Govt. Failed To Appoint The Right People – Tissa Attanayake
Former General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP) Tissa Attanayake is once again in the spotlight. The former Parliamentarian, who was recently released on bail from remand custody, told The Sunday Leader that he would return to active politics and will support a political party which has secured the backing of a majority in the country.
The following are excerpts of the interview:
by Ashanthi Warunasuriya
Q: How are your political activities progressing?
A: Nothing specific. For a long time I had been engaged in full time politics. But with the problems and challenges I had faced during recent times I had decided to take a short break from politics. But I still take part in public functions.
Q: When you were in remand custody some said you were a political prisoner. Were you really a political prisoner?
A: Yes. In recent times I was placed in remand custody over various allegations. As soon as the new government came into power, I was arrested at my own house. Then I was placed under remand custody for10 days. After one-and-a-half years the AGs Department issued a new charge sheet against me. The most notable clause in these indictments is that I have been charged under the National Human and Civil Rights Act that has not yet been practically enforced in the country so far. The charges include creating ethnic disharmony, attempting to prevent President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory in the election and producing a false document to the media with the knowledge of forgery. All of them are political issues. I had to stay in remand prison for 45 days.
Q: Do you think that this was an act of revenge?
A: Yes. I have not changed my party. During the last presidential election the UNP decided to support SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena. He is the present leader of the SLFP. When disputes broke out regarding this issue I decided to support Mahinda Rajapaksa who was the chairman of the SLFP at that time. So the question was about supporting the General Secretary and the Chairman. Apart from deciding to support another candidate, I did not change my political party nor did I obtain SLFP membership. This is how it all started. What I did was revealing details of a discussion that was alleged to have taken place. So the act of revenge is very clearly visible here.
Q: The issue of politicians enjoying privileges inside prisons is widely discussed these days. Did you also enjoy such privileges?
A: No. Most people are shouting without knowing what the true facts are. There are limitations for those who are placed under remand custody to meet outsiders. The food is given according to medical recommendations. I obtained permission to get food from home. Even that was given to only two people. Even when the food is brought, the prison authorities mess up the food when they check it. The same was with water. Apart from that there was nothing special. But during those45 days I was able to read and write a lot. I was able to finish writing 2books. I hope to publish them next year. They contain the details of how the previous government was toppled and what actually took place during the presidential election. The other book is titled ‘Prisoners are also humans’. In reality these prisoners are not treated as humans. Their problems are really pathetic.
Q: You have resumed your political path after spending time in remand prison. If you were not behind bars would you have returned to politics?
A: I think these continuous harassments motivated me to step back into politics. But I had always wanted to come back to politics.
Q: During the Rajapaksa regime you were at the front line of criticizing their administration. What changed you?
A: I never had a deal with them. There were no gifts or privileges. Before taking my decision I only had spoken to the then President Rajapaksa for two days. This was entirely carried out on policy grounds. We agreed upon the protection of the rule of law, putting an end to corruption, treating everyone equally and stopping acts of political revenge were among those policies. After hearing my proposals, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that he too was thinking of implementing such policies. So I was satisfied with my decision.
Q: What do you think about your decision now?
A: There are two sides to think about. If I had remained with the UNP I would have become a powerful member of the government by now. But I do not worry about losing such privileges. But I am saddened by the continuous revenge taken on me. I have stood beside our current prime minister for over 30 years. I have risked everything to protect his party leadership. Those who are in the UNP know that. But the promises given by the UNP to the people at that time have not been kept so far. Even the belief people had about the economy doing well under a UNP government has also shattered. In the near future we may have to face a severe foreign exchange crisis. I’m doubtful as to whether the present government can meet these challenges.
Q: Why do you think the government has failed?
A: The government has failed to appoint the right people for the right job. Secondly it is hard to take firm decisions inside a coalition government. Thirdly the government has so far been unable to take adequate measures to prevent corruption and waste. The bond issue is a good example for that. Although it may have been done to protect individuals it was the name of the party that was tainted. So the people believe that there are thieves in this government as well. Finally it was unwise to increase the privileges of MPs when the country is in an economic crisis. So the people believe that the government has forgotten their problems. In 2001 the UNP was able prevent these issues by issuing circulars. But we have lost such good strategies.
Q: As a veteran politician, don’t you think that your decision to support the wrong candidate has cost you a lot?
A: I never take a decision by thinking of victory or loss. It was a decision taken within 48 hours. On the evening of December 06, I thought that the dispute in the party over the candidacy issue is going to cost party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as there was going to be a conflict between the party and President Maithripala Sirisena. So I had to do what I thought was best for the party at that time. Sometimes we have to take decisions without thinking about our own gains. It is true that I made a bad gamble but it was a political decision.
Q: Are you starting your new political journey with anger?
A: During the past few months I had totally given up politics. But when I was continuously harassed I thought of retaliating. I was put in a single room with only a mat to sleep. I was not even permitted to take my medicine. But my followers gave me strength to return to politics. I would start a new journey in the New Year.
Q: Which party are you planning to support this time?
A: I never deserted the UNP. When I was expelled from the party I went before the Supreme Court to save my membership. I was removed when I was in prison. However there is still respect for me in the party. But if the leaders do not want me there, then I cannot be in the party. I must make a stand in politics. But I would not be a SLFPer. I can sense that a considerable force is building up in Sri Lankan politics at present that could lead to a change in the near future. I am ready to play my part in this movement.
Q: But in our political history, breakaway groups have not been able to survive for a long time. So will your future party really have a chance?
A: Since1948 there were only two major parties in this country. But we can see that there had been alliances against the UNP than against the SLFP. In 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga won from the People’s Alliance. In 2001 the UNP was able to win the election under the United National Front. Again the SLFP came into power as the UPFA. So the next change would come in the form of an alliance.
Q: Are you talking about the ‘Podu Jana Peramuna’?
A: May be. But I do not know how it would turn up. But the people’s blessings are still with this front.
Q: Is it true that they are planning to offer you the post of General Secretary in this new party?
A: We have not had any discussions on the matter.
Q: You claim that you would be working with a new political front. What issues have you identified to rebuild the country under a new leadership?
A: We would be drafting our policies as a party. But the issues about rebuilding the economy, repelling corruption, generating new jobs must be among our key issues. Although the government is talking about a new constitution there is no need for such a thing at present. The problem of MahindaRajapaksa was that he had clung on to Executive Presidency. Even the Ven. Sobhitha Thero had said that if Mr. Rajapaksa had promised to abolish the executive presidency he would not have supported other political groups. Theproportionalrepresentation is a good system. There is no need for major changes in the constitution. Instead of identifying the real issues, the government is trying to do things the people do not want.
Q: Are you planning to play an active role at the local government elections next year?
A: Yes. I think that I would have to take a decision by then. Sources say that there is a severe problem in the UNP local government front. Maybe the people would use the local government elections as a means to show their displeasure.
Q: If the UNP invites you back what would you do?
A: That is a different story. But since the top brass of the party has made their own estimates, they do not know where the public opinion lies.
Q: What do you think about the recent budget of the government?
A: People are not happy about it. Its main weakness is that it has presented many things that are not normally brought in under a budget. The traffic fines are a good example for that. They must be done in an institutional level. Apart from that no new strategy has been introduced to promote new investments.
Q: Racism has started to raise its ugly head once again. Although discussions are held between religious leaders about this issue not much have been done on the ground. What is your opinion on that?
A: In 2010, that was the main accusation against the Rajapaksa regime. After the war they could have rebuilt trust among the people while developing the north. People voted for a new government in the hope of seeing a change. But that has been confined to words at present. We need to keep our promises about rebuilding ethnic harmony. Unfortunately the President and the Prime Minister is divided on this matter.
Q: Privatization of state institutions has also become a much talked about topic these days. Do you think that the government should join hands with private parties to develop these institutions?
A: From time to time different definitions and terms are given to justify these policies. Previously we talked about privatization. Now we are talking about public-private partnerships. Many countries do not privatize airports and sea ports as they are tied with the national security. If these institutions are making losses, selling them is not the answer. The main problem in these institutions is the lack of proper management and supervision. This is due to political appointments.
Q: Wouldn’t you have done the same if you were in power?
A: I would have minimized it.
Q: What do you think about the war crime allegations that have been raised against the country?
A: I do not say that these are fair. But the previous government could have minimized these problems if they had maintained cordial relationships with the international community. But instead of overcoming these problems the present government has yielded to their demands. But we can still solve these issues through negotiations.
Q: What is your opinion about the government’s foreign policy?
A: The Prime Minister had a talent to build friendly relationships with the international community. Since the international community wanted to remove Mahinda from office, they are not going to intervene with our affairs any longer. It was not the result of a change in policy. We have lost aid from China. Unfortunately the West is currently not in a state where it could help us. The US is like an old mansion nowadays.
Q: Finally, will taking political revenge continue under a new administration?
A: I would not allow it to happen with my conscience. But here I do not mean protecting those who have committed fraud, theft and other crimes.