He is widely regarded as the man on whom the centre of power rests mostly in the United People’s Freedom Alliance.
Behind the scenes, he manoeuvred the cross over of many an opposition politician and formulated political strategies. Overtly, as Presidential Advisor, he had many roles including spearheading development programmes, firstly in the East and thereafter in the North.
For the first time in his political career, Basil Rajapaksa, is not only the chief campaign manager of the UPFA for the April 8 parliamentary elections. He is also the party’s main candidate for the Gampaha district. Since the past several weeks, most of his time has been taken up by campaign work.
Last Tuesday, he found time from his campaign chores to return to the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo to speak to the Sunday Times. Here are excerpts from a Q & A:
Why did you choose Gampaha District to contest the parliamentary elections?
It was not my decision. It was a decision of the President on the request of the organizers, provincial councillors and the Maha Sangha. During the last Parliament, it was a bad term for the Gampaha district. We lost Anura Bandaranaike, Reggie Ranatunga, Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.
The leadership in the district felt it. The district always has a “national type” leadership. The district also brought the highest majority at the last presidential election. Considering the large vote base, the President felt I should lead the district.
The issues in the south, the north and east where you were spearheading development work are different to that of Gampaha. How do you view this?
The resources and environment in the Gampaha district are very different. I like challenges. When I was sent to the east from Hambantota, it was a different setup. Then, when I was sent to the north that was so different from the east. In the east, there were all three major communities but the north was a predominantly Tamil area. But Gampaha is different, it has lot of potential.
The human resources are high, there is a capable private sector and an environment for economic potential. The labour force is also high, as people who work in Colombo are mainly from Gampaha. There are people from outstations working in the district.
There are five or six industrial zones. There is also a large agriculture sector and a fisheries sector. Other industries include fire works and cashew. The close proximity of the international airport is another economic plus factor
What are your specific plans for Gampaha?
The Mahinda Chinthanaya Ediri Dekma has five hubs. One of them is knowledge based development such as the IT industry. The Colombo harbour borders Gampaha and therefore the services can come from Gampaha, which is the adjoining district.
I want to turn Katunayaka airport into a transit point for foreign visitors. We can target the tourists who have to spend 6 to 48 hours. We could have hotels, shopping facilities, good food, theme parks, night parks, Ayurvedha medical centres in Gampaha.
We need to develop other areas including higher education and export sector for fruits and fisheries products while investing more on creating job opportunities in the IT sector. Some of the factories could be taken to remote areas.
The Marandagahamula rice distribution centre in the area, which supplies rice to the Colombo market, is another area we need to focus on.
We hope to provide more rice storage facilities so that there would be competition. The biggest fisheries harbour is coming up at Dikkowita while the Negombo beach and lagoon will be developed. We also have a project to develop Hamilton canal into a tourist attraction with Japanese aid.
You have been quoted as saying you want to make Gampaha the most developed district. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa says he wants to make Hambantota the most developed district. Can you explain?
I would like to call Gampaha the most preferred district. A district where the environment is not polluted and we can have clean air and water and facilities for the aged.
You have been involved in national politics too. Could you explain the theme of the UPFA campaign for the parliamentary elections on April 8?
In 2005 the President was given the executive power and this year he was given another seven year term.
However, since coming into power he has not been given a mandate for legislative powers.
The last Parliamentary elections were under President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government.
This is the first time he would be seeking legislative powers. In 2005 he used the executive powers to implement the Mahinda Chinthanaya. To implement the Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dekma you need legislative powers as well.
The problem of terrorism existed only for 30 years, but the problem of non-development has been there for over 60 years.
To solve the terrorism problem executive powers alone were enough, but to develop the country one needs legislative powers as well.
The results of the presidential election showed that the minority voters were not supportive of the President. What has the party done to win their confidence since then?
In the presidential election people voted for the past. That was a gratitude vote, rather than a vote for the future. Although the north east was liberated, the people there suffered during that time too. They were displaced, they were living in camps and they lost their relations. That was what was in their minds when they voted at the presidential election. However, at the parliamentary elections they would be looking at the future.
What about your campaign in these areas?
We are campaigning, but unfortunately the system does not encourage a national campaign. It encourages only district and individual level campaigning.
The President has said the cabinet will be reduced to 35 members. What impact do you think this would have on your members?
Personally, I am not in favour of this. My view is that if they come to parliament they should be given responsibility. They spend only two weeks (a month) in Parliament. What about the rest? There should be a mechanism to give them some responsibility. It is not correct that the cost goes up when you appoint ministers. There is a cost for democracy and there are ways one can cut the cost.
Do you hope to serve in the cabinet or do you want to be the Prime Minister?
During the presidential election I was hurt how the opposition slandered our family. I wanted to leave politics and any responsibility in the government. However, when I saw the results it was clear that the people did not believe any of these stories. The Maha Sangha, artistes and academics defended us. So I decided we have an obligation to serve the people.
I like to work under the President without being in the public glare. I like to work behind the scenes. I do not mind being a backbencher. I do not think I need any position. I have the blessings of the President.
Sick of revenge politics, people will vote for change -- Ruwan Wijewardene
By Satarupa Bhattacharjya
Of late, Ruwan Wijewardene has been, almost desperately, trying to watch Martin Scorsese’s latest film Shutter Island. He managed to catch the first 20 minutes of the 138-minutes-long movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, earlier last week. Mr. Wijewardene has not had the time for thrillers – either films or books - since he decided to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections. It used to be different earlier, even as member of the Western Provincial Council, Wijewardene still found windows in his busy schedule to pursue hobbies.
But now, a typical day for him begins with meeting people and ends with meeting people. In between there are party propaganda offices to inaugurate, funerals to attend, homes of supporters to visit and rallies to be addressed. “Once you get involved with people, they grow on you,” Mr. Wijewardene says.
His level of comfort among voters and workers of the United National Party (UNP) perhaps comes naturally given his political lineage.
At 35, Wijewardene is conscious of the weight of that legacy and the extreme expectations it brings. “I guess if I win this parliamentary elections, it will show that the people trust me,” he says. Mr. Wijewardene entered the Western Provincial Council last year from Gampaha district, securing the largest number of preferential votes among UNP candidates.
He will be up against 70 plus candidates for the April 8 poll from the same district which has 13 electorates. Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) member and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Basil is among Mr. Wijewardene’s main rivals in Gampaha for the poll.
It was last Thursday when an UNP supporter complained to the Police that his motorcycle had been burnt allegedly by supporters of the ruling party. The following morning, Mr. Wijewardane visited the Batalandawatta area – few kilometres from his residence in Biyagama – where the incident had taken place. “I think people are getting sick of this revenge politics.
There will be a vote for change,” he says, standing beside the charred bike which appeared to be once sturdy. More people approach him with their problems at his home in Biyagama the same afternoon. “I could not do as much as I wanted to for the people of Gampaha,” he says, referring to limitations that Opposition politicians seem to face. “As a provincial council member from the Opposition, I get 3.5 million rupees a year for the entire district. This money is not enough to meet the developmental needs here,” he adds.
Gampaha district, according to Mr. Wijewardene, needs greater infrastructure development and welfare measures in areas such as healthcare and education. “Resources need to be spent on making better schools and hospitals,” he says, adding that people from his district have to keep visiting Colombo to buy even basic medicines or attend national level schools.
Although Gampaha has traditionally been an important constituency of the UNP, the party has - by being in the Opposition in the past few years – found lesser resources at its disposal to help people. In the semi-urban township of Biyagama itself, housing is a problem, Mr. Wijewardene says. “Large families live in single room houses.”
While the presence of a free trade zone in Gampaha should have meant greater income security for people, sections of the young population are jobless, he adds. According to him, the European Union’s recent decision to suspend trade concessions to Sri Lanka (effective from coming August), has already impacted the district’s apparel industry. “About 20 factories have been closed down and 600 jobs have been lost due to the GSP+ issue,” Mr. Wijewardene says.
At the national level, his larger vision includes inculcating oneness among people. “The ethnic tension has to be sorted out in this country. There has to be a sense of nationalism. People need to see themselves first as Sri Lankans before they see themselves as Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese etc.”
The Islandwide spread of English language is of paramount importance, he says. “English is the language of international business and Sri Lankans will connect to the world better through this language.”
Having spent seven years studying in the United Kingdom prior to returning to Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, Mr. Wijewardene possibly realised the inevitability of having to use English as a developmental tool even in a South Asian country. While graduating from Sussex University, his special interest seemed to be “politics in the developing world.” Mr. Wijewardene launched the young professionals’ organisation of the UNP in 2002 but entered active party politics only in 2005. “I think it was towards the end of 2004 when the UNP leader (Ranil Wickremesinghe) asked me to join the party,” he says adding that most of his friends and family members however appeared restive.
|Taking time to talk to the people: Ruwan at the opening of a campaign office in Biyagama. Pix by Sanka Vidanagama
“But I got drawn into it because I had seen how my family worked. Sri Lanka needs an era of better politics.” Among politicians from the younger generation, his party colleague Sajith Premadasa, according to Mr. Wijewardene, is a good person with leadership qualities. Sajith, who is former President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son, was an MP from Hambantota in the last Parliament.
Youth and ancestry are the two facets Mr. Wijewardene has built his current campaign on. His great maternal grandfather's brother and former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake however remains his favourite role model from among his illustrious ancestors. "Dudley was a liberal politician and he was a people's person," Mr. Wijewardene says. When asked about former President Junius Richard Jayewardene who was his paternal grandfather's first cousin and had ideological differences with Senanayake through the 1960s, Mr. Wijewardene responds: "JR protected supporters at the ground level."
But by 1975 when Mr. Wijewardene was born, contradictions within the UNP leadership had become a matter of the past. Mr. Senanayake had passed away in 1973.
"It will depend on what people think, who they want to see as a leader," says Mr. Wijewardene when asked if he would one day carry the UNP mantle. But as he faces the heat and dust of an election summer, more than anyone else Mr. Wijewardene knows, in days ahead he will have to secure his own place under the Sun.