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Special Assignment

28th February 1999

I have a vision that shows the way forward

By Feizal Samath
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Ranil says he believes in people's power and takes up non-violence as a means of political resistance

Sri Lanka's main opposition party, ditched by voters after the last few years of its record 17-year reign turned violent, is pinning its return to power on a non-violent campaign on the lines of that launched by Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. 

Opposition UNP leader who likes to see himself as the alternative leader says Sri Lanka is a nation in crisis, confronted by a host of political, social and economic problems and believes a non-violent campaign like the one Gandhi started in the 1940s' is the only way out of the present quagmire.

"Social, economic and law and order structures are breaking down. There is an inability to bring peace to the country and we are far behind in the march towards the advanced technologies of a global economy," he told the Sunday Times in a wide-ranging interview last week.

In an interview on February 18 - one day before he received an invitation from President Chandrika Kumaratunga for all-party talks on election violence - Mr. Wickremesinghe discussed issues ranging from solutions to the ethnic problem, political violence and the party's new non-violent campaign and social issues, to the economy. 

"We have been discussing what the UNP would offer the country and was planning to present this programme or vision last month but a series of developments including elections has got us tied up in provincial issues. Democracy is the key to this new document," he said. Excerpts:

Q:There is some criticism of your leadership style and management. Some people seem to think that you lack dynamism or action. How would you describe your style vis a vis that of former UNP leaders J.R Jayawardene or R. Premadasa?

A:Leadership styles evolve according to the needs of the times. I do not think it is possible to copy a leader. There is a large percentage of floating voters now than before. We are dealing with an electorate that rejected the UNP after 17 years in power. The generation gap is reflected both in voting patterns as well as in the thinking. Younger people tend to think differently in terms of the type of society they would like to be in. 

I took over the party that was rejected by the people. I am trying to make this not merely the main party in Sri Lanka but through it give a new vision to Sri Lanka, a new value system and take the country into the 21st century.

Q: Are the old guards in the UNP being sidelined to make way for a bigger role by younger politicians? 

A:The younger people want more responsibility. I am looking at Sri Lanka as a nation in crisis.The best example of leadership I can see is from the United States in the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. He transformed a nation that was in dire economic straits to become the world's leading military and economic power. I think this kind of leadership is worth emulating. He was able to communicate with people and sometimes he juggled around with contradictory positions. 

Q: On political violence there are expectations that the next round of polls would also be violent. There are reports that the UNP is planning "a people's army" kind of movement to counter this. Your comments?

A:The only way to tackle violence is through people's power. Today a number of political parties, civil society and religious bodies have agreed on the basic need to restore democracy. But we work in different compartments towards achieving the same goal.

I have called for a campaign of non violence which was started by Mahatma Gandhi and followed by US civic rights leader Martin Luther King, the Lech Walesa movement that established democracy in Poland, democracy movements in the Philippines, and a reformist movement in Indonesia. We need to mobilise the people to restore democratic rights.

I would not call it a people's army. An army connotes organised groups. It is a non violent, mass movement. It is a mobilisation of people that must be done gradually. First we have to motivate people to be committed both to the objective of democracy as well as the path, which has to be non-violent. 

All what we have suggested is that - taking every electoral division or area of organisation - about a 1,000 people should initially take a pledge to democracy and a commitment to non violence. When they are fully aware of the non-violence movement, they in turn can recruit more - a 1,000 becomes 2,000, 2,000 becomes say 10,000 and finally there would be mass awareness and commitment in over half the electorate. 

A large number of people will respond to the call for a non-violent campaign. But there are also chances that it could turn violent. We can learn lessons from Gandhi's campaign, which also turned violent until mobilisation slowed down and all volunteers were asked to take an oath of peace. We need to educate the people on what satyagraha is all about and how non violent action operates. This is not a question of rounding up large numbers of people to confront the government with sticks and so on.

Q:There is however the basic question of credibility. The people were tired of 17 years of UNP power and of the violence that took place. Now you talk of a peace movement. Would the people believe this is a new UNP, that the leaders have changed, or would they feel this is the same UNP of the past?

A: I have brought forward a new party. I have gone into our past shortcomings and I admit there have been some problems. But this is not related to the UNP's past versus present or one of credibility. This is a path for those who believe in non- violence to follow. I have not even called on all UNPers to follow. The UNP is a political party whose members objective is to win elections and form the administration. 

No member of the UNP, according to its constitution, is obliged to participate in non-violence movements. It is open to members of the UNP desirous of joining up like any other individual.

What the UNP did was to authorise me as the leader of the opposition and the leader of the party to set this process in motion. When the idea of seminars on free and fair elections were mooted, a lot of people were critical of the UNP for calling these consultations. I did so because no one else was doing so. But after we got these going, I handed over the consultations to a non-partisan committee. They produced a report, which everyone is quoting today.

Q:We have a social structure that is facing serious problems today. Law and order is breaking down; democracy is in crisis and the police doesn't function properly.There are times when the police, informed of a crime, request transport to take them to the scene. Child rape, incest and crimes against women are on the rise. There are a whole series of problems in society today. People are helpless.Those in governance confront the crisis with a "so what" attitude while to the public it is the typical "kaata kiyannada" syndrome.The two party system is being seriously questioned.If you are to look at this problem and provide solutions -rising above party politics-what can you offer?

A:Yes, Sri Lankan society is in a crisis with a breakdown in social, economic and law and order, areas and the inability to bring peace.

We are behind in the march towards advanced technologies of a global economy.The situation has also led to some people questioning the political system. But this is also prevalent in many of the developing countries like Japan where there is a raging debate over the economic crisis. The whole impeachment debate and the conduct of President Clinton in the US are under question. India also has its share of problems.

However Sri Lanka's problem is of a far more serious nature. You cannot move out of it by rejecting democracy or political parties. A change has to take place. Someone has to lead the way. The change has to come through individuals, probably through political parties. When England was in crisis, Margaret Thatcher showed the way. The people accepted it. It was the same in France or in the US. We are looking for a similar situation here.

I feel that our programme and vision shows the way forward.Of course we have been in power before and we have both old and new members. But that does not make a difference because when Roosevelt produced a new deal, many in the Congress were not aware of what he was talking about.

But in 100 days he got major legislation through and turned America around. When Margaret Thatcher introduced her policies, Conservative party colleagues did not know where they were heading with the changes she had envisaged.

Q:All this is interesting. But there is another serious issue - promises made by political parties before coming to power which are often not fulfilled.All the parties that ruled the country have done this.It is easy when in the opposition to say - we will do this or we will do that but when one comes to power it's a totally different ball game. The PA has realised that, the UNP may be getting into that.

How can political parties be held accountable to the public in this respect?

A:I am talking about a vision - of a set of policies and programmes which are required to take the country out of a crisis. I won't talk of promises. Promises are part of the Sri Lankan political landscape. But, I agree, that has led to disillusionment.

What we require is not a series of short-term promises but the ability to tackle the many crises we face.We should not talk about the past but look towards the future. Sri Lanka's politics has got bogged down too much in the past and all we talk about is the past.This also may be a failure of civil society, the intelligentsia. Sri Lanka does not have a developed civil society to the extent of India. Also remember some of the changes and reforms in Sri Lanka did not have the support of civil society. They were pushed through by politicians.

Q:Social issues like health or education need continuity in policies irrespective of which government is in power. Shouldn't a consensus be sought from all parties, even through the consultative process of parliament, before key reforms in these sectors are undertaken?

A: I look at it differently.The first thing to do is to take away the rigid control of education from the Ministry of Education. Allow the people to manage their own affairs like school development boards. Reduce the interference of the education department as well as the provincial ministries in day-to-day management and a complete restructuring of the school and higher education systems.

There should be less control through circulars. While the central administration can look at the curricula, schools and the provinces should be allowed a certain amount of freedom to develop other subjects. 

In the US for instance there is a single curriculum, but there is diversity. This must be encouraged along with a system of tertiary education, which is more responsive to the needs of the economy. Unless you organise these things in the system, the parties agreeing on a given set of programmes itself won't work.

At one time there was the proposal for a national education commission. I was against it when I was education minister and believed parliament should give direction on education policy. But President Premadasa tried this out and the education commission has gone through three governments. Still we don't have a comprehensive set of reforms. Now this government has three sets of reforms - one by the national education commission, one by Dr Tara de Mel's taskforce and one by the Education Ministry. Where do we go from here? 

Q: Does the UNP have any reservations of the new education reforms that were introduced this year?

A:We have reservations about the manner in which it is being handled. The need for an additional exam for entry into the university is questionable. The reforms do not address the problems of the education system and of the economy. There is also a big question of the management capability of the education system to implement reforms in a short period. What I found as the minister of education was that the management system has to be strengthened if education reforms are to be brought in. In 1982, I proposed the teaching of English. The then opposition, now the present government, was against it. There were others also who were against it. Still on my own steam with whatever resources the government had we started the training of English teachers - that is why we have even a minimum number now. 

If we were encouraged, we could have done far more. Some education proposals we pushed through in the face of opposition have today been accepted. When I think back, if people were willing to give it a chance at that time, then the students of today would be much better off. 

One has to look at not merely the politicians or the bureaucracy but the management structure itself. 

Q:There is a view that our education and employment problems are partly due to the fact that we don't have English as a medium of instruction in schools.For instance, those with a good knowledge of English can walk into any firm in Colombo without a degree or even basic A/L's whereas rural university graduates sans good, spoken English find it difficult to get jobs.

A:English and computers are necessary for the 21st century. English is an international language and computers are a must. The fact that everybody is educated in English doesn't mean that there are opportunites. You have to create opportunities. Knowledge of English and computers help to create additional jobs. 

Without English and computers we won't be able to survive in the next century. We were lucky that in 1835, education reforms in England brought forth a system of public schools, that was implemented in Sri Lanka too and through this system we were able to acquire a good knowledge of English. Sri Lanka was the first country to be modernised in Asia but our schools system has not kept pace with changes of the last decade.

We are still focusing on establishment matters of teachers or transfers. Changes must take place. When I proposed the teaching of English in 1982, questions were raised as to the number of teachers to be trained. Technology has developed so much, that with the available modern methods we can ensure that a large segment of our population is proficient in English. 

Q: War costs are biting into the economy. Recent studies have shown that the cost to the economy is in the region of 2,000 billion rupees or that we have lost one and a half years of the country's gross domestic product. Why can't both mainstream parties devise a solution to end this conflict? A joint effort would get a lot of local and international support.

A: There is still a debate as to whether the conflict should be resolved militarily or otherwise.I accept there is a need for parties to come together and to work from there. But at the moment there seems to be a difference of opinion within the government. Some talk of marginalising the LTTE and going ahead while others question the current military strategy. Some are for talks. Others are opposed to it. However, at the moment all these things are clouded with the question of democracy. Any settlement of the ethnic problem has to be based on democracy. All this time, even if we had differences on the northeast issue, the democratic process worked. Now even that is coming apart.

Q: Every one talks of peace talks but during the past few years, governments have had talks with the LTTE and it has amounted to nothing. While it has been a case of one side criticising the other, isn't it time for a kind of an international referee - not to be involved in the context of suggesting solutions but to ensure that both sides play fair? 

A:There is debate as to whether it should be a mediator or a facilitator. We believe talks and military operations should run parallel. We also feel it is better to have the talks abroad where the facilitation process can take place. I don't know what the government thinking on this is.

Q: But the LTTE also appears to be intransigent. What faith would people have in talks when it has failed in the past?

A:In an issue that is being dragged on, the possibility of peace talks resurfacing from time to time cannot be ruled out. This is what we have seen in many other countries confronting similar problems. The bigger question is - is there going to be a meeting of minds. These are difficult issues but sometimes you have to try out all options.

(Please see Business section for Mr. Wickremesinghe's views on economy)

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