If anybody can be described as the ‘face’ of this parliamentary election, it is former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Not only is his likeness displayed on the posters pamphlets and other election material of the candidates of the UPFA, the UNP and the JVP also direct all their attacks at him. Thus, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the pivot around which this election revolves. In this exclusive interview with The Island staffer C. A. Chandraprema former president Rajapaksa deals with several issues that have taken centre stage as the election campaign enters its final phase.
Q. We are now just days away from the parliamentary election. I could not help but notice that in any interaction you have with the media, the questions that you are asked centre around allegations made against you, your family and members of your government. You seem to be always defending yourself, replying to allegations. Do you feel like you are under siege?
A. That is unavoidable to some extent because we have been in power and it is those who are in power that have to answer for doing or not doing something. For many years, the Opposition has been doing nothing but hurling allegations at us so the media needs to get those allegations cleared.
One of the big mistakes that we made as a ruling party is not replying to these allegations at that time. We did not take them seriously and we left them unanswered. This is why we have had to deal with these issues at this stage. I am in a way happy that the media questions us on these matters, because that gives us an opportunity to explain matters to the people. The internet and social media like Facebook were used extensively to spread these fabricated stories. But, I think people are wiser now.
Q. There is this ingrained belief in many people that politicians are in politics to make money. There were allegations of corruption against many figures in the UNP government of 1977-94. The slogan that brought your government—the People’s Alliance—into power in 1994 was the alleged ‘dooshanaya and bheeshanaya’ of the UNP government. What brought the UNP government of 2001 into power were allegations of ‘dooshanaya and bheeshanaya’ against the PA government. Likewise Maithripala Sirisena won the January presidential election once again on allegations of ‘dooshanaya and bheeshanaya’. Now, ‘dooshanaya and bheehanaya’ appear to be one of the givens that we have to expect from every government. These allegations gain traction among the people because everybody is now conditioned to think that all governments use terror tactics to stay in power and that all politicians are corrupt. What would you have to say about the allegations of ‘dooshanaya and bheeshnaya’ against your government?
A. My government was accused of massive corruption and my family in particular was accused of possessing assets abroad. Now, seven months have passed without the new government being able to produce any evidence at all as to the wealth we are alleged to have acquired. Let’s leave aside proving these things in a court of law. Have these people who are hurling accusations at us been able to produce enough evidence even for a journalist in a mainstream media institution to be able to write a news report about the assets that we are supposed to have amassed? Those allegations were all fabricated. To give you just one example during the last presidential election campaign, one minister who defected from our government went around the country saying that the initial estimate for the first phase of the Norochcholai power plant had been originally USD 300 million but after my government came into power, we had increased the estimate to USD 450 million and we had pocketed USD 150 million. There was even a book written on this baseless allegation. When this was repeated recently, my media unit responded by pointing out that the initial estimate for the Norochcholai power plant had been increased in 2005 some months before I came into power and that what had happened after I came into power in November 2005 was that a special negotiating team had actually reduced the estimate by USD 20 million! After we published the date on which that increase in the estimate took place, the Norochcholai issue was quietly dropped by the other side! That is the kind of allegations made against us.
Q. If we get on to the ‘bheeshanaya’ part, there is the allegation that rugby player Wasim Tajudeen was murdered by one of your sons over a personal dispute. Now, the body has been exhumed and a full scale investigation launched.
A. First, they tried to portray us as thieves and when they have no proof of corruption to produce after seven months of investigations, they are now trying to say that we murdered people. This is why bodies are being exhumed in the middle of an election. They can’t obtain the results of any forensic examination before the election but the exhumation was timed in such a way as to create suspicion in the minds of the people. Well, they should go ahead with the investigation. But, the people are not going to be taken in for the second time by these falsehoods. The way they levelled allegations at us before the presidential election would make anyone think they were already in possession of all the evidence of corruption they needed. But, the people could see that after the election that they had no evidence at all and more than seven months later they still have not found any evidence of corruption. This is why they are trying desperate expedients like exhuming bodies.
Q. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Champika Ranawaka have been going around the country saying that you gave the LTTE a massive cash bribe to get the outfit to prevent the people of the north from voting at the 2005 presidential election.
A. It’s ironic that the candidates of the party that gave money and weapons to the LTTE in 1990 are accusing me of having given money to the LTTE. The fact that president Premadasa gave money and even weapons to the LTTE is an established fact. Later the leaders of the UNP tried to hand over the entire North and East to the LTTE on a platter by signing the 2002 Ceasefire agreement. Now the same people are making the allegation that I gave money to the LTTE. They are saying that in the hope that they will be able to make the people forget the fact that it was my government that defeated the LTTE. Now look at that person who was a minister in my government who is now contesting on the UNP ticket. He goes around the Colombo district saying that I gave money to the LTTE. If that is so, why did he continue to serve in my government? If he had been a man of principle he should have left my government much earlier.
Q. At this election, unlike the January presidential election, you are in the fortunate position of not having to be always defensive. The Treasury bond scam has given you an opportunity to go on the offensive. When one party comes into power accusing a government of massive corruption and barely weeks after forming a government the new set of rulers are themselves up to their necks in a corruption scandal, that would make people lose faith in all politicians …
A. You must not make the mistake of equating the allegations of corruption that were levelled against my government with the Treasury bond scam of the present government. There is a big difference between the two. In the case of the allegations made against us, no evidence has been put forward at all. But, the UNP’s Treasury bond scam has already been investigated by a committee of UNP lawyers appointed by the prime minister and also by a sub-committee of the Committee on Public Enterprises of Parliament and both these reports – even the one written by three UNP lawyers – have confirmed that serious lapses have occurred in the bond issue. The Central Bank officials have testified before the COPE. Even though the COPE subcommittee report is not an official parliamentary document because Parliament was dissolved before it could be tabled, still the investigation was carried out by MPs and the report and even the testimonies of the officials have become a public documents because they have been filed in courts in the UNP’s own case. After just six months in power, they had to hurriedly get Parliament dissolved to prevent the COPE Subcommittee report on the bond issue from being tabled. Don’t forget that Parliament was dissolved on the very day that this COPE Subcommittee report was going to be tabled. Later they even went to courts to get an injunction preventing that report from being published. That is the difference between the allegations that they make against us and the ones we make against them.
Q. Are you satisfied with the UPFA campaign at this election? The UNP and even the JVP have a visible presence on the ground but in many places the UPFA does not even have campaign offices. In many parts of the country there is not a blue flag to be seen anywhere. People say that the UPFA has been in power for so long that they have forgotten how to do a political campaign as an Opposition party without access to state power and state resources.
A. It is certainly true that we have been in government for a long time and we now have to conduct a campaign as an Opposition party. But, the lack of visibility that you refer to is more due to an unequal application of the election law to us as against the parties like the UNP and JVP. Despite this unequal treatment that has been meted out to us by the police, our political meetings have almost always been better attended than those of our rivals. So, you can’t really suppress the popular will through police action.
Q. You are contesting this election in circumstances that no other leader has had to face. You have to face enemies both within and without. Though your colleagues have compared this to the situation that you had to face in 2005 when Chandrika Kumaratunga was rooting for the other side, the difference this time is that even if you win the election, you will still have to contend with a hostile president. The leader of your party has publicly said that you should be defeated. On top of that a former president and patron of your party is openly canvassing for your defeat.
A. I think the people are fully aware of the situation. This is an election that will decide the entire future of our country both in economic and political terms. The 2005 presidential election was a turning point in our history. If we had not won that election the whole history of this nation would have been different. This election is also important for the same reason. The question that every voter should ask himself or herself is whether he wants a stable country like what existed before January this year or whether they want a country that resembles a cross between Yugoslavia and Greece. In December last year, this country was politically stable with one of the highest growth rates in Asia. We had enjoyed a stable exchange rate, low inflation, a low interest rate for several years. Today, all that has been turned on its head. Today, we don’t have a stable government, national finances are in a major crisis and separatist forces are once again destabilising the country. So, the people should decide very carefully. This is a moment when the future of the country should take precedence over everything else. Above all, everyone should cast his or her vote at this election because so much is at stake. Every vote counts. Once the people have made their will known, everybody will have to fall in line – that’s whole meaning of democracy. Up to now no political leader in his country has tried to thwart the people’s will.
(Source: The Island)