A leader should be able to acknowledge his mistakes
- Sajith Premadasa

Sajith Premadasa is seen by many as the next leader of the UNP. In the first part of this wide ranging, two part interview, he speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about the various accusations that have been levelled against him and his father with regard to the present sorry state of the party.

Q. What do you think went wrong for the UNP? Why is the party in the present rut?

A. I believe the party became detached from the thinking of the common people of Sri Lanka. This was so in all sectors, whether it be economic, social political or military/strategic. This is the crux of the problem.

Q. But when you speak to people within the UNP who are in favour of preserving the status quo, they would say that the UNP is weak today, because of the split that took place when your father the late R.Premadasa was the leader of the party and president, in the early 1990s, with Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake going their separate way.

A. The creation of a separate political entity the DUNF certainly was a contributory factor and for that my father, the late Mr Athulathmudali, and the late Mr Dissanayake all have to take the blame. I am not going to shy away from that issue. If we are to turn the party around, we have to be in touch with the reality. Some things may sound unpleasant to me personally, but facts are facts. That was one aspect. But then again you have to realize that when Chandrika Kumaratunga came into power at the 1994 parliamentary election she had only a very slim majority in parliament. If the post May 1 1993 UNP government of president D.B.Wijetunga had continued the quality aspects of the Premadasa era, while eliminating the negatives, we could have won the parliamentary election of 1994. What happened in the aftermath of my father’s sudden demise was that there was a process within the UNP to cleanse the party of the ills of the Premadasa era. The Gam Udawa programme was stopped, the school uniform programme was stopped, the mid day meal was stopped, the 200 garment factory programme was implemented only in a very half hearted manner, Janasaviya was brought to a sudden halt. When this so called cleansing process took place, the people were not given an alternative in terms of a social programme. So for the sake of erasing the Premadasa name and the Premadasa policies, arbitrary decisions were taken to halt all these pro-poor, pro-people initiatives. That was a major contributory factor for the weakening of the UNP. So there was a whole series of events, the split in the UNP being one issue.

Q. Who do you think bore the greater share of responsibility for the split in the UNP, your father or Lalith or Gamini?

A. I believe that all have to share the blame. I would like to think that the other two are more responsible than my father, but the bare reality is that all three are responsible and that’s a good lesson for all of us.

Q. Did all that happen because your father thought that he was in a strong position and therefore could afford to sideline the other two and survive politically?

A. I was not privy to my father’s thoughts or his decision making processes to give you a precise answer. But my guess is that at a time when he should have taken a rational decision, his decision making was somewhat clouded by subjective matters. I think in these matters, subjectivity has to take second place. In political decision making, the rationality of the process should be maintained rather than clouding the whole process with emotional issues and personal feelings. My father’s decision making was somewhat clouded by past events and the nit picking that went on during the Jayewardene regime when all three were competing with one another.

Q. When you talk of the ruination of the UNP, the talk is now diverted to Premadasa. Lets take that issue of the 12.5% cut off point in each electoral district, to qualify for a seat in parliament. Now various people in the UNP are saying that after your father got this cut off point reduced to 5%, the various minority based splinter groups were able to get their candidates elected on their own and this led to the erosion of the UNP vote base.

A. I reject that argument. The reduction of the cutoff point, was a very democratic step, taken with a view to making more sectors of society stakeholders in the political process. When my father was alive all these so called splinter groups – I don’t like to call them splinter groups, they are political parties – were with my father. If succeeding leaderships have been unable to keep this family together, that is because of their own inability and not because my father brought down the cut off point. In that case you could also argue that the proportional representation system was responsible for the UNP not getting a huge majority in parliament in 2001. Then you can blame the UNP administration of 1977 for having introduced the PR system. I think political leaders should have the capacity, the drive and determination to ensure that one’s political coalition stays intact.

Q. But we see a situation where groups like the SLMC and Mano Ganesan’s party have come up, and are eating into what used to the UNP’s vote base. When nomination time comes around before an election, these people want more and more seats and the flexibility to contest anywhere they like. All this is because that cut off point was brought down to 5%.

A. I totally disagree with that. Just because the UNP is unable to drive a bargain with the minority parties, that does not mean that my father is responsible. My father is not responsible for the inability of the present UNP leadership to persuade these minority parties to come in to a coalition with the UNP being the dominant partner. Are you telling me that under Ranasinghe Premadasa, these various political groupings would not have toed the line? There is a concerted effort among a small section of people in the party to palm off all the blame including the inability of the present decision makers, on late president Premadasa. We could have had dealings with other minority based political parties while having our minority base intact within our party. My father did not specify a rule which said that the UNP should not give candidacies to Muslims and Tamils and that we should depend on other minority parties.

Q. Are you saying that that’s happening now?

A. I think the deterioration of the minority base that you are referring to within the UNP was primarily caused by a deliberate attempt to keep out the minority candidates of the UNP, and to clear the way for the other minority based political parties. This has now been going on for one and a half decades and the politicians of the post-Premadasa era have to take responsibility for that.

Q. One of the biggest problems that the UNP has is this label of being traitors. The accusation is that your father started all this by giving arms to the LTTE.

A. In facing up to conflicts certain strategic decisions have to be taken to neutralize your enemy. If I remember correctly, certain Nazis were armed by the allied forces. That was to strengthen the hands of anti-Hitler forces within the regime. Similarly, my father had to contend with two wars on two fronts, the JVP in the south and the LTTE in the north, and he had to adopt certain strategies. Through these various strategies that he adopted, he managed to engender the split of the LTTE and you found the Mahattayas and the Yogis toeing a more moderate line. One aspect of the LTTE’s defeat was the split within the LTTE. The initial seeds of internal dissension was sowed by the Premadasa administration. In the context of the pressures of that time, my father took this decision to support a grouping of the LTTE with whom he had a special relationship.

Q. But this strengthened the LTTE and it contributed to prolonging the conflict.

A. With the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t agree with the policy adopted by my father. A different course of action would have been more prudent and more in the interests of national security. This is of course in hindsight. Political decisions are not made in a vacuum and there are various pressures at work. I am in no way trying to defend the mistakes and draw backs of the Premadasa administration or any other administration. I am a plain talking straightforward political realist.

Q. Apart from the blame attributed to your father, there is also an accusation leveled against you. They say that during the 2005 presidential election, you went around saying that you would skin the Samurdhi Niyamakas alive and that this galvanized them against the UNP.

A. I did a very thorough analysis of the Samurdhi movement and I exposed the fact that the Samurdhi beneficiaries were being given a pittance as the Samurdhi subsidy with most getting something between 500 to 900 Rupees per month. However, the two Samurdhi Niyamakas appointed per grama niladhari division, were given salaries and allowances amounting to over 25,000 Rupees. The targeted poor were getting a pittance whereas the two Samurdhi animators were getting 25,000 a month to do nothing but politics. At a meeting I said that if a Samurdhi animator was receiving 25 times the benefits given to Samurdhi beneficiaries the political authorities in the country should ensure that these political appointees were well utilised for the purpose of poverty alleviation. In paraphrasing that into platform language maybe I used the wrong words. I do admit that. The term I used was "Hamagahala wedaganna ona". That was a figure of speech well understood by any Sinhala speaking person. I never said that they should be skinned alive. But the government media misrepresented what I had said. However, I do take the blame for the words that I used. I am not going to run away or pass the buck. Now I am more politically mature, and more careful with my use of words.

Q. There is this story going around that you are a Christian and that your wife’s family are born again Christians and that the Sinhala Buddhist masses will not see you as one of them and that as a matter of fact you have never been seen worshipping the Mahanayakes or any other Buddhist monk for that matter.

A. All I can say is that is absolute rubbish. I don’t need to announce in newspaper interviews that I am a good practicing Buddhist. Just because someone plants news items in nefarious websites, that does not mean I have to reply to them. As far as my Buddhist credentials are concerned, come to the Hambantota district and look at the work I have done in the Buddhist temples. I am proud to say that I have done more development work as far as Buddhist temples are concerned than Mahinda Rajapakse in that district. I have built 300 pre schools in Buddhist temples. I am a good Buddhist, my wife is a good Buddhist and her family background is Buddhist.

Q. Why haven’t you been seen with the Ven Mahanayakes?

A. If I do go and see the Mahanayakes I will be accused of trying to fast track things. There was a time when my father was castigated for being too much of a Buddhist, for always carrying flowers to the temple and building stupas and temples at Gam Udawa sites. There are sinister groupings who are actually on their way out trying to have their last hurrah before their downfall by spreading these stories.

To be continued tomorrow

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