The ‘Jana Satana Pada Yathra’ will be the largest protest march in Sri Lanka’s political history, said Joint Opposition strongman Bandula Gunawardena, in an interview with the Daily FT, adding that over one million protestors are expected to join the rally that will commence today from Kandy and conclude in Colombo on Monday. Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: The much-discussed ‘Jana Satana Pada Yathra’ of the Joint Opposition will commence today from Kandy. Do you think the rally will be a success?
A: Although the Government seems to already be frightened, the Pada Yathra is a peaceful protest march against the non-democratic policies of the present administration. The Jana Satana Pada Yathra will begin from the Dalada Maligawa premises today and reach Colombo on 1 August. The first stage of the march will end in Mawanella, the second stage will be in Nelumdeniya and the third stage will conclude in Nittambuwa. On the last day the participants will arrive at Kiribathgoda and will conclude with a massive public rally in Colombo on 1 August.
Q: Which political parties will take part in today’s rally?
A: A large number of parties will take part in the protest march. SLFP, Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Jesha Vimukthi Janatha Party, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, National Freedom Front, trade unions, various community organisations, professionals, university academics and other civil society representatives will take part in today’s rally.
Q: Is it true that you are expecting over one million participants in the protest march?
A: Yes. The Jana Satana Pada Yathra will be the largest protest march in Sri Lanka’s political history. We are expecting over one million participants.
Q: What actually happened at the meeting with President Sirisena on Monday?
A: Some of the Joint Opposition members met the President on Monday night. We told him the Jana Satana Pada Yathra is organised against the nondemocratic policies of the Government. We openly expressed our views about the recently-imposed VAT hike and its impact. The President said measures had already been taken to remove VAT on healthcare. Although the President says that, healthcare is included in the VAT Amendment Act.
Then we discussed the protest carried out by disabled soldiers over the discrepancies they face with regard to their pension schemes. The President said it was already decided to pay the money. He contacted relevant officials over the phone and instructed to pay the money immediately. The protest was called off later.
We pointed out although Arjun Mahendran was not reappointed as the Central Bank Governor, the Government is yet to take action against him over the bond scam. We told President Sirisena that it is not correct to take action against the Sathosa Chairman over a minor matter. What he has done is insignificant when compared to Mahendran’s bond scam. The Sathosa Chairman has been with the SLFP for a long period of time. He is a loyal SLFPer. It is the duty of the party to protect him. If the Government wants to take action against him, then they should take action against Arjun Mahendran too.
We warned the President that people who shed blood and sweat to bring the SLFP to power should not be harassed like this. We need to take care of these people. They are continuously harassed by the UNP. As the leader of the SLFP, the President must take some action to stop this.
Q: This Government just completed one-and-a-half years in power. Don’t you think you should give it more time to carry out its work?
A: This is the most absurd and unruly Government we have ever seen. They never listen to the Opposition. They don’t care much about other people’s views. They suppress the real Opposition and take every possible measure to silence us. I call this ‘bulldozing the Parliament’. They think the Parliament is there only to express their views. They implement things without approval; hastily bring various acts to the Parliament without Cabinet approval; openly threaten the media. They hunt State officials who have different views to theirs. Is this good governance?
During the last one year, the country has seen how vengeful and vindictive this Government is. No previous Government has act in this manner. From ministry secretaries to office assistants and businessmen to community workers, basically anyone who has supported Mahinda Rajapaksa was taken to the FCID.
This Government hardly has anytime to engage in development work. It doesn’t have time to run the country because all it wants is take revenge from us. Unfortunately I feel today the entire country is in a ‘work to rule’ mood. Everybody follows this method. Only work according to the book. Nothing more than that. People are scared to do anything additional, fearing they too will be taken to the FCID. The President too had said people should be terrified of the FCID. He believes it is a good move.
Q: Parliament cannot be dissolved for another four years and the President can continue his term for another six years. What are you trying to achieve by organising such rallies?
A: No, don’t say that. Our smallest act can make a change. The Pradeshiya Saba election will be held in future. By having frequent protest rallies, we can alert the people. We can organise more rallies closer to the Local Government elections next year. This is a good method to open the eyes of the people. If we educate the people, they have the strength and power to topple much powerful governments than the present regime. We will take every possible measure to topple this Government and we need the support of the people to do that.
During J.R. Jayewardene’s time when the Indo-Lanka pact was signed, hundreds and thousands of people got into the streets. Some were killed and others injured following tear gas attacks. But the people didn’t stop. Today the situation has improved. The Government cannot just kill protestors.
Look at the sad state of Parliament today. Those days Parliament consisted of intellectuals but today it is a place full of thugs and goons. This Government is full of ‘chandi malli’ calibre politicians. In Parliament when the ‘actual Opposition’ tries to express our views, there is this one group that disturbs us all the time. That is their duty in Parliament; to make sure we don’t get an opportunity to talk. They’ll do any cheap work just to prevent us from sharing our views in Parliament. This is the sad state of Parliament today.
Q: The UNP claims Jana Satana Pada Yathra is organised in order to safeguard the thieves of the previous regime. Your comments?
A: What nonsense is the UNP talking about? Who is responsible for the biggest scam in the Sri Lanka’s history? Mahinda Amaraweera has stolen Rs. 15 billion from the Central Bank. The Supreme Court Judges hearing the coal tender matter said they were shocked and distressed about this type of crimes. During what Government did these take place?
They arrested the Sathosa Chairman for not paying Rs. 30,000 as transportation charges for transporting some things belonging to the SLFP. But even though a petition was submitted to the Bribery Commission against Cabinet Minister Mahinda Amaraweera for robbing the Central Bank, no action has been taken against him to date. Now who is safeguarding thieves?
Q: The Joint Opposition is continuously criticised for further dividing the SLFP. How far do you agree with this accusation?
A: The SLFP is not divided and it is a party that will never be divided. This party was formed for a reason. The SLFP was formed to fight against imperialism. Some of the so-called SLFPers may have forgotten this, but we are fighting to protect this true spirit of the party. We may not have a title, endless perks and privileges or luxurious offices, but we are with the people. We are with the SLFP.
Q: But it is the UNP that will benefit from the clashes between the Joint Opposition and the SLFP?
A: This is the most absurd accusation made against the Joint Opposition. They claim we are supporting the UNP by creating issues inside the SLFP. It is not the Joint Opposition that is supporting the UNP. The traitors who joined this Government after coming to power through SLFP votes are the ones who are supporting the UNP. No one can blame us. They are the ones who supported our rival UNP to form a Government.
Q: You cannot topple this Government by organising protest marches. Do you have a clear mechanism to oust this regime?
A: We have a clear plan. The Mahinda Chinthana program commenced by the Rajapaksa Government today has come to a standstill. Now we are working out a national program on how we could once again commence these projects and take the country forward. We are working closely with academics. We want to have a bigger and better plan to carry out when we come to power once again. We want to educate people about this plan.
Q: What are your plans for the upcoming Local Government election? Will you be contesting with the SLFP?
A: Not only the SLFP; there are other parties such as the LSSP, MEP and CP that contested under the betel leaf. All these parties will contest under the betel leaf at the next Local Government election. This is what the people want.
Q: During the Rajapaksa administration there was a clash between the Government and the Supreme Court over a ruling to reduce fuel prices. But the present Government honoured a Supreme Court interim order on the VAT increase. Your comments?
A: How can the Supreme Court reduce fuel prices? It is Parliament that has the power to do that. According to Section 148 of the Constitution, it is Parliament that has the power to impose taxes, remove taxes or amend taxes. No Court in the country has the power to issue instructions to Parliament.
But the recent VAT issue is different. The SC not given an order as such. Ravi Karunanayake is not the Parliament. He cannot take decisions of his own. He has violated the Constitution by not submitting this proposal to Parliament first.
I went to the Supreme Court against the Financial Management Act, but I was told that the Supreme Court cannot do anything regarding the matter and I have to get it sorted in Parliament.
Q: What are your views on the economy? There is 5.5% growth and Government revenue has increased during the first four months of this year.
A: You cannot say the economy is doing well based on statistics. Foreign reserves, rupee depreciation, and obtaining foreign loans at unbearable interest rates is not healthy for an economy. The interest rate on loans has come to double-digit level.
Q: But during your regime the same statistics were quoted to say the economy was doing well?
A: Yes, we did, but we had a better economy. Development was visible. The figures were only to support what we were actually doing. But today the situation is different. Only the figures and numbers are there. Where is the development? We cannot see anything happening in this country. Over 500,000 people have lost their jobs. Tea, rubber, and agriculture economy has collapsed. The economy is in a crisis and the Government knows it; that is why they are terrified. There is a protest march or a strike taking place every single day.
Q: But isn’t this the best evidence to prove there is democracy in the country, unlike during the previous regime?
A: Who says there was no democracy during our administration? We had protests taking place during our time. Didn’t we have university students in the streets protesting almost every day? When there was an issue, people protested. But the difference is that President Rajapaksa took measures to address those issues. He discussed with those people and listened to their grievances, unlike this Government.