I carry the burden of ensuring that the party comes together and that we find internal mechanisms to sort differences of opinion.

Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the party leadership in 1994. And I became the party Chairman in 1995 filling the vacancy left by Mr. ACS Hameed. I would therefore be bold enough to say that I share responsibility for the current state of the party whilst re-iterating that the party is definitely coming back together in the face of the current disposition of the incumbent government.

In other words, are you saying you are as responsible for the party as Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe?

Yes. I will also have to take responsibility for the party. I am not running away. Both Mr. Wickremesinghe and I did not always agree on everything but we have the maturity to settle differences in the most gentlemanly fashion. I must also say that when we do disagree what we discuss stays in the room and we do not use the media. Now my task is to unite the party.

I always say that we are all human beings and we are not perfect. There can be manufacturing defects in all of us. (He laughs out loud)

(There is this underlying homeliness around Mr. Karu Jayasuriya. He is relaxed as he speaks. I am on edge. But I too become mellow. It’s a grand tale. I yearn for more)

I strongly believe that Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is a very intelligent man who has a vision. However, history hasn’t been fair to him. In 2000 he would have been the president if not for that explosion involving former president CBK at the CMC grounds. Then again in 2001 had the UNP been able to function the full term the ‘Aascharya’ would have already been delivered. I still recollect how the Colombo Airport expansion plans were discussed and begun – a project that was personally handled by me. We were also able to build trust with our foreign friends and I remember how aid from the West just poured in specifically because of the policies we adopted. Then in 2005 once again the LTTE robbed him of victory. This is what I still feel – history has not been fair to Mr. Wickremesinghe.

How do you see the Peace Accord?

And as you know Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to bring the leader of one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations out (of hiding). Until Prabhakaran appeared to sign the accord, many had never seen him. And whatever his shortcomings, he was able to bring peace and consequently Prabhakaran out into the open.

What is your position on the Executive Presidency?

We believe that the Executive Presidency should go and within a specified period it should be abolished and the country in the interim should go into a pair of safe hands that can resurrect the economy, bring back democracy and re-establish the rule of law. Having said that, (I must say) the biggest challenge is to unite the opposition- the common opposition. This is very important because the government is not playing the game according to the rules of the game. So unless and until a joint opposition emerges to face the challenges, the country is doomed.

Karu the soldier

I was in the Army, he says.

I am impressed. I ask him for memorabilia…and he relates several memorable events. I reproduce one below.

One of my first engagements was to take food via train to the people of the North Central Province. I was given a platoon. We were given. 303 (articulated as ‘point three oh three’) rifles with each rifle having only one round of live ammunition. I was given a Sterling Machine gun with 20 rounds.

(I see the nostalgia on his face)

I was also given 250 railway workers. We mended the tracks as we went on our mission while traveling from Colombo to Anuradhapura. It took us about four days to get to our destination. My first confrontation was near Ambepussa – at a placed called Yaththalgoda.

So are you a family man? (As George Battaille had already said ‘the answer lay in the question.’)

As for my relationship with my family, I have always strived to be a good son to my parents, a good brother to my siblings, a good husband to my wife and a good father to my children and finally a good citizen to my country. I must also give due credit to my wife – especially since she has tolerated me all these years. She has also been playing the role of my mother after I lost my mother and has been my friend right through out.

What do you call your daughters? I mean how do you address them?

Loku Menika, Chuti Pana. (I now no their names but that is irrelevant because what he calls them is what they mean to their father)

(Karu J tried hard to give me uninterrupted time. Alas, weddings and weddings alone were the sole culprits denying us that opportunity. He, as I soon found out, is in high demand as a witness/signatory at weddings. Knowing very well the pressure senior politicians are under to participate at these occasions, he accepted the demands with great reluctance.. The record for him, as he later related, was signing at six weddings in one day).

What of the UNP’s economic vision?

The UNP has for all intents and purposes gone on record as the only political party which has brought real changes to the economy. We have been lucky to have had leaders whose visions have transformed Sri Lanka. For instance, after President Premadasa’s 200 garment factory project, we became a serious apparel player. JRJ’s opening of the economy saw this country jump start our economy. Just look at how the GDP grew after 1977. Then even in the area of social concern, leaders were able to make a difference with their varied programs. The Janasaviya continues to this day under various other names. The expansion of the Bandaranaike airport was undertaken by the UNP government of which I was part and I remember I personally spearheaded that particular project.

Let’s get back to the Executive Presidency. What was president CBK’s position?

Whatever said and done due credit to CBK, because she agreed to reduce her powers which Mahinda would never do. We established the Public Service Commission, the police commission.

What about the Election Commission?

We proposed the name of Justice Dheeraratne. Unfortunately it just so happened that he was related to Wijepala Mendis and the President (CBK) didn’t like it. So we were partly to blame for insisting on him and not suggesting an alternative. So it never materialized during our tenure.

What about elections? Do you think the UNP’s management of elections was fair?

In terms of management let me quote the former Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake who said "the 2002 election was the cleanest election and the best election’’ that he had witnessed. That credit must go to the UNP because we made sure that the commissions were operational including the Judicial Services Commission.

To illustrate the point, let me tell you of an incident. Somebody had dropped a postcard saying that I was storing bombs in my office in Gampaha and they came and checked. They even climbed the roof. I don’t store bombs but they did come and they checked. These are the checks and balances that a democracy needs. Now we have nothing.

(It was time for that little missile! I had to know)

The 2007 defection, why did you do it?

I decided to support the government. A lot of people may not know this but as I related to you earlier, I was a military officer also. At that time the Sri Lanka Army’s Volunteer Force was the real strength of the army. The regular force consisted of about 5,000 personnel. The Commander of the army at the time was a brigadier, Brigadier Udugama.

Just following the (alleged) 1966 coup they recruited young officers and there was one batch of 25 officers. I remember many Anandians were in that batch; also many Anandians on the interview board. The Secretary Defense and External Affairs at the time was N Q Dias. Colonel Sriananda was number three or four at the time. So most Anandians did have a ready tick on their applications. I was in the army from 1965 to 1972. The earlier Artillery unit when disbanded was formed into two units; one was the 1CNG and the other was 2CNG – CNG standing for the Ceylon National Guard. Of the two the 2CNG had all the old guard of the artillery while the 1CNG comprised the new recruits. I truly enjoyed my time in the army and the 1971 insurrection was one of the more memorable instances.

I was shot at several times. I was then asked on January 5, 1971, to take a food train to Anuradhapura. At that time, some rail track was destroyed. I was given 250 civilian workers to repair the track along with one platoon of soldiers.

It took us four days to repair the track and get to Anuradhapura.

Then during the 2007 time frame we were on a war footing as a country; then came the closing of the Maavil Aru sluice gates. On July 26, 2006 the LTTE closed the gates sparking a resolute government into action to wipe out the LTTE. By August 11, 2006 the armed forces had gained full control of the sluice gates.

I went to see closed sluice gates. I saw the people suffering; that is when I decided these buggers should be crushed. (I realize these are the strongest words my subject had used in our entire interview) Prior to that there was the infiltration of army headquarters and attack on the Army Commander on April 25, 2006. So when I thought of all these things, I was convinced that the rebels had to be crushed.

This went through my mind and I asked myself where we were heading. So it was inevitable. That was the day that I thought, we needed peace. The Mahanayakes and the bishops appealed to the parties to work together where the issue of terrorism was concerned. We had diverse opinions on this, we had a plan, we signed an agreement but none of these things worked well enough. That is when I decided to work with the government on the strict understanding that after two years I will get back to my party if I am taken back.

Anyway, I did my duty by my country and people. I remember Jan. 2007 when I joined the government ranks, and I voted on December 10, 2008 for the 2009 budget. This was the war budget for procurement. I voted at 6 in the evening and returned to the UNP at 8 pm. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe invited me publicly at the annual sessions in 2008 to come back. At the time, the position of deputy leader had not been filled and the working committee unanimously agreed. That decision that I took was based on a heartfelt need to support the war footing we had to take. This of course has been misunderstood by many. It also costs me dearly in my political career; when one vote made a difference

Even on my death bed, I would feel consoled that I took that decision. What people don’t understand is that there was only a vote or two’s difference in parliament at that time. It was important to support the war effort. I am very proud especially as a former military officer to have supported that effort to have been able to bring relief to so many people. In fact, the importance of that decision has never been analyzed. Today’s peace is its outcome. But of course, with this the government became very strong and is now on a despotic trajectory.

There are UNPers who would say that if I hadn’t joined the government it would have crashed. And rightfully the government would have, but only for a short while as people had a war mentality. And with that mentality the government would have got a 5/6th majority. The UNP would not have been able to get that at that time, and the entire war effort would have failed.

WJM Lokubandara was appointed as the Speaker from the UNP because of the one or two vote difference between the government and the opposition in parliament.

I must also say that all those who left made a principled decision. I also want to remind you that I made that principled exit on the basis that I would be back in two years and in two years or less I was back.

What is your position on what is happening now?

My dream was to see this country rid of terrorism and see it prosper – democracy, rule of law and a strong economy. I also believe that where selection processes are concerned the right man must get the right job. I still recall how the president took the decision to bring in the 18th Amendment to the constitution. Here is a man who talks about abolishing the executive presidency – in fact walked in processions to abolish the executive presidency and a lot of people forget he was outspoken on human rights to the point that he in fact went to Geneva. It is baffling how he can change 180 degrees to do exactly the opposite of what he said. That I regret. I am happy we rid this country of terrorism, but I regret what he is doing now.

Anybody talking about democracy is stamped "diaspora" or "tiger". This is a very dangerous situation. A difference of opinion is not tolerated in this country any more. Then they have virtually chased groups of individuals and people who have done yeoman service to this country.

For instance the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Friedrich Naumann Foundation are organizations which have been in Sri Lanka for over 40 years. In particular Friedrich Ebert Stiftung were the people who gifted the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute.

(My research find that the Sri Lanka Television Training Institute is also a contribution by them. The list is quite long.)

This German NGO also did a lot of work to strengthen the trade unions in this country. Didn’t they also have a lot of research to support these initiatives in Sri Lanka?

Yes they did, specially on the cost of living index. But what did the government do? They attached the tiger label on them and virtually chased them away. The trade unions of this country look after the masses. And an organization that supports the trade unions naturally supports the masses. So why chase off people who have the best interest of the masses at heart? This alone is enough for people to understand the despotic trajectory that this government is taking.

(I had spent several hours on perhaps the most interesting interview that I have ever conducted in my career. This would be a good point to stop I think. Karu J is many things, but most importantly he is principled. He has practically demonstrated this. He has converted me. No small feat considering my skepticism of many things. I had my answers and they were all sensible. The officer, the gentleman, the grandfather, the father and the son has spoken. Will the people hear? Will their preconceived notions cloud their judgment? Will they, like me see the light, or are we doomed, to a life of subservience under the Ascharya of the Kurahan Rainbow?

As I leave Amerasekera Mawatha, in the early hours of the morning, I take a left at the High Level road at the Kinjou restaurant corner and then slowly get to the centre and then a U turn to gun my engine towards the night. Behold! I am waved to the left and several jeeps whiz past me neon lit batons waving me to the side – first a jeep, then another two black tinted unmarked cars, then two more jeeps with military men armed to their teeth, then two more luxury jeeps and hmmm… an ambulance and a number of motorcycles that don’t quite register in my mind - all moving on the wrong side of the road. Near the Royal Institute four traffic policemen have stopped two scooters and the riders wait patiently.



"Mr. Karu J as His Worship the Mayor had invited Omar Kamil to the chair on the very first day’s sitting of the new CMC after tea. I had erroneously stated that he had only done so after one year. Now if that is not power sharing I do not know what is!

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