President Kumaratunga declared that the Norwegian facilitated peace process to resolve the country’s long running armed conflict would continue. She was being interviewed Wednesday for national television by PRIU’s Eric Fernando.
Wednesday’s Memorandum of Understanding between the ruling PA and the People’s Liberation Front fuelled speculation that strictures had been placed on the continuation of the peace process.
The group, which emerged with an armed insurrection in 1971, took up arms again in the late 80’s causing severe disruption in the socio-economic life of the country. Thousands were killed in the government’s attempts to quell the insurgencies. The People’s Liberation Front entered the democratic mainstream contesting Parliamentary Elections in 1994. At the Elections in 2000, they emerged as the strongest leftist party with ten seats in the 225-seat Parliament.
“The talks with the LTTE are in no way affected,” she assured. We haven’t even talked about it in the agreement. And the talks with the LTTE will go on. They have come to a halt the last two months because the LTTE has told the Norwegians “we think the government is unstable we’ll see who will continue in power.” So they have refused to talk. The government has continuously been in touch with the Norwegian facilitators. The LTTE has said, we will see what happens.”
Asked about constitutional amendments she said that the government has prepared the stage for a wider discussion in a formal manner once again with groups of citizens beginning with the Maha Nayakes (Buddhist High Priests) and others, on the possible constitutional arrangements for guaranteeing minority rights.
“And we have already even made the legal framework for that – a constitutional commission – where groups of people will be invited officially to come and give their opinions and then the consensus will be drawn up in the form of a report and then we can take those also into consideration when drafting the amendments to the constitution or in the form of a new constitution.”
“We have consciously accepted that the free market is probably the best for the development of the country and for our peoples,” she added. She said that the alliance with the JVP will not be an obstacle to government’s economic policies or to any of the agreements with IMF.
Interview with HE the President on September 5, 2001
Q Your Excellency, the political crisis of the last two months seems to have ended. Are you relieved?
A Yes, very relieved.
Q You have come into an agreement with a political party whose ideologies are diametrically opposed to those of yours. How did this happen?
A Well, As far as the ideology is concerned, I would say yes and no. Because the SLFP is a center-left party and we do have many people-friendly policies, “social policies” with a free market economic policy, which we have adopted since of late.
The major difference between the JVP and the PA is that, they believed sometime ago in armed struggle and we don’t. We have always been a strongly Democratic Party. We have upheld democracy in the face of all adversity; even when so called democratic parties were destroying democracy in this country we did not let ourselves get pushed into undemocratic political methods. And it is probably because, quite definitely I would say, that the SLFP and our major partners in the PA stood firmly on the side of democracy while tens of thousands of our cadres were getting killed through state terror and other forms of terror of other political organizations, that today still there is democracy in this country. It is true that there is a difference in style between the two parties, but, during the long discussions that ensued between the Prime Minister and the PA together with the JVP; I also participated in a couple of those discussions. The JVP clearly stated and in fact, it is also in the agreement that has been reached between the two sides, that they do not use armed struggle anymore as a political method. And also mainly I think the PA and the JVP have been able to agree on a common programme of action for the welfare of the people.
Q Unlike an agreement madam, it seems more like a set of strictures the JVP has imposed on you.
A No, it wasn’t like that.
Q That’s the general feeling, but can you enlighten us on that.
A I don’t know why there is general feeling like that. Probably the so-called free media have created this. No. In discussions, we had discussions with the UNP. Here I must mention the PA, from the time we came to power 1994 believed in and we have practiced politics of consensus as opposed to conflictual politics that has ensued in this country since independence.
That is why the PA came into power as a group of seven different political parties with rather different views representing all the ethnic communities in this country etc. That is in ‘94. Now we have 10 different political parties and groups in the government. That itself is enough to prove that we have an actively promoted politics of consensus. As part of that at this moment the country has arrived at a very difficult time of its history and we have, we tried very much to come into some kind of consensual agreement mostly at the request and the suggestion of various groups of the UNP first. And we discussed with the UNP on the same basis as with the JVP, which was a common program for the benefit of the people to resolve, not all problems because it was for a limited period, to resolve at least the major problems that the country is facing today. And we named them mainly three.
First, an early end to the war through a negotiated settlement; that the UNP and the PA should get together to persuade the LTTE to come to the negotiating table in a constructive manner; two, a political settlement of the minority problem, guarantee of minority rights – in other words, and electoral reforms which would reflect more democratically and more honestly the views of the majority of the people in the country like any democracy should, and most democratic counties do.
And then the UNP had suggestions about the commissions, which the JVP also has put forward and which we agreed to. And here I must say that because the commissions became a huge issue, the constitutional draft which the PA government drafted and I presented to Parliament last year, had all four commissions in it. There were four separate chapters on the four commissions.
Q But now it is being spoken of as the 17th amendment to the constitution.
A Yes, well it doesn’t matter how it is spoken of. But in which way it comes. And all those four commissions were discussed every word, every sentence with the UNP, between the PA and UNP delegations which was led by me last year for seven months. And all the UNP amendments were accepted, and this was integrated into the constitutional draft which the UNP hooted out of Parliament finally and burnt within the chambers and all that; having said they would vote for it very clearly when they got up from the negotiating table. So, anyway it was not difficult for us to agree to the commissions and it was on that basis that we discussed with the UNP and the talks with the UNP broke down because they were insisting on all kinds of positions, a lot if which we were willing to accede to them, even though they did not have the people vote for it. We were voted in by the people and we were willing to accede and give more and more of what they were demanding but the demands became too strident and too much for us to be able to carry on the government so that broke down. Only because they were asking for personal positions and we were insisting on the common program for the people, which was not agreed to clearly. With the JVP, we discussed on the same basis. We had some suggestions to the JVP, the JVP proposed some suggestions to us and we discussed all these and came to a consensual agreement, which was signed today.
Q And what is the state of the constitution now, from the time you took office in 1994 you had wanted to change/amend this constitution. And I’m sure you still stand that way especially electoral reforms, devolution. What is the JVP’s thinking on that?
A We discussed this very clearly with them and the agreement is very clear on that. What the final position of the JVP was, we know that they are against devolution, but we put it to them.
Well, as you know we have had very wide and deep dialogue on our constitutional proposals from August ‘95 in this country. We have gone to the villages, the towns, the people through seminars, workshops, street theaters and all kinds of things like that. Through the Sudu Nelum movement, we took the message to the people but there are some groups of citizens, especially the maha nayake theras, and some intellectuals and others who feel that they did not participate enough in these discussions. So, we did discuss with the maha nayakes.
Q I’m sure that in the last two months everybody has realized the faults in the existing constitution. It has now been brought to the surface.
A Some people are totally blind before the truth.
Q But there is one area Madam where emphasis is being placed – electoral reforms.
A About the constitution, I’d like to finish. So the agreement that we have reached with the JVP is that… in any case before we started talking with the JVP, we had prepared the stage for a wider discussion in a formal manner once again with groups of citizens beginning with the maha nayakes and others, on the possible constitutional arrangements for guaranteeing minority rights. And we have already even made the legal framework for that – a constitutional commission – where groups of people will be invited officially to come and give their opinions and then the consensus will be drawn up in the form of report and then we can take those also into consideration when drafting the amendments to the constitution or in the form of a new constitution.
Q Can you in fact assure the minorities that there is no fear of marginalization?
A No. The joint agreement with the JVP has clearly stated that we will have this dialogue with the country in whatever form and we are proposing a constitutional commission; it can be in any other amended form. And then once a consensus is reached with the widest number of people possible, then the JVP has no objection to that being implemented.
And the talks with the LTTE are in no way affected. We haven’t even talked about it in the agreement. And the talks with the LTTE will go on. And they have come to a halt the last two months because the LTTE has told the Norwegians “we think the government is unstable we’ll see who will continue in power.” So they have refused to talk. The government has continuously been in touch with the Norwegian facilitators. And the LTTE has said that we will see what happens. Probably they were hoping somebody else will be there who may be easier to deal with. And so they halted the talks, not us. And we are still proposing to them. And new proposals have been something extra now, which they should be happy with.
Q So there is no negative change in the peace initiatives because of this new alliance.
Q And the JVP has suggested some populist moves such as writing off loans and non-privatization. Will this hinder your economic progress as you had planned it?
A No. Because we wrote off 600 million rupees worth of loans to farmers. Small loans, all less than 20,000 rupees and 30,000 rupees at that time in ’94. Because it had become a big drop problem to them. And since then we didn’t write off any loans. But at the moment, because there is a drought.
Now for example this morning, for the last three days I’ve been having discussions with people from the whole country. I have met people from 6 provinces out of the 9. And there was a very strong request from the members of Parliament and provincial councils etc., to see whether we could write off farmer loans as well as at least give a moratorium for some time for other loans of the poorest bracket of people because of the serious problems arising from the drought situation.
So this is something anyway the government will have to do and we are happy that we have been able to come to an agreement on that also.
Privatization, it is not any privatization. The suggestion of the JVP, the request was that banks and the main insurance corporation should not be privatized in the next one year. And in any case, we have no intention of privatizing the state banks and the insurance corporation ever. That I have assured the people a long time ago and we mentioned that to the JVP also. So that is also in the agreement because they wanted it put in. But there is no question of that.
So the rest of the programs will go on for this year. For the next 12 months there isn’t any big privatization anyway on the card mainly because global recession has set in so much in the world that it would be the worst possible time to privatize anything.
Q Madam President, as the President of the country and the Finance Minister, what have you got to tell the business community, particularly the decision making folk in Colombo about their concerns about this Marxist alliance, which the international media is shouting about?
A Marxist alliance? We have had three Marxists parties for seven years in the government and that has not caused any problems for the business community. And all honest people in the business community have admitted, those who wish to see; those who do not consciously blind themselves that this government has been much better for business that any other.
In fact, because we have consciously accepted that the free market is probably the best for the development of the country and for our peoples, we have tried.
The UNP government brought in that free market economy, I dare say, but it was very badly managed. It was managed in the most corrupt fashion. The privileges in the free market economy in the last government went only to the privileged few, the cronies, etc.
And we have been able to manage the free market economy in such a manner that the widest number of people in the population got its benefits. And also we have been able to stabilize the free market economy in this country – the economy under the free market system, let us say – we have been able to stabilize to such an extent that the big business, middle-level business and small business benefited hugely from it. And they flourished fairly well in the last seven years despite a war situation. They would have flourished much more if not.
And if business had not flourished, how has gross national production doubled in the first five years of our government, how has inflation reduced by 55%, how has unemployment reduced by 50%, how has per capita income increased by 50% annually - the annual per capita income – in the first five years of the government? And so many other things I can say. Bank interest rates reduced from 25% average to 15 - 16% except in the last 8 months because of the unusual situation, of increase of oil prices, war expenditure increased unusually for a short time, we have controlled it. And now global recession is setting in. This has happened but otherwise we have been able to do all this.
So I don’t see any reason why the business community should be worried. We had the, what shall I say, the original Marxist parties, we have in the government.
The one thing I must say, they may be worried about is that the JVP has led two armed struggles in this country, two armed uprisings in the 70s and the 80s which caused a lot of problems for the country, the people, the economy, etc.
But in this agreement the JVP has said that, in their discussions they assured us that now they have come into the democratic stream, that is why they have come into Parliament etc. And we insisted that in the agreement that should be stated and it is stated that they would only use democratic means, politically. In other words, that they will not use armed struggle anymore.
We have also discussed at great length with them about the fears that the business community had; about crippling the economy through strikes and other things. People have been telling me for the last 8 months since the last elections. The JVP has assured us that a lot of those closures were not due to their actions but it was due to the actions of other trade unions. I don’t know the facts. I have not had the time to study. But in any case, we have also put into the agreement, that in this one year period in which the agreement will be valid, that they will not resort to any action that would cause any harm to the economy. That includes trade union action, etc.
Q How would the international donor agencies, such as IMF and the World Bank react now? After you have made an alliance with the JVP. Would the de-Stalinized world look at us differently now – you think?
A I don’t see why they should. The United States of America are working very closely with the Soviet Union. The previous Soviet Union.
Q So there is no cause for concern?
A The conjectures in the world situation has changed so much that I don’t think anybody needs to worry.
And also finally I would like to mention that the SLFP, and especially I also have been associated in persuading armed groups to come to the - we have not been the only people, but we have also played some important role in persuading certain armed groups to come into the democratic stream. For example in the 80s, after the black July 83 attack on the Tamil people there were born five armed groups among the Tamil people in the north and the east. And at that time the LTTE was not the strongest. And we went and met, Vijaya my husband and I, we went and met all these five groups, in Madras and in Jaffna, and we were talking with them to persuade them to give up their politics of terror and violence and come into the democratic stream. And by the time Vijaya was assassinated, we had persuaded 3 ˝ out of 5 of the armed Tamil guerilla groups to come into the democratic stream. We were not the only persons responsible for it, but we also played a role.
So I don’t know, we may also have, the JVP, I must say – we must be honest about it – they have in the last several years shown that they have espoused the democratic cause and they have told us so clearly. They have signed so in the agreement. And maybe we will also have some further good effect in further democratizing even such organizations. So, it may be a jolly good thing rather than something to worry about.
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