Saturday, 04 February 2023
“We risked our lives to change Rajapaksa regime to protect our freedom”

“We risked our lives to change Rajapaksa regime to protect our freedom”

Chathura Senarathne, son of Minister Rajitha Senarathne, has openly challenged former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the next general election from the Beliatta electorate, saying that he would too contest from Beliatta and defeat the former President. The young politician made this challenge at a conference held at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium last week. The conference was organised by the Democratic National Movement of which Chathura Senarathne is the leader.

Senarathne, who is an eloquent speaker and an activist for democracy in the country, also stated that Sri Lanka did not need politicians who get a free ticket into Parliament merely because their fathers are politicians, noting that

Sri Lanka needed politicians with brains and political knowledge.

In a candid interview with the Daily FT, he highlighted the critical role his civil movement and a few others played in ushering in the sea of change that we see now and said he believed that the system revolution had only just begun and should continue until the entire political system was cleaned up.

Following are excerpts:

To begin, how did you get involved in politics and where do you get your inspiration from?

I would like to say that I am not a beginner. I started my political journey in 1986 with the late Vijaya Kumaratunga. He took me into his campaigns and I learnt politics from him. As a teenager I took to the streets with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 1992 against the Premadasa regime.

I always wanted to see a change in the way we did politics in our country, so I followed my own political agenda which was often very different from my father’s political agenda. I believed that the Sri Lankan political system needed a big clean up so that the people could trust and respect the politicians once again like in the ’50s and ’60s.

I sacrificed a medical career to get involved in politics full time. Looking back now I am very happy that I was able to give my fullest support to the civil movement which propelled President Maithripala Sirisena into power on 8 January.

Are you happy with the progress made?

The Sirisena-Ranil Government worked tirelessly to pass the 19th Amendment and they succeeded. Therefore there is now hope for better governance and sustainable democracy.

Are you contesting this time?

I could have contested the general elections before, however I decided to wait for the best time. I believe that ‘the best time’ has come. I have been waiting for this opportunity for about 30 years.

Why did you challenge former President Mahinda Rajapaksa?

We took to the streets against late President Ranasinghe Premadasa with former President Rajapaksa in the ’80s against his authoritarian rule; Rajapaksa would have never thought that someday the same people would rise against him after 22 years. We had no choice. Rajapaksa was going the same way with even more vigour. Very few people had the courage to challenge him. My father tried many times to advise him, he too failed. Therefore, we were left with no choice but to use our civil movement to mobilise mass support to bring about this regime change.

Now many people claim they did everything and have got into good positions and even forgotten the people who put them into power. Some of the people who risked their lives and future for this regime change are yet to be recognised. I must tell you, if not for my father, Ven Rathana Thero, my movement, President Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe and the risk a few others like Chandrika, Ravi and Kapila took, the Rajapaksas would still be in office and the UNP would have become the target for Mahinda. We had come to a stage that nobody had the guts to take on the former President and the Rajapaksa brothers and nobody thought they could be defeated.

How did you orchestrate all this, especially when your father was a Minister in the Government?

When my father was doing his politics with Rajapaksa, I followed my own policy. I led many civil society fronts and criticised the Rajapaksa regime at public meetings. Former President Rajapaksa gave a number of phone calls to my mother and tried to stop the work we were doing through our movement. He gave many promises to my father to stop me from getting involved with civil society, but I was not interested.

After the LTTE was defeated, people wanted real change that would pave the way for all communities to work and live together. However the Rajapaksas were interested only in their wellbeing. Therefore we created the Pivithuru Hetak National Movement. Ven. Athuraliya Rathana Thero led the movement. Our attention at the start was on social issues like the kidney disease. However, when we went to discuss our issues with former President Rajapaksa, he did not have any proper solutions for them. He did not want solve those problems. Rajapaksa bribed ministers and MPs by giving them ministerial posts and perks. He extended his hand of friendship to the Opposition and effectively silenced the Opposition. He abused his executive powers to cover his faults and there was no one to stand up to him.

Myself and Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe around this time were in Cambridge UK and we discussed very often about the plight of the minorities, the rampant corruption and the assault on democracy. In Cambridge, we discussed a new social order for Sri Lanka with some of the best brains in the world. After a while we realised that we had to something to protect our democratic institutions and to reform the executive presidency. I believe that thinking paved the way for our movement to promote the 19th Amendment.

We decided once we got back to Sri Lanka to challenge former President Rajapaksa to reduce the executive powers of the presidency. However, he was clearly not interested. It was then that we decided to create an opinion among the general public to force Rajapaksa to abolish his executive powers by using our civil movement. That effort turned into a big movement and the public placed their trust on our civil movement to bring about the change Sri Lanka needed to re-establish democracy and good governance. Passing of the 19A was a big victory for our movement. We achieved what we set out to achieve almost five years ago, that was to reduce the executive powers of the Presidency.

How did you convince Maithripala Sirisena to come forward as the common candidate?

While we were working on the kidney disease issue, we met President Sirisena several times as the Health Minister and he supported us every time. In those days some multinational organisations tried to give our movement funding to stop our inspections. However we believed in former Health Minister Sirisena and he promised us that he would never betray his policies for money or any other benefits.

Therefore we identified him as an honourable person and we realised that he could pose a credible threat to Rajapaksa if we got the support of the UNP. However by this time the United National Party (UNP) has decided to promote UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate. So we arranged our first rally in Hyde Park, Colombo to muster the support of other parties.
After that rally, given the support we had mobilised for our political movement, I decided to meet Ranil Wickremesinghe with Dinesh Weerakkody and Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe at Minister John Amaratunga’s house and we had several rounds of discussions at his house about fielding a common candidate. Some of those discussions went on for hours. After many discussions with me and my father, UNP Leader Wickremesinghe and my father agreed to look for a common candidate from the SLFP.

Many names were proposed including Ven. Sobitha Thero, Chandrika Bandaranaike, Arjuna Ranatunga and Karu Jayasuriya. We discussed all these names with Ven. Rathana Thero, Dr. Jayampathi Wickramaratne separately and then with the UNP Leader, my father, Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe and Dinesh Weerakkody in Kapila’s office on Flower Road. Former President Chandrika by then had said she was not interested; at that stage we decided with the concurrence of the UNP Leader to ask the then Health Minister Sirisena to come forward as the common candidate. Then we contacted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to get her support. She was happy with our choice.

Then what happened?

Thereafter, my father met UNP Leader Wickremesinghe and talked about this matter further and my father promised Wickremesinghe that they would work with the UNP Leader on an agreed set of principles if they supported President Sirisena. He agreed after a few days. Some of the other parties also liked the idea. Former President Kumaratunga then wanted to meet President Sirisena and I organised that meeting in a secret place. In that secret discussion we talked about the names we could invite from the SLFP.

We did not bring President Sirisena in front of the media until the UNP conveyed their final decision after their Working Committee meeting. When the UNP informed us about their decision to support Sirisena, we brought Sirisena to a media conference and got him to address the general public with my father, Duminda, Minister Gunesekara and former President Chandrika. That was his first press briefing after being named as the common candidate for the Opposition.

When did President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe meet?

As the last step of this plan UNP Leader Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena met each other in Dr. Ranasinghe’s office late one night. My father, Ven. Rathana Thero and Dinesh Weerakkody were at this meeting and details of the campaign were discussed, including setting up the campaign office. After Sirisena was named, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa visited Sirisena several times and offered many things to stop him from contesting. However, he stood firm and kept to his word. President Sirisena is a humble and very honourable person so it was easy to work with him and we knew he would not let us down. I have the highest regard for him.

Did the Rajapaksas know what was happening?

At that time very few people could be trusted. Our telephone lines were tapped, our movements were watched. We had doubts about a few people in the UNP, because in those days the UNP had many internal problems. Some UNP Parliamentarians were close to former President Rajapaksa. So we left them out of the discussions. Ranil Wickremesinghe right through the campaign kept to his word and he coordinated these discussions through Dinesh. We were happy to work with Wickremesinghe because he was well prepared and organised for any meeting. On many fronts Ravi Karunanayake also worked tirelessly to strengthen the coalition also Field Marshal Fonseka and Minister Champika Ranawaka also played an important role to give confidence to the campaign.

Finally, where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?

After almost a decade as President, Rajapaksa was overthrown from his position in the 2015 election, reaffirming the power of the people and the dominance of civil society. To me, the people are the most significant element of a nation’s politics, I always believe that if I have the blessings of the people, I could fast forward my political career without any roadblocks. However, if the current Government follows the same policy to control the freedom of people and deprive the people of their rights, I will definitely criticise them. We are for good governance and we were somewhat disappointed with some of the events that took place in the last six months and hope the new Parliament will usher in a new period of economic and social prosperity for our country.

Any final thoughts?

Looking back, if that day President Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe did not accept my father’s and my proposal for President Sirisena to be the common candidate, we would have lost and I may have even ended up in jail. Certainly I would have continued our struggle with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or any other political party to bring about a system change we desired. I really believe that I together with a few brave people who risked their lives and their future created this political change which has ushered in freedom that we can all enjoy today. We need to salute them for their courage. I will continue my political journey to protect that freedom and to create a country in which all communities can live and work together and prosper economically.

- Chamodi Gunawardana