Greater responsibility lies with the majority: Eran Wickramaratne

By Charindra Chandrasena

In an interview with The Sunday Morning, State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne spoke about the racial tensions in post 21/4 Sri Lanka, rule of law, and the lack of democracy within the political party system.

The following are excerpts of the interview:

How much of the current situation would you put down to insecurities among the Sinhala Buddhist majority about their primacy being eroded by minorities?

The vast majority in this country does not have that insecurity that you are inferring. The vast majority does not even support the positions of extremists, and I am speaking about all communities here. The success we have had in rounding up the terrorists is due to the support we got from the people who are following the Islamic faith. So the vast majority does not. It is always a few people who see this as their process of survival to exploit the situation, and those people do have that insecurity you are talking about.

Could these people galvanise the wider Sinhala Buddhist population to feel that insecurity too?

I don’t think it galvanises the population. It can galvanise a community. For example, there are other issues in society, such as economic issues. Those of us who have been in the private sector like myself, know that we are always competing in business.

Sometimes there can be individual rivalries which can be blown up into a bigger frame. But I do not think that there is a general animosity between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims.

How much of the current situation is down to minority inflexibility, if one could term it that, where minorities refuse to adapt to Sri Lankan cultural norms and way of life?

I don’t agree that there is minority inflexibility. Cultures are things that expand and contract and they will change over time. They are not strictly defined. If you take Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, they translate over time. The fundamentals may not change, but the externalities and the application of it may change over time.

For example, in Buddhism, the precept “Suramerayamajjapama” was interpreted as “refrain from alcohol”. With the advancement of time, different people will say that the interpretation is that you can consume it but only in moderation. So the fundamental principle is to refrain from things which don’t add to a better life. It doesn’t only apply to alcohol, because drugs are not mentioned in it, but over time we apply it to the changing situation.

So there is room for us to understand each other’s culture and also that we respect it. If I think that only what I believe and practise should survive and what others believe and practise should perish, that is the line I categorise as extremism.

In resolving issues like this, whether they are political or cultural, the greater responsibility lies not with the minorities but the majority, because it is only the majority that can change it – the minority can’t. Only the majority can provide a shelter to the minority, the minority can’t provide a shelter to the majority.

If you take the US with the Civil Rights Movement, it was the white majority Government under President Lyndon Johnson that passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provided equality to the “black minority”. Up to that point, if a black person was travelling in a bus and a white person got in, they had to get up and give the seat.

That is why I say the change is always in the hands of the bigger group, as the smaller group can’t do it.

In the American Civil Rights movement and the Segregation example, there are clear signs of inequality and discrimination. When parity has been achieved, do you think this responsibility still lies with the majority, especially when nobody is sure who is getting the better deal?

No, there is no deal for X, Y, or Z group. Everybody has to be equal. It doesn’t matter if you’re the majority or the minority. In this country, different people have different faiths and different languages, dress differently, and eat differently. Then the question is what unites us. It’s not religion, race, language, or what we drink, eat, and wear.

What unites us is the law. That is the Constitution and all the laws that go with it. It must apply equally to all, whether I am lay or clergy, citizen or politician, the law has to apply to everybody equally. That’s the fabric that will hold us together. So extremism, whether it’s Islamic extremism or anti-Islamic extremism, is unacceptable.

Sri Lanka is evolving, as most countries are, and the sooner we evolve the better, as resolving these issues will lay the foundation of economic growth and development.

That is why our economic growth is impaired. It is not the minor issues we are debating in Parliament that is holding us back. The major issue is this.

If you go back 70 years, Sri Lanka had the highest per capita income in Asia next to Japan. Today we have fallen.

Last week, I came from Indonesia and I saw the change there. The world’s largest Islamic country with over 250 million people and the per capita income is $ 3,850. Sri Lanka, with a population of only 22 million, has a per capita income of only around $ 4,000. That country’s per capita income is going to overtake Sri Lanka’s in the next decade. This is totally unacceptable.

This is because we haven’t come to grips with the fundamental issues. Otherwise it’s like we’re trying to build a house without a foundation. We will keep going down this road and the middle class in this country, which has somewhat of a choice unlike the people at the bottom of the pyramid, are going to leave this country.

We talk about nationalism, but where are those children going? They are not only going to study there, they are settling in those countries in droves. They come back only when they get that phone call which says mother or father has passed away. That is the society we are creating in this country. We need to wake up and say this is not life. Life is not about geography alone. It is about keeping societies and families together. These children are not leaving because they have a better economic life there. Some of them can have a better economic life here.

In middle-class homes there, you don’t have house help or drivers or somebody coming to your home and helping you look after kid, etc. They are leaving Sri Lanka because they don’t like the systemic issues here, and if we all get together and fix those systemic issues, Sri Lanka’s economic growth will shoot up within a decade.

In addressing these systemic issues you refer to, how important is it to have a political front which could unite both the minorities and the majority?

This is part of historical evolution. Sri Lanka’s independence movement was not an exclusively Sinhalese struggle. There were people like Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam who became our national heroes. The Sinhala Maha Sabhawa was there and the Muslims and Tamils joined in the struggle. We all agreed that we should be independent in colonial times. The United National Party (UNP) was formed as part of that historical struggle.

In fact, the name United National Party was proposed by a Tamil and seconded by a Muslim. There were no ethnic political parties. There were only a set of values that you stood for.

In contrast to it, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was borne out of the UNP through a desire in the majority, after being under foreign rule for 500 years, that there should be a greater emphasis on them. I don’t look at the solution as being a political party.

The real solution is in forming a social contract on some very basic issues. The basic issues are the supremacy of law and the application of it irrespective of position or rank. If we get this fundamental thing done we are at the beginning of this transformation. Then it won’t matter if a minor political party representing a certain group wants to be on this side or join the other side.

For a decade, the minority parties associated with our Government were part of the previous Government. That is why I’m saying it is not a party issue. We have to build a consensus on some basic things, like hate speech or unethical media conduct – they must be punished judicially irrespective of stature or position.

Do you think religious leaders should be involved to the current extent in political matters?

Last week, there was a motion presented to the Moratuwa Provincial Council that Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera should not be allowed to enter Buddhist temples in Moratuwa.

Why are politicians trying to interfere in the practice of the religion of Mangala Samaraweera and also interfering in the functioning of a Buddhist temple?

The temple or the church is an open place for anybody to come and find solace or learn. So politicians are trying to do the work of religious leaders and religious leaders are trying to do the work of politicians. I have no problem if a Buddhist monk wants to contest an election, but it has to be within a framework of law and democracy.

Do you think the current crisis plays into the hands of the UNP, as the minorities could be expected to now vote en masse for the party while it would also obtain its traditional Sinhalese block vote?

I think the question right now is, are we going to build a united country with a Sri Lankan identity, or a divided country with a focus on differences. This will then become a competition between these two streams. I think even we, in the majority Sinhalese, have to think long and hard about this.

I am convinced that the vast majority of people are going to come to the view that we should build a united and harmonious country, and the party which stands for that will most likely get the mandate.

The Government, and particularly the UNP, have long been proponents of democracy. Do you think the UNP has democracy in it?

No. We talk about the country and society, but our political parties have no democracy. If we had full democracy, you would not see the leadership we have in this country today, not just in the UNP, but all political parties. There would be changes. The political parties are dictatorships.

In a democracy, people have to be accountable. They have to perform. There are many people in society who can lead and people can see their abilities, and they can come forward to contest for leadership.

In the UNP, we brought this issue up after the local government elections last year, where UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe discussed reforms in the party and I brought up the fact that we need to have elections for the party leader, deputy leader, and national organiser positions. Then he appointed the Ruwan Wijewardene committee which also suggested the party should be democratised.

But at least in the UNP, while it is not wholly democratic, there are a lot of people making decisions. In the other party, one family sits around a dinner table and takes all the decisions for the country. These things don’t belong to one family. It belongs to society and society must demand every party be democratic.

Since you were part of that reform process last year, what was the outcome?

So far, it has not been translated into it but we have called upon Ranil Wickremesinghe to ensure that when the change in leadership happens, that the change must be preceded by the democratisation of the party.

So that means the process comes in only when he decides to leave? Is there any provision for the incumbent leader to be voted out?

That would be democratic. I am telling you the present constitution is not democratic.

There is a school of thought that he would not step down anytime in the near future. Would you agree?

That, I don’t think you should prejudge. He is a mature politician who is guided by market realities and relies on scientific polling and research. In 2010, based on that, he paved the way for somebody else to become the presidential candidate, and in 2015, he got the UNP to back a common candidate. So he will be sensitive to the moment when change is needed and that is why I have requested that when it happens, it needs to happen with a democratisation of the party.

Would this be a UNP candidate?

It is most likely that it’s a UNPer, but in a democracy, people can decide otherwise. In most places I have travelled to, I have been getting one clear message from the UNP regional leaders that this time – the presidential candidate must be from the UNP.

Would an internal voting system for the leadership positions leave room for infighting and an overly competitive environment within the UNP?

So there is a choice. Have absolutely no competition and let the leaders remain in their positions for a lifetime, or establish democracy.

Why do you think there has been no major revolt, apart from minor incidents within the party against the leadership, which has stayed the same for well over two decades?

I can’t answer that question completely but I can say that there is a new generation of people who are internationally exposed in the UNP, which gives a lot of hope to the party.

What are your thoughts on Sajith Premadasa as a politician and leader?

He has emerged as the most popular UNP leader, certainly among the rank and file of the country. It is quite evident, and all the anecdotal evidence backs that up. He is very hardworking and very focused on delivering on his promises and people have recognised that.

I don’t expect leaders to be faultless and no leader can have all the expertise and knowledge in the world. The person who recognises this is the true leader because then he can get people around him who are able to work in those areas unfamiliar to him.

In my reading, Sajith Premadasa knows his strengths and weaknesses and now it is up to him to assemble the right people around himself to realise his agenda.

What are your personal leadership ambitions within the party?

(Laughs) Well, I can’t answer that question because it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to decide the people that he wants to have in his front row. What I will say is that some leaders lead because they have position, others because they have leadership.