(www.life.lk) Anusha David spotlights the hottest styles and statements in and around Sri Lanka – from political leaders to celebrity CEOs, masters of the game to fashion icons and stars of the silver screen and stage. Here are society’s leaders talking about the determination, vision, smarts, competence and professionalism. Today, she speaks to Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
“The JVP totally rejects violence. Twice we took up arms, however in the future we assure the people of Sri Lanka that this will never ever reoccur. We assure the people that the only way we will come into power is by winning the trust of the people. We assure the people of Sri Lanka that we will never ever take to arms again. During the last 25 years, the JVP was subjected to violence on numerous occasions, however we never resorted to violence and I assure the public that they need not have any fear, the JVP has rejected violence forever”!
This is the assurance given by the JVP’s leader Dissanayaka Mudiyanselage Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, one of the most charismatic and unusual politicians ever to enter the local political arena. Dissanayake was named the leader of JVP at the 7th national convention of the party held on 2 February 2014.
Born in Thambuthegama, in the Anuradhapura district, his father was a labourer, his mother a housewife. He has one sister. Today he is married and is the proud father of two children. His involvement with the JVP began during his school days. He was the first student from the college to be chosen for admission into university. He made his entry into politics with his participation in student political activities associated with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1988 at the Peradeniya University at a time of great ferment in student politics. He later moved to the University of Kelaniya where he graduated with a B.Sc degree in physics. Subsequent to the violent period of 1988-89 when student activists were under great threat, his involvement in youth politics intensified following the changes that took place in 1994, and the defeat of the UNP Government after 17 years.
“Looking back, I was never interested in getting a job and settling down. Politics was my passion. To be honest, I’ve always wanted to transform and improve our society”.
Here are some excerpts off the interview with him.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Thambuthegama, Anuradhapura district. My father was a labourer. My mother was a housewife. As a child, I faced the same problems that many people in our country continue to face today. My involvement with the JVP began during my school days. I went to Thambuthegama Gamini Maha Vidyalaya. I sat for my ‘O’ Levels here. Afterwards, I sat for my ‘A’ levels at Thambuthegama Central College. I was the first student from the college to be chosen for admission into university. I first attended Peradeniya University but I - along with many other students - left after three months due to threats. After a year, I was able to secure a transfer to Kelaniya University.
Looking back, I was never interested in getting a job and settling down. Politics was my passion. To be honest, I’ve always wanted to transform and improve our society.
Tell us about your parents.
My parents were never happy about my involvement in politics. But they always allowed me to make my own decisions. However, after joining politics, my decisions were in line with the interests of the party.
What is the JVP’s position on the 20th Amendment?
I think the electoral system of this country needs to be changed, but the 20th Amendment is not the solution. The manner in which the 20th Amendment was broached with the other parties was wrong. Why I say this is wrong is because what was discussed with us was one thing, what was proposed to the Cabinet was something else, and finally what was gazetted was yet again different. Therefore, I say the 20th Amendment was not discussed with us. Secondly, the new system too has a lot of technical flaws; some of the candidates themselves don’t have the vote, yet they are coming forward as nominees. There are also independent candidates who if they win can become Ministers, however there is a problem as to what District he or she represents. These are just some of the technical problems that will arise through this new system. From a political angle, as per the new system, it is designed in such a manner that only the two main parties have power. The other parties don’t stand a chance unless they align themselves to these two main parties. In short, we still have the two-party scenario. There are several minorities and minority parties in this country and they too have to be represented in parliament, however the new system does not allow this. Because of this, the JVP does not agree with the 20th Amendment.
How will the JVP approach the issue of the missing and disappeared during the Bheeshanaya period and the war?
The 1988 / 89 period was a tremendous shock to us, and we can’t imagine how this happened. We admit that that several atrocities took place, things which should never have happened, happened. We admit that. However, the UNP, which was in power at that time, postponed parliamentary elections by way of a referendum. Had elections been held, a fair number of JVP’ers would have entered parliament legitimately and the 88 / 89 disaster would not have occurred. The UNP proscribed the JVP saying that we were responsible for Black July in ‘83. However that was 100 percent wrong as the perpetrators of Black July were J.R Jayawardene and his cronies and their thugs. We were operating as a democratic party until then, however after being proscribed we were compelled to take to arms to fight for our rights. Certain mistakes were committed by the JVP during that period while we were fighting for the rights of the people. For this we are truly sorry. It is now 25 years since this disastrous period, we have learnt several bitter lessons from it and we pledge that such incidents will never take place at the hands of the JVP.
What do you think of the Police inaction that has prevailed in this country?
Unfortunately we had reached a state where law and order had virtually ceased in this country. People had no recourse to justice. The formulation of fiscal policies, enactment of law and order is in the hands of parliament, the duties enacted by Kachcheris no longer take place, places of religious worship which were sacred and upheld basic human dignity and the correct norms of behaviour have failed in their duties. In such a scenario, we cannot only hold the forces to account, it’s the fault of the system. Marx said that people’s good qualities have been put into iced water and destroyed. That is the state our country is in today. Even if you try to put your child into a school, you can’t do it without bribing the officials. It is no use making laws, if you cannot enforce them. During elections, and at other times, the police behaved as per the norms set down according to the government in power at the time.
What do you think of President Maithripala Sirisena and his performance thus far?
The elections held on 8th January 2015, which saw the downfall of MR and his government, gave rise to a lot of hope amongst the public. However, these hopes and aspirations of the public have not been fulfilled by President Sirisena and his government. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have purposely delayed to bring the wrong doers to account. The 19th Amendment where the Presidential powers were going to be curtailed also has not happened. The economic burdens laid on the people by the Rajapakse government have not been alleviated, despite promises made. The promised Right to Information Act still has not been enforced; the promised Audit Commission and the law to regulate the behaviour of Ministers have yet to be tabled. None of the people’s hopes have been fulfilled by the President Sirisena – Ranil Wickremasinghe government. The fact that the Rajapakse regime came to an end is good and President Sirisena and his government did the people a service by bringing this about, however that was the beginning and the end of it – they have failed thereafter! Their biggest achievement was defeating MR. Thereafter they have failed in their election promises.
Despite assurances, favouritism and cronyism that goes on – what do you have to say about this?
The sad fact about our country is that the mere changing of leaders does not bring about real change. At the 8th January election, what the JVP said was ‘defeat the Rajapaksa government, however we cannot give any assurances or guarantees regarding the new government’. The people must unite to ensure that election promises and pledges are fulfilled. The problems that prevailed in the country were not solely due to the Rajapaksas and you cannot resolve the problem merely by removing the Rajapaksas; you have to change the system. For 67 years all we have done is change the party and the leader, we haven’t changed the system. When President Chandrika Bandaranayake was first elected the people were hopeful about her, however soon the people realised that she could effect no real change and they got tired of her. Thereafter MR came into power and the same disappointments set in. Similarly, the same hopes were brought into play for the Sirisena - Wickremesinghe regime, but those hopes too were very soon dashed. Why is this repeatedly happening? The reason is that though governments change and leaders change, it is the same system that prevails.
What were President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s biggest mistakes during his second term?
He did not see to or fulfill the needs of the people. He did not try to change the system. Subsequent to the end of the war, MR had the golden opportunity of uniting all of the people of this country, be they Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslims, Burghers and Malays, but he let that opportunity go! All Rajapaksa thought about and spoke about was the fact that he won the war and destroyed the LTTE. He did not look to the future or try to win the peace, in fact even now his thought process is the same – that he won the war, but he has not considered what needs to be done thereafter to keep the peace. His major mistake was that subsequent to May 19th 2009, he failed to change and bring about the change that was required.
Has the JVP definitively renounced armed struggle?
Twice we took up arms. However in the future we assure the people of Sri Lanka that this will never ever reoccur, not just here in Sri Lanka but in the world, as with the technology available now, as well as the expertise acquired by today’s armies, people all over the world reject violence. The JVP totally rejects violence. We assure the people that the only way we will come into power is by winning the trust of the people. We assure the people of Sri Lanka that we will never ever take to arms again. During the last 25 years, the JVP was subjected to violence on numerous occasions, however we never resorted to violence and I assure the public that they need not have any fear, the JVP has rejected violence forever! Since 88 / 89, the JVP has conducted themselves without resorting to violence of any form and we assure the people of Sri Lanka that we never will resort to violence again.
You stated that Sri Lanka needs “a new economic order”. Could you elaborate further?
Sri Lanka needs a new economic policy. The economic policies that have been followed so far have failed the people. There are five million families in our country of which there are 100,000 in jail, which means out of every 50 families, one family has a person in prison. We have over 100,000 heroin addicts in this country, which means one person in every 50 families is a heroin addict. For a day, 14 suicides take place. In fact Sri Lanka has the 4th highest suicide rate in the world. Eight rape cases take place a day in Sri Lanka, which means every three hours a woman or girl is raped in our country. For a day, 500 marriages take place, however 200 divorces also take place on a daily basis. For the past 67 years, we have been promised that our country will be another Singapore, however it has been proven that both the economic policies of the UNP and the SLFP have not benefitted the people of Sri Lanka. What we need is not just an economic policy but a whole new plan for this country, which encompasses everything; the economy is just a part of it. We need to develop our education system and modernize it.
Sri Lanka does not have a lot of natural resources, we don’t have gas, oil and mineral reserves; our greatest asset is our people. If we are to develop our country and bring it on par with other developed countries, we first have to invest in and develop our people. Today we have a total of 360,000 children entering Grade 1. When they get to Grade 10, over 60,000 drop out. That means one in every six children drop out when they reach Grade 10. At the Grade 11 stage – ‘O’ levels, though 300,000 students sit the exam, 140,000 students fail. At the ‘A’ levels, though 160,000 sit the exam, 135,000 fail, which leaves us with a mere 25,000 qualifying to enter university. What is this education system of ours? Today, education lies in the hands of parents. Our intention is to make it the responsibility of the government and to create an educated and enlightened public. In 1978, Sri Lanka’s worth in the World Market was 0.5% . Now our value stands at 0.045 %, which means our value has dropped by ten! We need to improve our standing in the World Market, if not we cannot proceed into the future.
Our former leaders lacked the vision to secure Sri Lanka a place in the World Market. All we have been doing so far is carrying on the legacy left to us by our conquerors, namely exporting tea, rubber and coconut. Subsequently, several replacements for tea have come into the market, thus devaluing tea. Today, we have artificial rubber. As for coconuts, even people in Sri Lanka have an insufficient supply. Our intention is to create a place for Sri Lanka in the World Market for Human Resources and Services. As far as production and manufacturing go, we need to identify specific areas and develop them with the help of the private sector. The government needs to have a vision and set a target and together with the private sector achieve this with the help of foreign investment. The targets have to be set by the government. In the field of construction, where does Sri Lanka want to be in the year 2025? In the field of industry, where do we want to be in the year 2025? Where do we want our milk production to be in the year 2025?
The government sets the targets and we work with the private sector to achieve it. All this time have any of our leaders set the private sector a target to achieve? Today the private sector has no set direction. They proceed without any proper direction from government. Today’s businesses operate outside the law. EPF, ETF is not paid, instead under the table payments are made to get out of paying statutory dues. They don’t pay taxes and false invoices are presented. In fact most businesses today operate with two sets of invoices and two sets of cashbooks. Whether you like to admit it or not, every business today operates in a ‘black’ or dishonest environment. We promise the people that we will clean up local business and bring about an environment that is conducive to good governance and honest business practices - that is of prime importance. For businesses to develop, people have to have money in hand, every person has to be able to earn a living wage honestly without resorting to dishonest practices. Housing, education and health are of prime importance and must be available to all.
For a year, over 50 million persons visit government hospital OPDs; this has to be rectified. If we come into power, I promise that within five years we will bring the number of sick persons down to 25 million. Public health has to be developed and improved. With the present resources - i.e. doctors, nurses and hospitals - the health service provided to the people can be doubled. The nation with the highest life expectancy is Macau with an average life span of 89 years. In Sri Lanka, it is 76. Give us the mandate and we will increase this in five years. The JVP’s economic policies and vision are not castles in the sky, but founded on reality. Our policies are connected to the people; they are based on education, jobs, housing and health. In order to make this a reality we will seek the assistance of the private sector.
Are you happy with the investigation of the Bond issue?
There is no way anyone can be satisfied. When Arjuna Mahendran’s case was brought up in Parliament, all what the Prime Minister did was talk of the past Central Bank Governor, Ajith Cabraal. What he tried to do was talk of Cabraal’s faults and thereby cover-up Mahendran’s. Bonds were issued for 1 billion, but 10 billion was taken. A company owned by Mahendran’s son-in-law was involved in this issue, which was a conflict of interest. This makes it apparent that this was a shady deal. As a result of this investigation, it is apparent that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government does not punish wrongdoers, instead they protect them.
Over the last decade, the JVP has strengthened its position as a third force in politics. How do you expect the party to perform at the upcoming parliamentary election?
We are not a third party, we are instead an alternate party. The SLFP and UNP have the same policies. Our policies are completely different. In the past, the JVP had a number of seats in parliament, however this fluctuated. We are confident that soon we can increase our seats in parliament as we can see that the public is behind us and that they are tired of the two-party system, which has not benefitted the country at all. There are people amongst the voters who like to see the JVP having a presence in parliament, however they will not vote for us. I urge these people to please give the JVP their vote. To the people who are already giving us their vote, I urge each of them to get us 5 votes more from amongst their friends and relations. We are confident that we will increase our voter base significantly, and we are planning our campaign accordingly. We are formulating a set of new policies for the forthcoming elections and we are not doing that by ourselves, instead we are obtaining ideas and input from the public as well. We have in place our list of candidates for the election, which includes several powerful, educated, honest and credible citizens and we are confident of getting the people’s mandate.
What are your views on Tamil nationalism and the demand for a political solution in a post-war context?
Subsequent to the war, Sri Lanka had a phenomenal opportunity to unite all peoples living here - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Hindus, Burghers - but Rajapakse destroyed that opportunity. All civil services in the North and East were controlled by the Army; subsequent to the end of the war Rajapakse should have done away with this. Even a small eatery was run by the Army. The people’s land issues were not resolved, the question of missing persons, both children and adults, has not been investigated. The people’s day-to-day issues such as education and earning a livelihood have not been resolved. The North in particular, which was ravaged by a 30-year war, should have a separate policy and plan in place to develop the area, but as yet this has not taken place. Over 45,000 families have lost their bread winners/husbands during the course of the war. This is a burning issue, yet the problem as to how these families are to survive has not been resolved. There are 5000 children who have been orphaned as a result of the war; however, there is no plan in place as to what is to become of these children. Subsequent to the end of the war, so much needed to be planned and implemented in the North, however to date there is no such plan in place, let alone being implemented. However, subsequent to the war, all Rajapakse did was to fan racial animosity to strengthen his power base. Now, Mangala Samaraweera is travelling to Europe to meet with the Tamil diaspora.
But how many times has he visited Jaffna? Not once! The problems are right here, not in Europe. What needs to be done is right here at our doorstep, not across the ocean. The problems of language, culture and earning a living wage should be resolved, whilst winning their trust and making them feel that the government sitting in Colombo is their government as well. However, to date that is not the case; therefore, those people whose basic needs have not been attended to will definitely seek to form their own government. The only way to resolve this is by ensuring the restoration of the full democratic rights of the people in the North and East and giving them the same privileges available to the Sinhalese people. However, all today’s leaders are capable of doing is to bring about a situation where ethnic warfare is inevitable! As far as the Muslims are concerned, all the government is trying to do is resolve Hakeem’s problems, not those of the Muslims. Similarly instead of resolving the problems of the up-country Tamils, all the government is doing is resolving Thondaman’s problems, because that is the easier path! The Tamils up in the North are being ignored, instead the government is concentrating on the TNA’s problems. Recent governments are of the opinion that by giving vehicles and ministerial positions to the leaders, they are resolving the problems of the people. What has happened to date is that the people have been trampled on, their votes have been obtained, but all the benefits and perks have gone to the leaders of the respective parties and not to the people. The only way to resolve the problems of the people of the North and East is to physically go there, open a dialogue with them and see to their issues.
What do you think of the late Rohana Wijeweera and the way he led the JVP?
We feel that Comrade Rohana Wijeweera did a lot of good, he accomplished a lot and he adapted Marx’s principles to suit Sri Lanka. He established a party for those who had no party and who had no representation. Until then, parties and governments were formed by landed proprietors and people who lived in walauwas. Comrade Wijeweera came from a village and gave the voiceless a voice.
The gap between the rich and poor is bigger than ever - worldwide and in Sri Lanka. What is your idea of a just society?
The richest 20 % of people in this country possess 55.1 % of the income of this country. The poorest 20% possess a mere 3.6%. To make this clearer, the richest 10% possess 36% of the wealth of this country, the poorest 10% possess 1.1% of the country’s wealth. The manner in which the country’s wealth is distributed is grossly unjust. As per government records, the income of 42% of the country is less than 2 US Dollars a day. What is their life? How can they provide for their families? The JVP’s policy is NOT to take from the rich and give to the poor. It is common sense to realize that for those who have to live a safe and secure life, the other strata of society have to be able to live a decent life. If not, all that happens is that criminal and underworld activities thrive. The only way to ensure a law abiding society is to ensure that all segments of society earn a decent wage and are able to cater to the needs of their families. Today, the poor of this country have been marginalized. They have been reduced to dust! They have been removed from the economy of this country. 51 % of Sri Lanka’s economy resides in the Western province; 4 % in the North Central province and 9 % in the North Western province. It is not only amongst the people that there is a disparity but the contribution from different regions of the country also differs. The economic policies of the country have to match the lifestyle of the people. We are determined to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. When the gap between the rich and the poor is wide, law and order cannot prevail. The wealthy people in this country need to reinvest their money in order to create jobs and develop livelihoods for people who need it the most.
Does the JVP have a strategy to combat youth unemployment?
We need to create 300,000 jobs every year. The state sector can only accommodate 30,000 new employees, since 30,000 state employees retire every year. According to EPF forms, the private sector created 35,000 new jobs last year. So taken together, the private and public sector only provided 65,000 jobs, which means 235,000 people were left without employment last year. This year, it is even worse. According to EPF forms, 70,000 people lost their jobs in the private sector. Prime Minister Wickramasinghe promised to create jobs, but we can’t simply rub a magic lamp and create jobs, can we? Job creation has to be an integral part of our plan for the development of the economy. The previous government provided 100,000 jobs to university graduates. Some were given jobs in kachcheris without seats and in libraries without books. Other graduates were employed as agriculture officers and asked to distribute plants to the farming community. This is a waste.
There are two sections we need to look at in order to create jobs. The first is our service sector, which needs to be expanded across the country, and the second is production. No matter how many shops and market places open up around the country, only 3 million people visit these places daily. This is in stark contrast to India, where 38 billion people visit shops and market places daily. I see an opportunity here. We need to understand what we can sell in India, carry out research, develop products and enter their market. Similarly, we need to study the European market, understand how consumer needs will shift in twenty or thirty years and develop products to suit that shift. This requires a great deal of research and development. The government’s expenditure on research is about 0.01% of the national budget. Other countries allocate a significant proportion of their national budgets to research. So I have to ask: How exactly does Ranil plan to create 1 million jobs? Sajith Premadasa wants to build 100,000 new houses. He probably wants to build the houses out of sand. You can’t give houses to people who don’t have an income. What you need to do is give people an income so that they can build their own houses. Instead of individual ministers coming up with their own solutions, what we actually need is a holistic plan that addresses job creation, health, education and housing.
Who has influenced you the most?
My party. As a man who was born in a distant village, who went to a normal school and who came from a normal family, the opportunities I have today did not arise because of my skills and talents but because of my party. The JVP has been a constant source of strength and a pillar of support in my life.
Name the books that shaped your life and your politics.
There are many books that changed my life. I was deeply inspired by the literature of Soviet Russia - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Mother by Maxim Gorky and a number of short stories. The literature of that period had a great impact on our lives. I have read Senkottan by Mahinda Prasad Masimbula. Quite recently, I read ‘Adaraneeya Victoria’ by Mohan Raj Madawala. I’ve read Professor Abraham Kovoor’s work while at school. I enjoy reading autobiographies and biographies. I’ve read about the life of Marx, Engels, Mandela, Castro, Gandhi, Lenin and Clinton. I also enjoyed reading the story of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito.
What does the leader of the JVP do during his free time?
I love to swim. I can swim the entire length of the Nuwara Lake in Anuradhapura. On average, I swim about two kilometers. So a swimming pool isn’t enough for me. To be honest, I don’t like swimming pools.
What are your views on religion?
We think religion assists in an individual’s mental development. But we don’t believe religion can solve the wider problems faced by society. For example, we don’t think religion can solve unemployment and health issues. In addition, we believe religion needs to be separated from politics. Places of religious worship should not be used for political meetings. If all of this is corrected, it will allow us to preserve the symbolic meaning of all religions. We visit temples, churches, mosques and kovils, but we don’t take the media with us and create a spectacle.
Who are your heroes?
Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels, Rohana Wijeweera, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
If you could select a different path in life, what would it be?
I honestly can’t think of an alternative. I’m dedicated to improving our society.
Do you have a message for the citizens of this country?
We need to change our society. For 67 years, we have endured one system. It hasn’t benefitted our country. If there is anyone who thinks we haven’t suffered, he/she makes up only 1% of the country. The other 99% are suffering. We need to think about the other 99%. We need to build a society that allows everyone to prosper. This is what the JVP stands for today and what it hopes to accomplish in the future. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you do, we need to work together.
www.life.lk (Interviewed by Anusha David)