In January 2015, nearly six years after Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war ended, President Maithripala Sirisena came to power deposing Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the promise of good governance, the abolition of the executive presidency and reconciliation with the Tamil minority. His election, to many at home and abroad, heralded hope of a new beginning for the country.
Almost two years since, he is grappling with old and new challenges — ranging from an open split within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party he leads, to the frictions of coalition politics in the island’s first national unity government, to growing impatience of the Northern polity — even as he tries to move ahead with his reformist agenda.
Speaking to The Hindu in Colombo, Mr. Sirisena discusses the progress made so far, the problems that linger, and his political vision for Sri Lanka.
In November 2014, you left the ruling party to join the common opposition. At that time, you spoke of grave personal risks associated with the defection that proved historic, leading to a regime change in Sri Lanka. When you look back now, how does it feel? What do you consider your biggest success as President?
Now 22 months have passed since I became the President. I am satisfied with my performance during this time.
There are reasons for that. Firstly, I succeeded in getting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (The amendment clips powers of the executive President and strengthens the independence of oversight bodies) passed in parliament. We actually proposed that the executive powers of the President be reduced immediately. The Supreme Court said major clauses cannot be deleted without a referendum. Furthermore, the Supreme Court told us what could be done with two-thirds majority in parliament. So we have changed clauses to the maximum extent possible with two-thirds majority in parliament.
Earlier the President could dissolve the parliament after completion of one year of parliament, but now under the provisions of the 19th Amendment, it has been extended to four and a half years.
Establishment of independent commissions is another reason. It was essential for the country to ensure [protection of] human rights, democratic rights, fundamental rights and the freedom of the people. I have ensured that people get these rights, I have succeeded in doing that as President. I have given the maximum possible media freedom. There are no killings, abductions or cases of intimidation of media persons. They don’t have to leave the country any more. Those who had fled the country earlier have now returned. That is what people expected from me.
When the people made me the President, they did not ask for food, water or clothes. They wanted a society where they could live freely and happily. I have given that to the people.
But these things should be given to a developed society, where educated, intelligent people live. Only those who are intelligent enough will use these freedoms and rights responsibly. People without a righteous mind will not realise the value of these. They are not happy about these [rights]. They might use this freedom to mislead the society. When these rights are given to the Western societies, they enjoy those rights because of their intellectual capacities.
In our ancient times, we were far ahead of the Western people in our intellectual capacities. Our history is an extraordinary one, dating back thousands of years. I do hope that people use the rights we have given them now — like human rights, fundamental rights, democratic rights and freedom — intelligently.
I said I am satisfied with what I have done in a short period of time. Before I came to power there was a fear that those who had given commands during the war could be taken to international courts of justice, that they may even face execution, and that they may have to sit on the electric chair.
The international community is so satisfied with my performance that they have completely changed their impression of the country. Now there is no threat of international courts, now we don’t have to talk about electric chairs, there is no problem [of foreign judges investigating alleged violation of human rights]; I have told the international community that I cannot accept any proposal that allows foreign judges to probe our domestic matters. This is another great victory I was able to achieve in this time.
The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa called snap polls even though he had two more years in power left. There are two reasons why he called for fresh elections. Even today, he doesn’t give the reasons for his decision to go for early elections.
There were two problems he could not solve as President. One was the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) proposals against our country. The second was that the country was heavily indebted at that time. We had a national debt of 9,000 billion [Sri Lankan] rupees. That was a major economic crisis for our country.
I am now dealing with the UNHRC proposals while protecting the respect and dignity of my country.
In order to solve this major economic crisis, we have been formulating a new economic plan. I believe in a mixed economy. One is the increase of foreign and local investments. We have now opened our doors to welcome investors, we provide them with tax holidays and various other concessions. Second problem was that the export market was declining, and our production for the export market was also rapidly declining. So now my second step is to strengthen the export production market and increase our exports.
My country is an agricultural nation. We are implementing a plan to develop our economy based on our indigenous production. With this vision, I have started four new projects. One is a campaign to improve national indigenous food production. Second is sustainable development, taking into consideration climate change and global warming. Third is a campaign against illicit drugs, and also gradual reduction and elimination of tobacco and alcohol usage. Fourth is addressing the chronic kidney disease affecting many. Every year, about 5,000 new cases of kidney ailments are diagnosed. Our population is 20 million and 5,000 new patients every year is a huge figure.
The new programme for national reconciliation is being implemented. It is a major initiative for reconciliation among Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and other communities to ensure coexistence and harmony. It is essential to strengthen reconciliation in order to prevent occurrence of another war in the country.
With all these successful efforts I am quite satisfied with my performance.
Those who have been in power and have lost power are trying to sabotage all these activities. They have sufficient funds and they use those funds to create chaos among the people and mislead people. They are abusing and misusing the democratic freedoms that I have restored in this country. They are making use of those freedoms to sabotage our efforts. I am closely monitoring these activities.
I am confident that I can face all these challenges and make our country better. The experience I have from my 50 years in politics gives me enough strength to meet all these challenges successfully.
You spoke about the economy. As someone with a Leftist background — I have read that you still have a Karl Marx picture in your living room — now in coalition with the United National Party known for its right-wing economic policies, how do you think your government can promote economic growth while safeguarding living standards and social welfare of farmers and workers?
We have a consensual government of the two major parties. There are similarities as well as differences in the vision and policies of these two parties. The problems we face today are not the ones we faced 50 years ago. The world is changing rapidly. I have already told you that what is suitable for us is a mixed economy. My vision is social democracy.
Your question is how compatible is liberal democracy with social democracy. The two major parties have agreed on a consensual formula, a common plan of action has been agreed upon to continue and implement that programme. There is a broad agreement between the parties on this. We need large-scale investments. We cannot come out of the economic crisis without such investments. At the same time, enhancing social welfare and subsidies is also essential. The poor man is the one badly affected by a market economy. We have to protect the welfare and economy of the ordinary man. For that purpose, there is an agreement between the two parties in the consensual government. When there are differences in opinion, the major parties sit together, discuss them and solve them. Through discussion we solve those problems easily. We have a strong government. Some people believe that it is about to be toppled. That is a pipe dream. With perfect understanding we can take the country forward, while we solve those differences you mentioned.
You have been a frequent visitor to the Tamil-majority Northern Province — releasing some of the private land held by the army and inaugurating newly built homes for the displaced. How do you respond to the Tamil political leadership’s concern over the pace of reconciliation, with unresolved issues like militarisation, political prisoners and the call to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)?
Reconciliation is not something that can be done in a few days. We got independence from colonial rule in 1948. We had the first parliamentary election in 1947. When a state leader visited Jaffna in the early days, it was almost a miracle. Very rarely did a leader go to Jaffna or the north. In the last 22 months I have been to Jaffna as President 11 times. Prior to that no leader went to the north [as often].
I feel very happy to interact — not just with the Tamil politicians in the north, but also with the people and obtain their ideas directly.
A vast majority — about 90 per cent of the people — in the north voted for me. They have confidence in me that I will solve their problems. So it is not only my responsibility, but also my obligation to solve their problems.
We are building houses for them in large numbers. We received assistance from India and many other countries for the housing projects. At the same time, we are giving back the land acquired by the military during the conflict to the original owners gradually.
In drafting the new Constitution, we are looking at a Constitution that will strengthen the reconciliation between the communities.
These things will have to be done keeping the southern Sinhala-Buddhist masses also satisfied. If the southern people are opposed to certain things, we cannot have a successful reconciliation process. Hence our endeavour towards reconciliation must also be acceptable to the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other communities. That is not an easy task. But we have to do this challenging job. We should not allow any possibility of a conflict recurring in our country.
Earlier you spoke of foreign judges. Can reconciliation proceed without accountability? How will you convince the Tamils — who have little confidence in domestic judicial mechanisms — that an internal probe will be fair?
We have improved the quality of the judiciary and its independence and impartial nature. When we came to power, our judiciary was very weak. One of the reasons we appointed a Chief Justice from the minority community was to enhance confidence in the judicial system among the minorities.
The leaders who were in power before I assumed office used to telephone and dictate terms to the judges, on how they should give verdicts. Major criminal charges against some people were withdrawn.
Now we don’t interfere with the judiciary, we do not try to influence [the] judiciary. We improve the quality of the judiciary and its independence and impartial nature. We can obtain advice from foreign judicial experts. As per our constitutional provisions, there is no possibility of foreign judges participating in our judicial process or conducting cases. Only a citizen of our country can attend court proceedings. I don’t have any mandate to act against constitutional provisions.
We have to create a judicial mechanism that has the fullest confidence of the people in the north.
We can also seek advice from expat Sri Lankans, who are judicial experts, on this process.
We are trying to work out a procedure which is also acceptable to those people speaking about getting foreign judges. We cannot satisfy everybody 100 per cent when we try to solve a problem of this nature. We can do something that is acceptable to and satisfies the vast majority.
In the context of the ongoing constitutional reform, there is a call from the Tamils for federalism. Do you think the new Constitution can meet that aspiration? Some political actors in the south want a unitary Constitution, while constitutional experts seem to suggest that a compromise might be not terming the Constitution either unitary or federal.
People of the south are scared of the word ‘federal’. People of the north are scared of the word ‘unitary’. What we should do is not fight over these two words. We should come up with a formula that is acceptable to all.
It takes maturity to understand devolution. We cannot satisfy the extremist elements either in the north or in the south. We have to do what is good for, and acceptable to, the majority of the people.
As the leader of the SLFP, how will you hold the party together given the political pressure from the pro-Rajapaksa faction, even as you work with the UNP in Sri Lanka’s first national unity government?
This is the first time in history that the two parties have come together in a consensual government. We were always used to governing separately, within the political party lines. We should not act in a backward, tribalistic manner. Separation and division are backward ideas. Those are qualities of a backward society.
The confidence in the SLFP as a party among the people is something lasting ages. People have recognised and accepted these two major parties — SLFP and the UNP. Therefore, in these circumstances, there is no possibility of new political forces coming up.
As a political party we have the ability to solve any problem.
What about pressure within the SLFP?
There is no such pressure or influence within the party that I cannot withstand. The sole intention of the opponents is to disrupt and sabotage our programmes. When this government’s programmes succeed, it becomes a defeat for the opponents. We can solve those internal issues.
Given the enhanced ties between India and Sri Lanka, do you think there is reason to expedite signing of the ETCA (Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement), which has drawn considerable local resistance?
Since ancient times we have very close relations with India. There are many similarities between the two countries. We have similar cultures. This relationship has been built on Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. We expect to sign trade agreements with quite a number of countries. These agreements are aimed at benefitting both the signatory countries and we don’t intend signing any agreement that could be detrimental to any one country.
The proposal for India and Sri Lanka to sign a fresh [trade] agreement has been there for the last 10-15 years. Deliberations and discussions continued under different names. We will enter into an agreement which is not harmful to either party. The agreement will be signed after the approval of the Cabinet and will also be submitted to parliament. We cannot do anything in secrecy, we are transparent and accountable to the people.
Do you see a need for expediting it, or do you think it could take some more time for further negotiations?
We’ll discuss it in the Cabinet, and after that it will also be produced in parliament. If there are any unsuitable clauses, we will have further discussions and finalise the agreement.
Work on China’s port city project has resumed under your government amid local opposition. How is your government’s policy towards China different from former President Rajapaksa’s?
The port city agreement, when it was signed during President Rajapaksa’s time, was contradictory to the constitutional provisions. No government in the past had signed such an agreement. We amended certain clauses of that agreement as the new government. In such an agreement, the importance of national security as well as regional security should be taken into consideration.
Both China and India are our good friends. Our relations with both these countries go back to ancient times. Hence such agreements have to be dealt with perfect understanding. Such agreements should not interfere with the sovereignty of our nation.
The new government was able to discuss this with the Chinese government and remove unsuitable clauses in the agreement and make it good for both parties. The previous government entered such agreements in secrecy, but we are working in a transparent manner.
In a recent interview, you have said that investigation into some high-profile cases allegedly involving the former first family has not proceeded swiftly. Why do you think that is the case?
In carrying out these investigations, what we expect is to fulfil the promise given to our people during the last election campaign. People gave me a mandate to govern this country by defeating an absolutely corrupt regime. There is something that people expected when they voted me into power. They expected corruption-free, good governance.
Good governance does not mean let go of the big, powerful people and punish the ordinary people. That is why I had to tell the investigation agencies, ‘Do not act with political agenda.’
Members of these commissions are excellent people, they act independently and impartially. The lower ranks supporting these commissions should also act similarly. I had to come out with that statement because there were such issues. Some of the media published my speech out of context. I believe that through that action I could get them back on the right track. I do not have a personal agenda, my agenda is for the country.
You had spoken specifically of money deposited in a bank in Dubai, the Avant Garde investigations and Wasim Thajudeen murder case involving President Rajapaksa’s family.
It pains my heart to see such investigations being suppressed or delayed. I do have doubts as to the reasons for this suppression. Hence I speak frankly and openly. But some people misinterpret my speeches.
Anything else you want to say?
Our government has turned a new page in our international relations. Prior to my assuming office, Sri Lanka was an unaccepted country in the international community. I believe that all the countries in the world are our friends now. The manner in which I obtained the support of the international community — I feel it is a victory for me. Not just a victory for our country and people, but also a personal victory for me. In today’s circumstances, no country can develop by making enemies in the international community.
At the time we came to power, even the ties with India — whose relationship we were proud of for years — was dented. Now all these have improved.