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“Will not get involved in UNP fights” – the nation

[MISC, Monday, 9 August 2010 08:21 No Comment]

By Rohan Abeywardene

Mangala Samaraweera Mangala Samaraweera, dress designer turned politician, entered yet another chapter in his checkered political career this week when he disbanded SLFP (M), which he formed soon after he was chucked out of the Rajapaksa Government along with late Sripathy Suriyarachchi for criticising the regime from within, and joined the UNP on Friday at a tumultuous time, very much reminiscent of what his own late father Mahanama Samaraweera did in 1964. On the eve of his joining the Grand Old Party Mangala spoke with The Nation. Following are excerpts:

Q: Is it now a case of history repeating ‘like father like son’ with you also ending up in the UNP?

Actually my father never became a member of the UNP. In fact, in 1964 he was one of the dissidents in the face of the press takeover bill and subsequent to that he along with C.P. de Silva formed a breakaway group of the SLFP with the rising sun as the symbol and he contested from that party and lost to B.Y. Tudawe and he died the following year.

Q: In the UNP government that came to power in that election did he not serve as the Chairman of the Distilleries Corporation?

At the time it was called the Kantalai Sugar Corporation and it was immediately after his defeat.

Q: So he also formed a breakaway party like you?

May be he didn’t live to join the UNP.

Q: Many are saying that you joining the UNP now is more like someone entering a house that is on fire with the on-going deep turmoil there.

As far as I am concerned I would say I had a baptism of fire in June 1988 when I was appointed as organiser for Matara by Mrs. Bandaranaike as the SLFP was in a bigger crisis then than the UNP is in now. There were many similarities. Especially after the 1989 election there was a very strong presidency and again like now there was talk of a continuous family dynasty being perpetuated and many SLFPers, the rank and file had given up hope of ever seeing a SLFP government in their lifetime and within the party Anura Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa were spearheading the campaign to oust Mrs. Bandaranaike. Basically the similarities are the same and having gone through that crisis and swum against the tide, in fact only five people were supporting Mrs. Bandaranaike within the Central Committee and I was one of them, and finally we won the day. I feel the crisis in the UNP is not a crisis at all. It can be easily dealt with. I decided finally to join the UNP after much soul searching and political analysis. I of course, feel that despite the perception of strength of the ruling party and the perception of weakness in the UNP, the UNP today is perhaps the only political party in Sri Lanka with a future.

Q: In the past you have been a kingmaker having helped both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa to come to power?

I wouldn’t say I was a kingmaker, but certainly when I am committed to a course I always jump into the deep end do the best as I can in order to further that cause and I certainly did my role in the past few governments, but again that was because of my belief in the principles or the policies on whose behalf I was fighting for. I joined the SLFP basically in 1989 because I believed that the SLFP was a party based on social democratic principles. This is what SWRD Bandaranaike wanted it to be, but unfortunately I have to admit now that the SLFP has become hijacked by extremist, chauvinistic and nationalistic elements and all what he (President Rajapaksa) is doing is against and opposed to the founding principles. In fact, SWRD Bandaranaike, in his famous inaugural speech after forming the SLFP at the Town Hall in 1951, said the SLFP was a party which would never bow down to the dictatorship of a person or a group, but today, the SLFP is more or less run by one family. One good example on how the tentacles of this family basically monopolises the whole system is in the way budget expenditure is allocated this year. Rs 1.2 trillion is directly under President Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, and then the balance is more or less indirectly controlled by the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa. So, the dictatorship is there even in terms of economic management.

Q: Those familiar with your departure from the government say the problem lay in the fact that you felt that Rajapaksa siblings were upstarts who were given plum positions overnight. Otherwise you had no real problem with the President.

Actually even today I have no real problem with President Rajapaksa personally. Personally I think he is quite a genial kind of person and he has been my friend for many years since 1989. We had been close and certainly I must say the role of the family is what is destroying him. I did not leave the government. Frankly I was asked to go. Having been chucked out of the government I was invited back several times, but the reason I did not accept several invitations to rejoin the party is because I will never like the policy directions which the government took. As the Foreign Minister several times I tried to bell the cat so to speak of the consequences of the direction the government was heading for, especially when white vans started appearing, when journalists started getting bashed up, when Maheshwaran, Raviraj and Pararajasingham got killed, five students got killed and 17 aid workers got massacred. I even predicted that if we allowed this culture of impunity to continue we may even lose the GSP Plus and have other repercussions. Not only did I say so I put it down in writing on December 13, 2006 and that was the reason that I had to leave. By that time President Rajapaksa had come to a position where he did not entertain any form of criticism whatsoever. What I did as Foreign Minister in trying to show them the mistakes they were doing was taken in bad faith and instead of the reply I hoped to get from President Rajapaksa I was removed from the government within 27 days of that letter.

Q: You were a key member of the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, even though you talk like an angel. There were many wrongs. The PSD was allowed to run riot, despicable treatment was meted out to Rukantha and Chandralekha, Satana Editor was killed.

Certainly we were no angels, but the rule of law was never flouted in this obscene manner. As our government came into power there were floating bodies at Bolgoda. We found who the culprits were and the law took its course. When Chryshanthy Cumaraswamy was raped and killed we had a trial at bar against those perpetrators. As Media Minister when a wreath was left in front of Iqbal Athas’ house we took action against the perpetrators. When Lasantha Wickramatunga’s house was bombed I immediately spoke to Lasantha, who of course, became a very close friend of mine later on.

Q: You also had him assaulted.

Not assaulted, a grenade was thrown at his house while his children were there. There again we immediately got the police. We offered him police security which he refused. We did everything possible which can be done. Of course, as far as the media is concerned the only black spot which I regret is the murder of the Satana editor which we could not solve. Look at the other side we never controlled the media. The government media had the most amounts of talk shows with the participation of opposition members and half the time the opposition did far better than the government MPs. The opposition views were never suppressed. Of course, there were shortcomings and even with the PSD that was a huge shortcoming. In retrospect, those were not done with the direct concurrence of the government nor did we hide it under the carpet. Now perpetrators of crime are given almost sovereign protection. Look at Mervyn Silva. Everyone blames Mervyn Silva for what he has done. I don’t blame Mervyn. He is doing what he is doing because of the protection and the blessings he has got from the government. Having attacked TV stations and done all sorts of other wrongs he was rewarded with being made Deputy Minister for the President himself. That shows that he has the direct blessings of the President. The main difference is that today, this government thrives by backing criminal elements and using them for their own benefit.

Q: When in the Opposition politicians shed lot of crocodile tears about lack of media freedom, but even you as Media Minister ran Lake House with an iron fist.

Yes. As Media Minister I ran Lake House with an iron fist, but at the same time the only difference is under my stewardship the state media was open to the opposition. We had ‘Janata Adikaranaya’, ‘Eththa Neththa’. We had altogether five different talk shows unlike now.

Q: Lake House was used like a rubber stamp.

I drafted a code of ethics for Lake House where we told that equal time must be given to the Opposition and especially if the Opposition wanted a correction that must be given pride of place according to normal media ethics. But certainly I did run it with an iron fist, but I have never tried to suppress opposing views because deep in me I have always been a democrat and I have been brought up in such surroundings. On the other hand, the government should not be dictated to by the media and the media should not be dictated to by the government. It should be a partnership of equals.

Q: What role do you hope to play in the UNP?

Once I join the only role I have asked from the leadership is the authority to reorganise the grassroots in my area in Matara and the Matara District. In order to change the direction of a party or the political direction one doesn’t need power and position. You only need the commitment and the energy to do so. In fact, the best example of that is Chandrika Kumaratunga, who after joining the party had no position at all, and in fact, became the deputy leader of the SLFP in the fourth year of her presidency. What I am trying to say is the position is irrelevant as the main thing for the UNP now is for us to go to the grassroots and give leadership to the party rank and file who have been more or less left isolated for 16 long years. We must have branch societies, revive youth, women and trade union organisations and believe me the UNP will revive itself sooner than you think.

Q: There is the widespread allegation that for his own survival Ranil Wickremesinghe is having an excellent rapport with President Rajapaksa. How do you view this charge?

I think that is an unfair allegation based on the talks the UNP has started with the government about constitutional reforms. The constitutional reforms and especially the abolition of the executive presidency has been more or less the platform of the UNP for the last so many years. In fact, at the last presidential election that was our key platform and now when the government of the day, whether they are sincere or not is another matter, when it offers to negotiate the basis of constitutional reform as a responsible opposition I think it is only fair for you to give the benefit of the doubt to the government. In many ways if the government is saying that they are willing to consider our views then it is at a compromise and the responsibility is with the UNP to try to get the government to their standpoint.

Q: Some say you were single handedly responsible for bringing down the UNP government in 2004. In that background do you think they will forgive and welcome you with a red carpet?

I really don’t know. I can’t answer that question. But on the other hand, I know that the UNPers, at least the rank and file and within the party I get along very well with almost everyone and the rank and file of the UNP also must have overlooked that fact simply because even at the last general election 90 per cent of my vote base was from the UNP. They realise I did it for my party at the time and of course, in many ways, I regret that decision now. It paved the way for this dark era.

Q: You are joining the UNP at a time its leader is desperately in need of supportive fire power. Invariably he will require your firepower too to fight back his many opponents. Are you ready to get embroiled in the UNP power struggle?

I am not going to get embroiled in any horse fight whatsoever. My priority will be the rank and file of the UNP of my own district and my own area and perhaps I want to show there is another way of going about things. I really don’t think Ranil Wickremesinghe is short of fire power. He is very good at it himself. He is a very capable leader and he can look after himself.

Q: Why didn’t you consider joining the Democratic Party where your close ally Tiran Alles is a key member? Then despite having lot of dealings with the JVP you are turning your back on them at a time JVP is openly attacking Ranil Wickremesinghe for his dealings with the President.

The decision I have taken now as most decisions I have taken in my political life are based on certain principles and policies and although I have a deep admiration for the energy and the discipline of the JVP I have great differences of opinion about many of the JVP policies of which I have told them openly. The Democratic Party with all due respect to Gen. Fonseka, is still just a party of three people and basically, I feel even those people will finally join one of the two main parties. But the leading party of that coalition is the JVP, and as I said, especially in regard to the national question and in regard to the economy we have great differences of opinion. Here, I am not talking about a coalition but when one is actually joining a party you must join the party which represents your policies and vision. At the moment the UNP is the only party which represents all the values I believe in.

Q: You are a man with a vision who does things in style with flare, but after the 2005 election victory your vision got blurred and you threw away three of the best ministerial portfolios and decided to challenge the all-powerful President from the opposition. Even JRJ told Lalith and Gamini it was a big mistake to leave the party and they should have agitated from within.

Again I have to correct you. I didn’t leave. I was removed from the Cabinet. I was not colliding with any of them. If at all, I was criticising certain aspects of governance based on principles. Actually, had they listened to me at the time, half of the problems we are beginning to face today would not have arisen, and now looking back, had I not been removed I of course, would have left the government because I did not like especially the atrocious way they handled the national question. All that was completely against what I believed in. Of course, finally I, like everyone else, is very happy about winning the war. We are very happy the shadow of Prabhakaran is no longer hovering over this country. Even more than Mahinda Rajapaksa, during the last 12 years I was the target of the LTTE which was even proven when they convicted so many people for passing on information to the organisation about me. What is most distressing is that Rajapaksa regime is unable to use or at least pass on the peace dividend to the people. Instead of using this tremendous opportunity we got after defeating the LTTE to harness the potential of this country they are actually using the war victory as a veil to cover and perpetrate their dictatorial one party state agenda.

Q: After having helped him to clinch victory at the 2005 presidential election some say you wanted nothing less than the premiership. Was that the bone of contention?

That is an utter lie which Mahinda Rajapaksa himself will confirm. Before he was nominated, he met me and Lakshman Kadirgamar at my official residence in order to canvass our support for his nomination and at that meeting he first told Lakshman, ‘I deprived you of your Prime Ministership in 2004, but I will make it up to you. I will make you Prime Minister if I am elected and will you support me. Of course, later we found that he had offered that colour carrot to about six others in the party. Lakshman responded that he would certainly support Mahinda; that he did not harbour any grudge against Mahinda for depriving him of his Prime Ministership. Lakshman concluded by stating that he was 74 years old and in fact, he had made up his mind to retire at the end of the year. But he added, ‘you must look after my young friend Mangala’. Those were his very words. At that point Mahinda of course, said, ‘Ah if you are not the choice certainly Mangala will be my next choice’.

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