In the midst of preparing for elections in Sri Lanka, main Opposition leader and former minister and presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa speaks to The New Indian Express about India, China, the rise of nationalism and Covid-19.
“My policy will be to implement the 13th amendment by strengthening the system of provincial councils and thus ensuring the widest, deepest, devolution of power and autonomy possible within the parameters of a unitary state.”
If elected, how would you work with India diplomatically, politically, strategically and economically?
I regard Sri Lanka as having an Asian destiny, perhaps even a Eurasian or Greater Eurasian destiny. India is not only a major Asian, Eurasian and Greater Eurasian power, it is Sri Lanka’s great neighbour. Geography, history and a shared civilisational heritage make the relationship with India, axiomatically our single most important relationship and I shall ensure that it is kept at the highest and best possible level.
Do you have a plan on cooperating on security issues with India considering radicalisation and terror attacks in Sri Lanka? Is there trust between both countries?
As someone whose father was murdered by a suicide-bombing terrorist, I am firmly of the view that the struggle against terrorism is indivisible. No one must regard a bilateral problem with another state to be of greater significance than the common threat faced by all states from the plague of terrorism and the need of all states to form a global united front against it. As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and a big power, multifaceted cooperation with India will be the cornerstone of our defensive wall against terrorism.
How will you engage with Sri Lankan Tamils? It is an emotive issue in India.
My policy will be to implement the 13th amendment by strengthening the system of provincial councils and thus ensuring the widest, deepest, devolution of power and autonomy possible within the parameters of a unitary state.
Why are parties unable to cope against the rise of nationalist politics worldwide? Do you have a game plan for Sri Lanka?
I am a patriot. I am also a nationalist, but in a positive, broadly inclusive sense. That, however, is not my highest value. As a Buddhist, my highest values are universal humanist values as summed up in the Buddha’s dictum, “May all living beings be happy”. The problem I see is not nationalism as such, but narrow nationalism or ultra-nationalism. The problem in coping with this challenge worldwide is that the Middle Path that the Buddha urged and the Golden Mean that Aristotle argued for have not been presented by the politicians as alternatives. Both extremes must be resolutely eschewed.
You have formed a coalition. What are the main points in its manifesto?
We need a New Middle Path for the 21st century; namely a New Social Democracy and an alternative Asian Modernity. We need a generous, tolerant, inclusive paradigm that can build a Sri Lankan nation while respecting the diversity of our pluralistic society. This is the vision that will be contained in the manifesto of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya.
It has been reported widely that internecine differences caused political turmoil and crippled governance, which was the reason for intelligence failure on the terror attacks. Is this true? Who was responsible?
Wherever the neoliberal globalist paradigm is adopted, one can see a de-prioritisation and weakening of defence and national security by the elite Establishment. The Army chief who commanded our armed forces in the victorious war against separatist terrorism was General (now Field Marshal) Sarath Fonseka, who is a member of the political formation I lead. He has presented in Parliament a report on the failures that led to the Easter massacre taking place. During my Presidential campaign, I named him my future Defence Minister and he remains my shadow Defence Minister. It is his report with its recommendations that I shall implement.
What is your vision of true democracy for Sri Lanka?
True democracy combines the defence and deepening of political democracy and individual rights and liberties, with economic and social democracy. True democracy is a national democracy, a people’s democracy, a social democracy and an economic democracy.
If you were in government now, how would you tackle Covid-19?
Parliament would be recalled, and a national consensus would be immediately arrived at with all necessary resources voted through. An Emergency Task Force would be set up, inter-agency in character and composition and led by our topmost health experts, especially epidemiologists, and including our best medical minds researching and practising all over the world.
The Emergency Task Force would also have the Provincial and local government and other relevant sectors on board. My approach would combine centralisation at the top, and a decentralised District and Pradesheeya Sabha-level implementation at the grassroots. I would also request the WHO as well as countries which are successfully resisting the virus to send experts. The Emergency Task Force would have a WHO representative.
Does China wield disproportionate influence in Sri Lanka? Is this the reason why Chinese aren’t quarantined during the Covid-19 epidemic?
China has consistently supported Sri Lanka during the war years, as well as before and after, in our development efforts. I have raised the question of the alleged exemption of Chinese nationals from checking, but I regard it not as the responsibility or fault of China but rather an unconscionable lapse or double standards on the part of the Sri Lankan political authorities.
Which people and events shaped you as a politician?
Chiefly my father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa.