“A people’s front to challenge politics as usual” | Sunday Observer

“A people’s front to challenge politics as usual”

Mere months after retiring from the Sri Lanka Army, Former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake marked his entry into Sri Lankan politics, announcing his candidacy for the upcoming Presidential election. Having served the country for 36 years, Senanayake has now joined hands with the civilian organization, the National People’s Movement (NPM) and the Janatha Sabhawa to contest as their chosen Presidential candidate. The only non partisan candidate, the Presidential hopeful is determined to remain independent while working towards heralding in reforms to change Sri Lanka’s political system.

Excerpts from the interview :

Q. What convinced you to announce your candidacy following your recent retirement from the Army?

A. Up to my retirement, I was satisfied with the service I had rendered to the Army and the country. But after leaving the Army, I realized I had more obligations to fulfil and more energy still left in me to be of service to the country. This realization hit when I met 10 youth, nine of whom said they wanted to leave Sri Lanka. Speaking to many parents thereafter I learnt they planned to sell any assets they had to send their children overseas.

I thought to myself, why had I fought in the war for 30 years if people felt this way. I had to question whether I had done my part. If the youth feel they are not secure in this country and there is no progress, it indicates we have not done our part. This is why I decided to decline the perks offered, such as diplomatic postings, to enter politics along with a group who are not career politicians.

The country is suffering today due to the actions of politicians. That is why I was convinced to join the civilian organization National People’s Movement (NPM) and Mahajana Sabhawa. They nominated me to contest the upcoming elections. It was not my personal dream. I still do not have a dream to become the President of Sri Lanka but I want to change this system.

Q. There have been varying views on the suitability of a person with a military background to become the President of Sri Lanka. Why do you feel a former military man such as yourself is qualified for the job?

A. The military has given us two main things, namely, leadership and discipline. My strong point is discipline. To take the country back to its glory days or to take it forward for a better future it should be led by an individual who has self discipline. I believe I am the most disciplined individual of all other candidates. Also, I have acquired many leadership traits during my 38 year service in the Sri Lanka Army. I am able to make correct decisions at crucial times. When all others fail it is the military that becomes the saviour of the people.

Military men are also known for their commitment.

During my tenure as Commander the country faced two major incidents. The constitutional crisis in October 2018 and the Easter Sunday attacks. We exhibited our professionalism and recognition of the democratic system. The whole country was calling for the Army to take over but we did not take that drastic step. It showed the belief of the public that a military officer can do better than a politician.

Q. What is the voter base you are trying to attract through your campaign?

A. One group is silent and shy because they are educated intellectuals. So they do not come out on the streets unlike others. They cannot be enticed with a packet of rice and packed into buses to be taken to rallies.

Then there are around 1.1 million first time voters, born in the year 2000. We are also focusing on the floating voters. They will probably decide on November 10 as to who they would vote for. Until then they continue to watch and listen to all the happenings. Of course, we hope to attract the minority voter base as well.

Q. As a peacetime Army Commander, how do you plan to attract the minority voter base?

A. We believe in Sri Lanka becoming one family. Since I am the only non partisan candidate, I can take independent and tough decisions to bring about this change. Non partisans don’t carry any baggage and are not obliged to anyone. It is only then that the President can bring about reconciliation and coexistence. Other politicians have not been able to do so because of the baggage they carry from their past and have been blocked by party agendas.

Q. In Sri Lanka today, military officials have become a privileged group who at times appear to be above the law of the land. Do you believe the country’s criminal law should be applied to military personnel who have committed crimes outside their official duties?

A. Of course. The statement made recently by Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa claiming he would release the military men in custody, should be taken seriously. It shows his dictatorial style of governing. We have an independent judiciary and we must support its functioning. When I was Army Commander, I said if any military man committed a crime beyond his line of duty he should be made responsible. That has been my stance throughout and will remain the same. Incidents that took place on the battlefield may be different and should be addressed separately.

Q. Most past regimes used military intelligence as politcal pawns. That is why many MI officers have been implicated in crimes today. As President what will you do to remove MI from the grip of politicians?

A. The task is easy when the President is non-partisan. Though he would be unable to hold any ministerial positions, he can appoint a person suitable for the job. He can supervise and ensure that intelligence services are integrated and work together for the country’s benefit. Intelligence services have to be restructured and work under the Defence Ministry. But today we see the Ministry of Law and Order, Ministry of Defence, and the Chief of National Intelligence have all been working in a haphazard manner. All these institutions should be brought under one umbrella.

Q. After the Easter Sunday attacks, we saw how the people placed their trust in you. It is only after your assurance that parents decided to send their children to school. Why did that happen?

A. It was because there was a loss of leadership in the country. At the time, none of the leaders were able to come forward and say they take the responsibility to ensure the security of the country. The people then started placing their faith in not just me but the armed forces of the country. Seeing our commitment and actions, people trusted us. Similarly, the people believed in us when the constitutional crisis happened last October.

Q. There have been allegations that members of the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) were paid government informants. Is there any truth to this?

A. Intelligence services take different approaches to obtain information. For example, if you want to gather information about a drug addict, you should ask another drug addict. Likewise, to gather information and plant individuals within these organizations, intelligence services may have tried those tactics. There is nothing wrong with that provided you control and monitor. In this instance, it appears the situation had spiralled out of control, similar to what happened with the LTTE leaders.

Q. After the Easter Sunday attacks, there were allegations that the Security Council meetings happened in a haphazard manner. What are they like now?

A. Senior officers take part in these meetings and their attendance is a must.

Things were running smoothly. But suddenly we found Ministers, MPs who had no involvement in the country’s security matters attending these meetings. Things started becoming irregular.

During the constitutional crisis, when the issue of Namal Kumara’s allegations came up, these external matters started affecting the Security Council. In reality, Namal Kumara and DIG Nalaka Silva’s issues had nothing to do with the security of the country. Sometimes, Opposition MPs attended these meetings.

Officers including myself kept silent before them. No priority was given to extremism. LTTE and drugs were the topics discussed. It was beyond the control of the Armed Forces Commanders to determine the agenda. The rift between the President and Prime Minister also had an impact.

Q. During the constitutional crisis, did anyone ask you take sides?

A. Both parties did not ask my support directly. But I took the initiative and met with both, the President and the Prime Minister. I told them it was not my business whether they had the necessary numbers or not in Parliament. I explained that it was the judiciary which had to resolve the issue. Until then, I made sure the Army remained stable and did not get involved in this political crisis. It was my strong belief that military involvement was not required.

Q. During the Rajapaksa regime, you were suddenly removed from the Army in January 2010. Were you politically victimized?

A. I was Director Planning during Fonseka’s tenure as Commander and this is an important position in the Army. The Rajapaksa regime perhaps felt I would be a threat. So 14 officers including five major generals and myself were booted out of the Army. I had to escape from the country as Fonseka was arrested and my name too was on a list.

I never wanted to call myself a political victim because I did not engage in politics. It was Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who took to politics against the Rajapaksas. I was a victim of circumstance.

Q. When Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka contested against Rajapaksa, he was later imprisoned on trumped up charges. Do you think you would suffer the same fate if Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes into power?

A. I cannot say that it would not happen to me. But 2010 and 2020 are vastly different times. The country has changed and many independent bodies have been formed. The judiciary has become independent and human rights assured.

These things were not allowed in the past. So I am fortunate that these changes have taken place in the last five years.

It does not mean the United National Party (UNP) did well but the Commissions are empowered to look after the interests of people like us. So I don’t think they can treat me the same way they treated Fonseka.

It may not be Rajapaksa but others who are around him such as the retired army men.

If Rajapaksa has learnt from past experiences such as that of 2015, he will not try to misuse his authority to take revenge because the downfall of the Rajapaksas happened after the Fonseka issue.

Q. Under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa rule, some believe the country would head towards militarization. As an ex-military, how would it be different if you become President?

A. I am working with a group of intellectuals from different sections of society. They are my leadership team. It wouldn’t be a military regime. I cannot do what I want because of the structure of the organization. But the way of the Rajapaksas is different, that’s the only way they know to rule.

In our organization, I doubt if any military men would contest under our ticket in the future. I will not be comfortable to handle the economy with a military man heading the relevant Ministry.

The best individual suitable for the posts will be appointed. Under our rule it will be the Ministry Secretaries that run the country and not Ministers.

Q.The Tamil political parties have put forward a series of proposals which include the devolution of powers and a number of other requests. What is your stance on these?

A. Our stance is that no one should be allowed to divide the country. The solutions have to be within one country and one law. The people of the North and East have grievances and these must be addressed. We will delve deeper into their grievances, more than any other political party.

Our dialogue and discussions will be with the public not with political parties. I haven’t met these party representatives and I don’t plan to either. But I am meeting the people. The parties do not represent the people.

Q. Despite the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election will you continue your political journey?

A. I am here to take the country forward and not to leave it half way. Even if I get just 50, 000 votes I can’t desert the public who placed their trust in me until I am asked to step down. When asked I will do so gracefully. I do not want to become the owner of a political party and be in politics till my late 70s. These people fail miserably; I do not wish to be a failure.

By the next election, we will be able to gather more support and the Movement will grow over the next decade. A national people’s front has now arisen against traditional political players.