"When the present leaders lose they too may have to go to jail" - Victor Ivan


As a journalist and a good governance activist Victor Ivan had been articulating most of the Yahapalana ideals long before a political grouping emerged, claiming to promote good governance. In this interview, The Island staffer C. A. Chandraprema speaks to Ivan about the ideals articulated at election time and the realities of the present government.

Q. I spoke to you before the presidential election about the objectives of the ‘yahapalana’ platform. So, I would like to start this discussion by asking you what you think of the ‘yahapalana’ government now?

A. The 100-day programme was Utopian. You can’t reduce the powers of the executive presidential system and revert to a parliamentary form of government within a system that was geared for the executive presidency. Furthermore, it was not possible to introduce reforms after winning a presidential election and within the old parliament because the reform process could be sabotaged. It is true that some changes have been made. What the people expected was the abolition of the executive presidency. I am not one of those people who say that the presidential system is totally bad and that the parliamentary system of government is extremely good. There are presidential systems that are quite civilised. But, in my view, the most dangerous aspect of the executive presidential system was that the president was above the law. That was against the very concept of the rule of law. The present president intends going into retirement after five years. So, I am at a loss to understand why he did not give up the legal immunity of the presidency. Even though some changes have been made, what we still have is in essence the old system.

Even if the incumbent president does not misuse those powers, there is the possibility of a future president doing so. A key aspect of the 100-day programme was investigating corruption that had taken place during the former regime. From 1978 onwards, the purloining of public property was one of the realities of politics. This reached epic proportions during the previous government. Prior to 1978, people came into politics for prestige not to make money. What we hear from that era are stories of rich people becoming poor. But, now what we hear is of poor people becoming rich. If the government investigates the doings of the previous regime even with the intention of exacting revenge, still that may put an end to the culture of stealing public property.

Q. In the past, there may have been instances of post election violence in the first two weeks after a change of government, but things calmed down after that. We have not seen a systematic persecution of the defeated party like this with investigations, imprisonment and the like. We never saw anything like this after 1977 or even 1994. It was the CBK government that came closest to this in the year 2000 where she tried to win the parliamentary election of that year by imprisoning the leader of the opposition. But due to certain circumstances, even she did not take that final step. But the present government has clearly crossed the line and the day they lose power all of them may end up in prison in retaliation. The present government has shown that you don’t really need a good reason to put people in jail. What is important is the charge, not the evidence.

A. The problem that we are faced with is the non-implementation of the law. The stealing of public property has been going on in this country. The bureaucracy was also involved. Now at least the bureaucrats will think of doing their duties without aiding and abetting in illegal activities. Even the Examinations Department is now utterly corrupt due to political interference. In one instance, the daughter of a supreme court judge who did not have enough marks to enter the Law Faculty filed a fundamental rights application in the SC. To the surprise of the UGC, the SC issued instructions that the applicant be admitted to the law faculty. Because of the fear of the judiciary, everyone kept quiet. Later the father of this student became the chief justice of the country. We get to hear of such shameless abuses from everywhere. Why should the public tolerate this situation?

Q. That is easier said than done. Some of those you criticized for corruption are in the present government ...

A. I never said that this was a clean government. At the same time I don’t accept the fact that those who have been hauled up for investigations are totally innocent. I don’t say that corruption started with the Rajapaksa government, but it has to end. If we try to argue that investigations should not be done until a clean government is in power, what will the future of this country be?

Q. Isn’t it curious that of all the imprisonments that have taken place up to now, not one has been on the allegation that anyone has pocketed money belonging to the state?

A. Distributing state resources with a view to winning an election to perpetuate a government which provides you with prestige and a very comfortable life is as much an instance of corruption as actually putting that money into your own pocket.

Q. The present government came into power promising to implement the 100-day programme and then dissolve parliament on the 23rd April and go for an election. It was obvious that everything that was done within that 100 days was meant to win the next election and to perpetuate the present government. In that case, the increase in state salaries, the reduction in taxes on fuel and certain foodstuffs are obvious instances of state revenue being used or foregone in the quest to win votes. So how is this any different to whatever Basil Rajapaksa may have done?

A. The main slogan that brought the present government into power was not constitutional reform but investigating the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime.

Q. In talking of corruption, the incumbent president himself said during the election campaign that helicopters had been bought for the use of the president’s three sons and other such things. Similarly, every large house in Colombo or any large hotel that was coming up anywhere was supposed to belong to the Rajapaksas. But, after the election all those allegations were proved to be false.

A. It is true that exaggeration does take place on the political platform. I admit that people do make additions to stories to suit their purposes. But, investigations are not over yet. My personal opinion is that the Rajapaksa government was more corrupt than any previous government.

Q. Some of these exaggerations and falsehoods were uttered by the opposition presidential candidate himself. That is something that we have not seen happening at previous presidential elections, neither JR nor Premadasa, CBK nor MR uttered blatant falsehoods against their adversaries. That was left to minions. For example it was said on the common candidate’s stage that the cost of the first phase of the Norochcholai coal power plant was bumped up from USD 300 million to 450 million and that the Rajapaksas made USD 150 million from that transaction alone. But when I checked this story, I found that the original estimate for the coal power plant submitted in June 2005 (during the CBK regime) had been USD 398 million. During the latter half of the year technical specification of the project had been changed and a revised estimate of USD 477 million had been made. The cabinet appointed tender board had negotiated a lower price of USD 456 million. That was what was being touted on the public platform as a case of the Rajapaksas having made 150 million from the first phase of the coal power plant. People believed the lies that were uttered on the public platform.

A. There is some truth in saying that the people believed the lies uttered. But, I, too, live in the area where some members of these families live. There was a visible improvement in their lifestyles. Those who didn’t have vehicles to travel in got government vehicles with chauffeurs. It was also ugly for a member of the president’s family to maintain a preschool in a context where there was immense competition to get children into Grade One in schools.

Q. My point is that those were not the instances of corruption that were mentioned on the public platform. Allegations such as providing cars for relatives or running a pre-school would not have got the people to vote the Rajapaksas out. It was very serious allegations and colossal sums being bandied about that did the trick.

A. The last presidential election was a very unusual one. In my view Maithripala actually won that election with more than one million votes. State resources were used to the maximum in a manner never seen before. I feel the Rajapaksas were expecting defeat, given the amount of money that was spent. This is a country in which the government allocates only Rs. 20 per day to maintain a child in an orphanage. It is in such a country that these amounts were spent on an election. I admit that everybody is not clean in this game. But we have to start somewhere. When the present leaders lose they, too, may have to go to jail.

Even after going through several rounds like that, I believe we have to curb the culture of corruption in this country. If cases have been filed without proper cause that will only be a nuisance, they will not go to jail. I, too, had several criminal defamation cases filed against me but I did not go to jail. Likewise, if cases have been filed without proper cause, the only way to get them unraveled is through courts. In my view, a chief justice, or a key leader of a government will have to go to jail to impress upon the people of this country that the law will be implemented no matter who you are.

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