Minister of Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka and his party the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) played a pivotal role in the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at January’s Presidential Election. The JHU, however, has now part of an alliance named the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and is contesting the August 17 General Election under the Elephant symbol of the United National Party (UNP). In this interview with The Nation Ranawaka, who is contesting from Colombo and is also the UNFGG’s General Secretary, speaks on the reasons behind forming this new alliance, how it will fare in future, and its chances at the upcoming General Election.
Q: What were the reasons behind forming the United National Front for Good Governance?
On January 8, the sickening Rajapaksa family political enterprise was defeated. The decision to come together now was to ensure that this victory is advanced further. This is especially needed now as Rajapaksa has shown he has not changed, aligning with the same people as before in an attempt to push his failed policies. In the long-term, Rajapaksa’s rule isolated Sri Lanka internationally, strengthened the LTTE and plunged the country into an economic abyss. In order for President Maithripala Sirisena to right these wrongs, he needs to have a Prime Minister and a Cabinet that he can work with. All this led us to form the United National Front for Good Governance.
We see the UNFGG as a coming together of several political ideologies: the conservative ideology of D.S. Senanayake, the nationalist ideology of SWRD Bandaranaike, the ideology of minority party leaders such as G.G. Ponnambalam and Dr. Khaleel and the leftist ideologies of people such as Dr. N.M. Perera.
Q: However, you are contesting under the ‘Elephant’ symbol of the UNP?
That was purely due to a technical matter. The symbol is of no importance to us. We contested under the ‘Betel Leaf’ symbol and the ‘Swan’ symbol before, so this is nothing new to us. What matters is what is needed at this moment for the benefit of the country’s people.
Q: The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) argues that the 5.8 million votes cast for Mahinda Rajapaksa are all intact while Maithripala Sirisena’s 6.2 million have now split. They claim that if anything, the UPFA vote base would actually increase?
That argument is ridiculous. Pre-January 8, Mahinda Rajapaksa had the full might of state machinery at his disposal and used those resources at will. He turned 1.4 million Samurdhi beneficiary families into his own personal political force. There were 5 million votes that revolved around those 1.4 million families. He lost despite all this and now he no longer has the capability to force those people to vote for him. He can no longer force the media to toe his line. The scaremongering tactics regarding the country being in danger of splitting don’t work anymore.
The same people who are coming up with these statistics claimed Mahinda Rajapaksa will win the Presidential Election by over 2 million votes. This election will show just how pathetic the UPFA is without its control over Samurdhi beneficiaries.
Q: You and the JHU are being labeled as political opportunists by some. What is your response?
We are not political opportunists. We are actually the people who choose the direction the country is headed. The opportunists are those who cling to one party or another and fall on their knees before one leader or another. We have taken various political decisions at important periods in the country’s recent history and we have managed to change the country’s direction for the better as a result.
We have signed three MoUs with other political leaders; the first was with Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the second with Maithripala Sirisena in 2014 and the third with Ranil Wickremesinghe this year. Through these MoUs, we have managed to convince the two main political parties in this country to accept the unitary status of this country. Is that being opportunistic, or ensuring that the real aspirations of the people are met?
We were also instrumental in the fight against terrorism. Mahinda Rajapaka was not elected in 2005 pledging to defeat terrorism. He, in fact, funneled money to the LTTE through RADA even while the war was on. This only stopped after the LTTE tried to assassinate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The whole enterprise was an evil one designed to ensure that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family would not become targets of the LTTE. Mahinda Rajapaksa will have to face the consequences of this great betrayal at some point in the future.
Q: But if Rajapaksa did indeed funnel money to the LTTE, how come you never went public with it while being in his government?
We did not know about it then. We only realized much later after revelations surfaced regarding Tiran Alles.
Q: The UPFA and Mahinda Rajapaksa have repeatedly criticized the government for being soft on national security. As a party that has maintained a strong stand on national security, do you feel there is a genuine threat?
This is a familiar ploy that Rajapaksa and his supporters are using. Look at it this way. Since Maithripala Sirisena’s victory, has the LTTE actually strengthened?
Before January 8, the pro-LTTE elements in Sri Lanka were entrenched inside the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The likes of Ananthi Sashitharan were prominent members and she herself obtained about 80,000 preferential votes at the Northern Provincial Council election. However, what has happened now? When the TNA finalized their nominations, the likes of Sashitharan and other hard-line pro-LTTE elements were left out. What would have happened if Mahinda was in power? They would have all banded together to contest.
We can see the same thing among the Diaspora. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a misguided move, went to Oxford to deliver a lecture and was forced to turn back after being met by thousands of Tamil protestors. When President Maithripala Sirisena went to the UK, the pro-LTTE elements rallied against him stating that he was the Acting Defence Minister during the final days of the war. However, only a handful of protestors turned up. The power of the pro-LTTE elements in the Diaspora melted away. This is the moment to seize this opportunity and continue these efforts.
Q: However, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s moves to hold a Diaspora festival in Sri Lanka has drawn criticism, not just by Rajapaksa but even elements in the JHU?
Mahinda Rajapaksa has no moral right to criticize such actions. He and Sajin Vass Gunawardena conducted an extensive dialogue with South Africa and its special representative Cyril Ramaphosa on engaging with the Diaspora. I can vouch for this personally as when I went with a government delegation to South Africa for an environmental conference, South African authorities requested two very senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leaders in my presence to tell the President to continue with this dialogue.
As for us, we have no problem with Minister Samaraweera’s plan, provided that all Diaspora representatives who participate renounce violence and separatism and also accept the laws of this country. If that is the case, we are open to initiating a dialogue with them.
Q: You played a pivotal role in bringing Maithripala Sirisena to power. But just six months into his presidency, hasn’t he become isolated within his own party?
While Maithripala Sirisena became chairman of the SLFP, the main problem he faced was the intense hate that the SLFP has for the UNP. This hatred exists in the UNP as well, directed straight at the SLFP. Maithripala Sirisena tried to build consensus among the two parties, but the hateful elements within the SLFP were unable to understand or accept this new line of governance.
Maithripala Sirisena is the country’s President and SLFP chairman and he is trying hard to balance these two positions. After Mahinda’s defeat at the next election, we expect that President Sirisena will be able to enact meaningful reforms to restructure the SLFP and rebrand it.
Q: This government was very vocal about the public’s right to information. Yet, it has been very quick to obtain a court order to muzzle the release of the COPE report into the Treasury Bond issue. Why this contradiction?
The COPE report should first be tabled in Parliament. You can’t just put it in the public domain until this has been done, and Parliament is now dissolved. However, we concede that there are serious issues regarding the Central Bank’s Treasury Bond auction. This is not to say that bond auctions held under the previous regime was without issues either, but this must be investigated.
Q: There are allegations that UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrama was present when the auction was ongoing. Even your media spokesman Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe has publically stated this. Was Samarawickrama actually there, and if he was, isn’t it a matter of concern?
All these allegations have to be investigated. The initial offering was Rs.1 billion. There might be various reasons why the offering subsequently went up to Rs.10 billion. However, when you compare the interest rate given for a period of 30-years with previous bond auctions, you can see that there is a significant spike in the graph and that the interest rate was unusually high. Whatever way you look at it, this auction is problematic and merits an extensive investigation. Under the 5-point plan of our new government, eradicating corruption will be one of the primary aims.
Q: What happens to the 20th Amendment and legislations such as the Right to Information Act?
They will all be presented to the new Parliament and passed. The failure to present them during the last one was because that Parliament did not reflect the mandate given on January 8. However, we are also determined to amend the 19th Amendment regarding the Constitutional Council. It is our firm belief that the council’s majority should be comprised of independent civil persons. The only MPs in it should be the Speaker, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader.